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Americans are voting as a bloc

Americans may be bowling alone, but they are voting together.

In his influential book Bowling Alone, Robert Putnam decried the decline of Americans’ participation in everything from civic organizations to bowling leagues.Americans may be bowling alone, but they are voting together.

In his influential book Bowling Alone, Robert Putnam decried the decline of Americans’ participation in everything from civic organizations to bowling leagues.

But if Americans are isolating themselves from one another organizationally, they are nevertheless voting together in increasingly homogenous counties.

For at least the last three election cycles, the number of polarized counties has continuously increased. In 2004, 60 percent of the nation’s counties gave 60 percent of their votes or more to either Sen. John Kerry or President Bush. In 2000, 53 percent of counties were that polarized, and in 1996, when President Clinton had a much wider national margin, only 38 percent gave either Clinton or Sen. Bob Dole 60 percent or more.

Voting together has serious implications for both Democrats and our nation’s politics.
Homogeneity breeds more extreme views. When people talk only to those with whom they agree, their attitudes tend to move away from the center, leaving less room for compromise and conciliation.

In turn, legislators who represent homogeneous areas have little incentive toward moderation. Partisan polarization in the House may owe less to gerrymandering and more to increasing geographic homogeneity in our politics.

Thus, voting together may be making our politics less moderate and our institutions more polarized.

There are important implications for my party, too. First, Democrats are becoming enveloped in geographical isolation. Just 174 counties yielded 20-point margins for Kerry, while Bush performed at that level in 1,705 counties. Of course, the counties where Kerry did well had nearly eight times the population of Bush’s base areas.

Look at a map of the presidential results by county. The blue patches are strikingly small. Moreover, almost all of the blue areas sit adjacent to major bodies of water — the Atlantic, the Pacific, a Great Lake or the Mississippi River. I’ve often joked that the key to Democratic revival might lie in massive new water projects.

Of course, the presence of large bodies of water is not causal. People don’t vote Democratic because they live near water. But the correlation is instructive. What is near large expanses of water? Large cities. The ports where immigrants landed and from which goods were exported grew into our largest and most diverse urban and suburban areas. In celebrating their diversity, these big cities are united in supporting Democrats.

The many more, and more sparsely populated, of our nations’ counties supported Bush. He was victorious in 81 percent of counties, despite the fact that his popular-vote advantage was just over two points.

For Democrats, the implications are clear. We will not flourish as a national party if our appeal is confined to big cities and their close-in suburbs. Democrats must be able to win in those large geographical expanses that were solidly red in 2004.

Regaining support in areas now dominated by Republicans requires being there.

Homogenous political discussion networks are self-reinforcing. It’s difficult for us to get votes from people who regularly talk to one another about Democratic evils and Republican virtues. Many Democrats who remain in those mostly Republican areas (like their Republican counterparts in cities) shrink from political discussion as they become more conscious of their minority status.

Finding and nurturing red-county Democrats needs to be a central priority. We must provide them with the infrastructure, information, insight and confidence they need to become messengers for our party. With our backs against the water, reintroducing political diversity into the red zone is an objective necessity.

Mellman is president of The Mellman Group and has worked for Democratic candidates and causes since 1982, including Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) last year.

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