Since Election Day, many readers of “American Nations” have been asking for an analysis of the election via the underlying regional cultures identified in the book. Finally, with help from my colleague, Christian MilNeil, at the Portland Press Herald and Will Mitchell of Portland, Maine’s NBT Solutions, I’m able to comply. (For those not yet familiar with the “American Nations” paradigm – which defines our regional cultures based on early colonization patterns – you’ll find a good digest here, a quick summary here, and the actual book here.)

The bottom line: the 2016 presidential election results exhibited the same regional patterning we’ve seen in virtually all competitive contests in our history, including those in 2008 and 2012. But by running on an unconventional platform, Donald Trump was able to erode his rival’s margins in certain nations, allowing him to eke out an Electoral College victory, even as he lost the national popular vote by nearly 2.9 million votes.

The more communitarian-minded candidate – Hillary Clinton in this case — won Yankeedom, New Netherland, and the Left Coast by wide margins. Like Barack Obama in the two previous elections, Clinton also decisively won two former swing regions that are now part of the “blue” coalition, Tidewater and El Norte, and the southernmost part of Florida, which is part of the Spanish Caribbean cultural zone.

That candidate’s opponent, as in the past four elections, won the three regional cultures that comprise the “red” coalition: Deep South, Greater Appalachia, and the Far West, plus the New France enclave in southern Louisiana. Republican nominee Donald Trump accomplished this despite deviating from the liberty-minded platform of his recent predecessors, with its promise that less taxes, regulations, and social programs would deliver more freedom – a program that resonates with the individualistic ethos of those three regional cultures.

The Midlands, as expected, was the swing region and, indeed, the only regional culture that was the least bit competitive. This region – communitarian-minded but wary of top-down government action – voted for the Democratic candidate for the third election in a row, but only by a whisker. Whereas Obama won the region by 11 points in 2008 and six in 2012, Hillary Clinton took it by just 0.4 percent — for all intents and purposes a tie and a doomsday result for her in Pennsylvania, where Democrats need strong margins in the Midlands to compensate for that state’s substantial Greater Appalachian section.

Here are the results by nation, excluding Alaska (because it doesn’t release its results by county) and Hawaii (because it’s part of a regional culture not treated here, Greater Polynesia):

Greater Appalachia:
60-35 for Trump
(+25)
New France:
59-37 for Trump
(+22)
Deep South:
53-44 for Trump
(+9)
Far West:
50-41 for Trump
(+9)
Midlands:
48-48 for Clinton
(+0.4)
Yankeedom:
51-43 for Clinton
(+8)
Tidewater:
55-41 for Clinton
(+14)
Spanish Caribbean:
56-42 for Clinton
(+14)
El Norte:
57-38 for Clinton
(+19)
New Netherland:
61-36 for Clinton
(+25)
Left Coast:
64-30 for Clinton
(+34)

(While I don’t have county-level Alaska results, a glance at this precinct-level map makes it clear that First Nation went strongly for Clinton. (You’ll find a map of Alaska’s nations here.) For data geeks: these maps correct one error in the maps that appeared in the book: Bernadillo County, N.M. should be El Norte, not Far West.)

Comparing these results with those from 2012 and 2008 reveals another development: Trump significantly outperformed Mitt Romney and John McCain in Yankeedom, losing by only 8 points, rather than 16 or 19. This is a dramatic swing: 11 points against 2008, same to that of the Midlands over the same period. What gives?

Nation
2016
2012
2008
Greater Appalachia:
Trump +25
Romney +22
McCain +15
New France:
Trump +22
Romney +20
McCain +21
Deep South:
Trump +9
Romney +7
McCain +5
Far West:
Trump +9
Romney +11
McCain +4
Midlands:
Clinton +0.4
Obama +6
Obama +11
Yankeedom:
Clinton +8
Obama +16
Obama +19
Tidewater:
Clinton +14
Obama +13
Obama +15
Spanish Caribbean
Clinton +14
Obama +14
Obama +15
El Norte:
Clinton +19
Obama +12
Obama +16
New Netherland:
Clinton +25
Obama +27
Obama +27
Left Coast:
Clinton +34
Obama +31
Obama +34

Rural Yankees defect

I’ve long argued against the idea that the central rift in U.S. politics is rural versus urban. Rural and urban places obviously have different interests, and political divides between city and countryside exist in every nation from France to India, but their predictive power is often greatly exaggerated. Consider this: in both 2008 and 2012, the Republican nominees lost scores of rural, white, relatively poor counties – the very sort that are supposed to hate Obama – across Yankeedom. Here in Maine – one of the whitest and most rural states in the nation – Obama won 15 of 16 counties in 2012, and 58 of New England’s 63 counties. He also won a great swath of rural Yankee counties in the Upper Mississippi Valley where Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa, and Illinois come together, and dozens of others in (very rural, very Yankee) northern New York, northern Minnesota and western Wisconsin. By contrast, Romney won lots of large cities… in Greater Appalachia, the Deep South, and the Far West, including Dallas, Houston, Cincinnati, Nashville, Jacksonville, and Oklahoma City. Culture is a powerful force.

This election was an exception in this regard, and I think it is because it did not feature a clear choice between individual liberty and the common good. Trump, alone among the 17 candidates for the Republican nomination, did not run on a “less government and less taxes make more freedom” agenda, but rather as a European-style ethno-nationalist, promising robust government intervention and social programs for a subset of Americans and extra-legal or extra-constitutional punishment for others. Once in office, Trump’s administration may well pursue oligarchy-friendly policies, but what he promised supporters on the campaign trail was government-led protectionism, industrial intervention, infrastructure spending, and the replacement of the Affordable Care Act with “something terrific.” Social Security and Medicaid would be protected and the swamp of Washington drained of its lobbyists. He was, in libertarian versus collectivism terms, the most communitarian sounding Republican nominee since Richard Nixon.

And it worked, especially in rural parts of Yankeedom and the Midlands where most people belong to Trump’s “in” group: white, native-born Christians. Trump flipped scores of rural Yankee counties that had voted for Obama twice, including eight in Maine (earning one of that state’s four electoral votes), a half dozen in the rest of New England and more than two dozen in that upper Mississippi valley aggregation.

This, combined with a substantial decline in turnout in Milwaukee and Detroit, was enough to eek a narrow victory in two Yankee states, Michigan and Wisconsin, and to doom Clinton’s prospects in Ohio, giving Trump the White House. Trump won precisely because he abandoned trickle down economics on the campaign trail; it will be interesting to see if his Yankee and Midland supporters stick with him if he embraces it in office.

Neo-liberalism a liability in rural Yankeedom

For her part, Clinton tried to run as a successor to Obama, but in both the primaries and general election was tied by her opponents to her husband’s neo-liberal legacy, which may have hurt her in Yankeedom. In the Democratic primaries, Bernie Sanders, a social democrat, won almost every county in Yankeedom, the exceptions being major cities like Detroit, Boston, Cleveland, and Milwaukee. (He also swept the Left Coast (outside the Bay Area) and did well among Democratic primary voters across the Far West, feeding into my long-standing thesis that that region is a weak member of the “red” coalition.) This didn’t hurt Clinton among primary voters in New Netherland or the Dixie nations, and she and Sanders played to something of a draw in the Midlands.

2016 Democratic presidential primary results, by U.S. county.

2016 Democratic presidential primary results, by U.S. county. Wikipedia

The Danger of Overreach

If there’s a lesson from the “American Nations,” it’s that Trump’s election cannot be seen as an endorsement of the laissez faire policies Congressional Republicans appear eager to enact. Trump’s victory is primarily due to his ability to make large gains in the Midlands and rural Yankeedom, and this appears to be precisely because he promised government intervention on behalf of his supporters. If he betrays these promises – and his cabinet appointments suggest he might – he could quickly lose these “Trump Democrats” upon which his minority coalition is sustained.

What’s is less clear is to what degree his supporters in these communitarian regions actively endorse his illiberal and authoritarian means. The dangerous side of community-minded politics has always been that it might lead to a trampling of the liberties of individuals, especially those holding minority opinions or identities, something Yankeedom’s Puritan founders were particularly guilty of. The future of the Republic may lie in the balance.

 

Download our raw data of election results by U.S. county, cross-referenced by the “American Nations.”
Technical notes: (1) the District of Columbia is a federal zone and not part of any “nation”; (2) Cook County, IL is divided equally between the Midlands and Yankeedom; (3) Orleans Parish, LA is divided equally between Deep South and New France; (4) the 2016 voting results were accurate as of Nov. 20, when several million votes were still to be counted, most of them in Left Coast; this is not expected to change the results “by nation” in any significant way, except possibly by slightly increasing Clinton’s margin in Left Coast.

Correction: This story was updated on Jan. 17 to correct an error in the second table comparing electoral trends by region. John McCain’s margin of victory in Greater Appalachia in 2008 was +15, not +5.

Colin Woodard is the Press Herald’s State and National Affairs Writer and the author of “American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America” and its sequel, “American Character: A History of the Epic Struggle Between Individual Liberty and the Common Good.”