The 2020 presidential election results exhibited the same regional patterning we’ve seen in virtually all competitive contests in our history, including those in 2008, 2012 and 2016. Indeed, the results were similar to four years ago but with support for Donald Trump slipping almost everywhere, erasing the razor-thin margins that allowed him to eke out an Electoral College victory last time around while losing the popular vote by nearly 3 million votes.

In 2011’s “American Nations,” I argued that America’s most essential and abiding divisions are not between red states and blue states, conservatives and liberals, rural and urban, Blacks and whites, or the faithful and the secular. Rather, they stem from this fact: The United States is a federation composed of the whole or part of 11 regional cultures, whose origins, territory and fundamental characteristics can be traced back to Colonial settlement waves. These regional cultures cut through state and even international boundaries and have an enormous influence on the geography of everything from gun violence to the pandemic response to political behavior. (For those unfamiliar with “American Nations” paradigm, you’ll find a brief summary here, a deeper digest here, and the actual book here.)

While the counts in California, New York and Illinois are still very much underway, enough of the results are in to draw conclusions about how our federation’s sections reacted to the choice before them: more Trumpism or nay. At a broad level, the regional cultures responded as one would predict, though there are consequential developments as you wade deeper into the data.

As expected, the more communitarian-minded candidate – Joe Biden in this case – won Yankeedom, New Netherland and the Left Coast by wide margins. Like Barack Obama (twice) and Hillary Clinton, Biden also decisively won two former swing regions that are now part of the “blue” coalition, Tidewater and El Norte, as well as the southernmost part of Florida, which is part of the Spanish Caribbean cultural zone, though in the latter two cases there were consequential pro-Trump developments I’ll discuss in a moment.

The Republican candidate won the three regional cultures that constitute the current “red” coalition, just as in the past three elections: Deep South, Greater Appalachia and the Far West, plus the New France enclave in southern Louisiana. Trump accomplished this in 2016 despite deviating from the liberty-minded platform of his recent predecessors, with its promise that lower taxes, fewer regulations and reduced social programs would deliver more freedom – a program that resonates with the individualistic ethos of those three regional cultures. The fact that he actually slashed taxes, regulations and social programs while in office could only reassure the majority in these regions, though his other shortcomings as a leader did marginally erode his support in these places as well.

Here are the results by “nation” as of Nov. 10, excluding Hawaii (because it’s part of a regional culture not treated here, Greater Polynesia). First Nation is, in the U.S., entirely in northern and western Alaska and went by large margins for Biden, though that state’s count was not near completion when we ran the numbers.

Nation
Greater Appalachia: 59.5-39 for Trump (+21)
New France: 59.5-39.4 for Trump (+20)
Deep South: 53-45.6 for Trump (+7)
Far West: 51.3-46.6 for Trump (+5)
Midlands: 50.1-48.3 for Biden (+2)
Spanish Caribbean 52.7-46.6 for Biden (+6)
Yankeedom: 54.3-44.2 for Biden (+10)
Tidewater: 58.7-39.8 for Biden (+19)
El Norte: 59.9-38.6 for Biden (+21)
New Netherland: 60.8-38.4 for Biden (+22)
Left Coast: 67.7-30.3 for Biden (+38)

 

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 fourth election in a row, and by a wider margin than 2016.

Whereas Clinton won the region by a whisker – 0.4 percent – in 2016, this month Biden took it by at least 1.8 percent (which may increase a bit as Chicagoland counts the rest of its vote). That’s still a problem, though, as Obama won the Midlands by six points in 2012 and 11 in 2008. Biden’s margin was not sufficient to put Iowa or Ohio into play, but it did give the critical boost in Pennsylvania, allowing him to compensate for that state’s substantial, ruby red, Appalachian section.

Even more critical this time around was the margin in Yankeedom, where Trump was able to score upset wins four years ago in Michigan, Wisconsin and Maine’s 2nd District by flipping scores of rural, overwhelmingly white counties that had voted for Obama by large margins in 2008 and 2012. This “Greater New England” region went for Biden by 10, up 2 points from Clinton’s performance. Here Trump’s standing in both urban and rural counties declined – by 6.3 and 8 respectively – though he still won rural Yankeedom – which went for Obama by 5.9 percent in 2008 – 58-48. (This dynamic was reflected in Maine’s 2nd District, which Trump won by 7, down from 10 four years ago.) Rural Yankeedom softened on Trump but remained in his camp.

Biden also made overall gains in El Norte, the parts of the American Southwest that were actually colonized by New Spain and Mexico prior to the U.S. annexations. I’ve always described El Norte as a swing region because the underlying culture emphasizes faith, family, entrepreneurship, and tradition – a perfect fit for a center-right party. Democrats have nonetheless been winning this fast-growing region by large margins because, over the past 15 years, the Republican Party has increasingly embraced a less inclusive definition of the country. Clinton won it by a staggering 19 points in 2016, and Biden expanded that lead to more than 21 this month. (And it could grow even wider as California completes its count over the next week or two.)

Nation 2020 2016 2012 2008
Greater Appalachia: Trump +21 Trump +25 Romney +22 McCain +5
New France: Trump +20 Trump +22 Romney +20 McCain +21
Deep South: Trump +7 Trump +9 Romney +7 McCain +5
Far West: Trump +5 Trump +9 Romney +11 McCain +4
Midlands: Biden +2 Clinton +0.4 Obama +6 Obama +11
Spanish Caribbean Biden +6 Clinton +14 Obama +14 Obama +15
Yankeedom: Biden +10 Clinton +8 Obama +16 Obama +19
Tidewater: Biden +19 Clinton +14 Obama +13 Obama +15
El Norte: Biden +21 Clinton +19 Obama +12 Obama +16
New Netherland: Biden +22 Clinton +25 Obama +27 Obama +27
Left Coast: Biden +38 Clinton +34 Obama +31 Obama +34

But embedded in that apparent victory is a shocker: a staggering flip to Trump in rural El Norte, where people of Hispanic descent are the overwhelming majority. Clinton won these counties by nearly 40 points in 2016, and Obama won them by 42 in 2008. On Nov. 3,  Trump won them by just over 10, a shocking 48.7 swing. In the most rural subset of the region’s counties – those that don’t have a single town (or cluster of towns) with 10,000 people – Trump’s margin was 18.5, an unheard of 75.6-point swing in his favor compared to 2016.

The damage was concentrated in South Texas, including the Rio Grande Valley, where Spanish is the mother language of a supermajority of the population, and has been since Europeans first colonized it more than three centuries ago. One rural county – Zapata – flipped red for the first time in a century, and Biden’s margins of victory were blunted from El Paso to Brownsville. Were it not for this newly emerging trend, Democrats could feel confident of flipping Texas in four years, effectively banishing their rivals from the White House. Exploring what happened there should be both parties’ top priority.

There was also a precipitous decline in Democratic support in southernmost Florida, a region that was colonized via Cuba and the Spanish Caribbean rather than by Deep Southerners. Clinton won this section of Florida by 14, but Biden carried it by only 6, a development that may have cost him Florida’s Electoral College votes. This is not as surprising as the situation in El Norte – Miami’s Cuban community is conservative – but consequential nonetheless.

RURAL VS. URBAN? NOT SO FAST

The conventional analysis of this election has been that it shows the central rift in U.S. politics is rural versus urban America, an idea of long I’ve long argued against.

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. I’ve observed that Obama won scores of rural, white, poor counties – the very sort that are supposed to hate Obama – across Yankeedom, and that he won 15 of Maine’s 16 counties and 58 of New England’s 63 in 2012. And that Mitt Romney won lots of central cities in Greater Appalachia, the Deep South, and Far West, including Phoenix, Jacksonville, Knoxville, Mobile, Salt Lake City, and Oklahoma City.

There’s no doubt that Trumpism, with its implicit ethno-nationalist orientation that privileges white Christian Americans over Americans who are not one of those things, has proven more popular in rural places than the more diverse urban and suburban ones. Despite this, the influence of regional cultures is remarkable. In four regional cultures that together constitute nearly half the population of the United States, rural and urban counties voted for the same presidential candidate this month and in the three presidential elections preceding it. In the Deep South, Greater Appalachia, and New France, rural and urban majorities supported Republican candidates in all four elections, whether they lived in central cities, wealthy suburbs, mountain hollers or Cajun bayous. Democrats may have flipped Georgia on the strength of suburban Atlanta voters, but overall major suburban counties in the Deep South broke for Trump 53.4 to 45.5.

In two other nations, rural and urban voters chose the same party in 2008, 2012 and 2016, but broke their streak this year. In the Far West, urban counties flipped to the Democrats for the first time in recent memory, backing Biden by 1.5 points after choosing Trump by 3.6 four years ago. Rural El Norte, as described above, shifted radically to Trump. In these regions, if a rural-urban split exists, it’s a brand new phenomenon. In a third nation, the Left Coast, rural voters voted for the Democratic nominee in 2008, 2012 and in 2020, returning to the fold after narrowly going for Trump in 2016.

In Yankeedom and the Left Coast rural counties only recently split from their urban, Democrat-supporting neighbors and now are drifting back. Rural Yankee counties went for Obama by 5.9 percent in 2008, were split in 2012, and went for Trump by 18.3 in 2016 and by 10.3 this month. In Yankeedom the major suburban counties really did shift against Trump, backing his rival by 7.4 points, up from 3.2 four years ago.

Regional cultures are at work within medium-size metros as well – the core counties of metros with a population of between 250,000 and 1 million. Instead of being blue strongholds, such counties in four of the “nations” – Deep South, Greater Appalachia, Far West and New France – have now voted for Republicans in four presidential contests in a row, and those in the Midlands did the same in the past three. Yet in all of the reliably “blue” nations, this same county type has supported the Democratic nominees in every election.

As for the very biggest core metro counties, they consistently vote Democratic in every nation, but by margins that vary enormously, from 9 to 20 points in most “red” regions to 40- and 60-point landslides in “blue” ones. In 2016 the Democratic share actually declined slightly, including in battlegrounds like Philadelphia, Milwaukee and Detroit, suggesting polarization and density don’t track as neatly as some might assume. Culture, it turns out, has a powerful influence even here.

The influence of the American Nations was felt once again in this month’s vote. But it’s also clear that four years of Trumpism – despite delivering profound damage to the nation’s civic, epidemiological and budgetary health – did not receive the sort of devastating blow in the Midlands, El Norte and rural Yankeedom that would have consigned it to the dustbin of American political history. It was weakened at the margins, but looks to be a movement that will be with us for years to come.

Chad Gilley and Matt Fulton contributed data processing, maps and interactives.

Colin Woodard, state and national affairs writer for the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram, is the author of six books, including “American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America” and “Union: The Struggle to Forge the Story of United States Nationhood.”

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