Political gas
Wrecking a category

Sort of Big Sort?

Sorting housesThis blog has two purposes.

First, to report on research I'm doing for whatever book I'm writing.

And second to offer "second thoughts" and updates on books I've already published.  

This posting has a foot in both. OtherWise doesn't come out until June, yet I've already come across some research that throws into question one of the sources I cite.

To wit, I make much of Bill Bishop's finding that Americans are "sorting" themselves politically into different neighborhoods.

In his book, The Big Sort, Bishop presents an analysis showing that the vote in most counties has become increasingly lop-sided to one candidate or the other. For example, in 1976, only 27% of Americans lived in counties where one presidential candidate won by a "landslide" of 60% or more. By 2004, Bishop says, nearly half (48%) of Americans lived in such counties.

But now political scientists Samuel Abrams and Morris Fiorina have challenged Bishop's analysis.  Abrams and Fiorina argue that presidential voting is not a reliable indicator of partisanship, as voting may depend on idiosyncratic features of candidates. 

Better, they argue, is party registration, which more reliably measures people’s underlying partisan preference (if any). On that score, they point out, fewer people live in counties where party registration has increased.  For example, in the 21 states that have party registration, more than 70% of counties 10% or fewer independents. By 2004, the situation had reversed: more than 70% of the counties had 10% or more independent registrants.

Across the 1,200 counties in these states, average independent registration increased from 12% to 18%. Average Republican registration increased from 33% to 39%, and average Democratic registration fell from 55% to 42%.

The proportion of counties where Republicans have a 20% or more registration edge (i.e., a “landslide” in Bishop’s term) almost doubled, rising from 7% to nearly 13%, while the proportion of counties where Democrats have such a large margin halved, falling from 38% to 18% (no counties have a landslide independent registration edge).

"Thus, at the county level what has occurred is not counties increasingly polarizing into Democratic and Republican categories," the authors note, "but rather counties becoming less Democratic and more Republican and independent."

They are quick to note, however, that their analysis doesn't disprove Bishop's theory. In fact, the rise of independents may indicate that party registration is less important than it used to be in determining how people vote. That would make Bishop's analysis by election results more salient, despite its weaknesses.

Abrams and Fiorina don't dismiss Bishop's thesis; they simply argue it needs more empirical study. On the other hand, they suggest that, even if neighborhoods are becoming more politically homogeneous, it may not matter much.

"Neighborhoods are not important centers of contemporary American life," they point out. "Americans today do not know their neighbors very well, do not talk to their neighbors very much, and talk to their neighbors about politics even less."





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