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The most polarized metro area in the most polarized state

by Eric Ferguson on September 25, 2015 · 2 comments

New Republic image of voting patterns in Milwaukee metro areaI really thought I was done with Scott Walker and the bitter divides in Wisconsin when I finished my schadenfreude-filled This Guy Wants To Be President post about the withering of Walker’s presidential campaign, but a commenter on the cross-post on Daily Kos pointed me to a New Republic article from 2014 which correctly predicted not only that Walker would fail, but why. The New Republic article linked to a Milwaukee Journal Sentinel article for in depth background on sharp partisan divide in the Milwaukee metro area from which Walker came. They’re too good to not share, especially if you’re into political maps and demography and a deep dive into the political ecosystem that produces and elects such a dreadful person. Since you’re visiting this site, I’m going to guess you are into such topics, at least a bit.

The gist is that just about the whole the country follows a pattern of blue cities, purple suburbs, and red rural areas, with some exceptions. Wisconsin is one of those exceptions. The cities are blue, but rural areas are often competitive, and the suburbs are deep red. Most of Milwaukee is non-white, while non-whites are scarce in the suburbs. Democrats win almost nothing once they step outside the Milwaukee city limits. Many years of close high stakes elections have made the divide bitter as well as sharp. Walker exploited and exacerbated the situation, but he also came from it. The New Republic suggested Walker isn’t just in a conservative bubble, but in a geographical bubble that makes him a creature of the suburbs and disconnected from the rest of the state, and this supportive environment prevented the exposure of his flaws. The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel graphically shows the sharp divide and explains how it got that way and stays that way, defying the bluing-suburb trend of the rest of America. Big cities are generally the economic engines of their state, but Wisconsin has been regularly run by people seeking to strangle their big city rather than let it drive growth. It strikes me as much like Michigan and Detroit, but on a smaller scale and not so far along.
From the New Republic, The Unelectable Whiteness of Scott Walker
A journey through the poisonous, racially divided world that produced a Republican star

This interpretation of Walker’s appeal could hardly be more flawed. He has succeeded in the sort of environment least conducive to producing a candidate capable of winning a national majority. Over the past few decades, Walker’s home turf of metropolitan Milwaukee has developed into the most bitterly divided political ground in the country—“the most polarized part of a polarized state in a polarized nation,” as a recent series by Craig Gilbert in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel put it. Thanks to a quirk of twentieth-century history, the region encompasses a heavily Democratic and African American urban center, and suburbs that are far more uniformly white and Republican than those in any other Northern city, with a moat of resentment running between the two zones. As a result, the area has given rise to some of the most worrisome trends in American political life in supercharged form: profound racial inequality, extreme political segregation, a parallel-universe news media. These trends predate Walker, but they have enabled his ascent, and his tenure in government has only served to intensify them. Anyone who believes that he is the Republican to save his party—let alone win a presidential election—needs to understand the toxic and ruptured landscape he will leave behind.

During this period [last couple decades], the WOW counties continued to expand. [the WOW counties are Waukesha, Ozaukee, and Washington, the three counties bordering Milwaukee county] But unlike suburbs elsewhere, they had not grown more diverse. Today, less than 2 percent of the WOW counties’ population is African American and less than 5 percent is Hispanic. According to studies by the Brookings Institution and Brown University, the Milwaukee metro area is one of the top two most racially segregated regions in the country. The WOW counties were voting Republican at levels unseen in other Northern suburbs; one needed to look as far as the white suburbs around Atlanta and Birmingham for similar numbers. The partisan gulf between Milwaukee and its suburbs in presidential elections has now grown wider than in any of the nation’s 50 largest cities, except for New Orleans, according to the Journal Sentinel series.
In such an environment, “there’s no persuasion going on at all,” says GOP pollster Gene Ulm, who often works in Wisconsin. In fact, there is not a single competitive state Senate seat left in the entire Milwaukee media market. Both parties focus entirely on turnout, and with impressive results. The WOW counties were in the top eleven nationwide for turnout in 2012, with Ozaukee first at 84 percent. Similarly, among urban counties, Milwaukee County ranks near the top, at 74 percent. (The national average was just over 60 percent.) In midterm elections, Republicans often win because the WOW counties vote no matter what, an achievement that Mark Graul, a Republican consultant, attributes in large part to the motivational power of Milwaukee talk-radio stations. However, in presidential-year elections, when turnout is up everywhere in the state, Democrats win—in fact, they have won every single major statewide race in presidential years since 1984. Even Walker admits that he isn’t working the middle much anymore: “It was always a divided state but it used to be (that) you’d explain it as ‘40/40/20,’ and 20 percent was the persuadable middle,” he told the Journal Sentinel. “That percent has shrunk now to 5, 6 percent maybe … or five or six people.”

The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel article is Democratic, Republican voters worlds apart in divided Wisconsin
Entire communities vote red or blue as metro Milwaukee grows more politically segregated with nearly every election cycle

Milwaukee isn’t alone. Americans are more divided by party than they were a generation ago. So are the communities where they live. The political gap has widened between more populated and less populated places. People are more clustered in red and blue states, counties and neighborhoods.
But these patterns — and a host of others — are more extreme here than in most places. Metropolitan Milwaukee is the most polarized part of a polarized state in a polarized nation. It combines in one political hothouse an unusual constellation of divisive forces: deep racial segregation; an intensely engaged and sometimes enraged electorate; and the Balkanizing effects of serving over the past decade and a half as one of the most fought-over pieces of political turf in America.

Not only are voters here acutely divided, so are the places they live. Metropolitan Milwaukee blends one powerhouse blue county (Milwaukee) with the highest performing Republican suburbs in America. It has grown more politically segregated with almost every election since the Nixon administration.
This geographic polarization — Democrats and Republicans clustered in different communities — is what truly separates Milwaukee from the rest of Wisconsin and many other large metros. Only one in eight voters here lived in a neighborhood decided by single digits in the last presidential contest. Almost six in 10 lived in a neighborhood decided by 30 points or more.

Those who recall my series on Democrats need to do better with white voters will experience no surprise that I’m highlighting this part about population density in the Journal Sentinel article:

Density divide
Metro Milwaukee also is a showcase for another key dividing line in American politics — the one between densely populated and less densely populated places. This “density divide” reflects racial differences between cities and suburbs and rural areas, but it also transcends race. It’s not just about the partisan gap between blacks and whites, it’s also about the political differences between whites “close in” and whites “farther out.”
Obama’s approval rating among whites since 2012 is 56% in the city of Milwaukee, 45% in the inner suburbs of Milwaukee County and 35% in the outer suburban counties. Walker’s job rating among white voters follows just the opposite pattern: 45% in the city of Milwaukee, 53% in the Milwaukee County suburbs and 65% in the suburban counties.
The extensive polling conducted by Franklin and Marquette Law School shows that whites in the less densely populated outer suburbs are more Republican than whites closer in. And Republicans in the outer suburbs are more conservative than Republicans closer in. The story is similar across the Great Lakes region, where very white counties outside large cities have almost all been trending in a Republican direction in recent decades, whether it’s Milwaukee, Minneapolis-St. Paul, Pittsburgh or Cincinnati.

The density divide has gotten bigger nationally in recent decades, especially in large metro areas. It has grown steadily bigger in metropolitan Milwaukee since the 1980s. And it is bigger in Milwaukee than in any other large American metro for which data was available. The nine most densely populated municipalities in metro Milwaukee voted for Obama in 2012; the 48 least densely populated voted for Romney — by an average of more than 40 points.

Since the article mentions Minneapolis-St. Paul, I’ll elaborate a bit. Our inner suburbs have turned blue like in other large metro areas, and the outer suburbs are the Republican heartland, thus why our most conservative congressional district isn’t one of the three rural districts, but the mostly exurban 6th. That’s the one that used to elect Michele Bachmann. Democrats have become competitive in the middle suburbs, which apparently is still a pipe dream in Milwaukee. Minnesota and Wisconsin still share one similarity in that our rural areas aren’t uniformly red, at least not yet. Democrats still compete in many places, and even have the advantage in some places. It’s also the case that we had similar election results in 2010, with Republicans winning both legislative houses. However, by about 9,000 votes, a margin close enough to trigger a recount, Minnesota’s Democrats won the governor’s mansion, while it was lost in Wisconsin. Wisconsin had a governor and legislature that, besides their more infamous legislation, implemented a Republican gerrymander that guarantees Republican majorities, while Minnesota had gridlock that blocked movement on anything, and resulted in a court-drawn redistricting. On that simple difference rests so much of the divergence between our formerly so similar states.
From Greg Laden: Is commenting working these days?
Anyway, interesting post.
From Dan Burns: Commenting hasn’t worked properly here for a long time. They do show up as pending, and we upload them manually, as additions to the texts of the posts. What with us being volunteers, not full-time bloggers, it can be a while before that happens.

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