The red-blue map of the United States got a lot redder this week, as large swatches of the country voted Republican during mid-term elections for the House, Senate and state governorships. Some of this can be explained by swings of the political pendulum, dislike for the sitting president or a low turnout that favored the GOP.
All that is true, but observers also note that the nation's political and social divisions are also split by residence: How you vote is determined by where you live. The rural vote is solidly Republican, the urban centers remain Democrat.
In the 2012 general election, for example, the only big cities that voted Republican were Phoenix, Oklahoma City, Fort Worth and Salt Lake City. In fact, 27 of the nation's 30 largest cities voted Democrat, according to Dave Leip's Atlas of U.S. Presidential Elections.
Polling data from the Pew Research Center show that 77 percent of people who are "consistently liberal" favor urban communities, while 75 percent of "consistent conservatives" favor a more spacious lifestyle. The same polling data from June 2014 shows that conservatives favor small towns and rural areas, while two-thirds of "consistent liberals" prefer the city and suburbs.
"There's definitely a difference," said Neil Levesque, director of the New Hampshire Institute for Politics at St. Anselm. "There's a cultural difference about their values and perhaps the Republican party has catered to people in rural areas and trying to get those votes."
History and culture may tell us why this is so. Immigrants in the 19th century who settled the wide-open spaces of the West, or tended the agricultural farms and rural plantations of the South, were often forced to live without a strong central government. They had to deal with disputes without going to a lawman, according to Ryan Enos, assistant professor of government at Harvard University.
"In the American South, they have had a far higher murder rate than other parts of the country and much higher gun ownership," Enos said. "They had a herding culture that was more disconnected from a central authority. They couldn't rely on law and order, rather tit-for-tat in settling of differences."
At the same time Enos says that not all rural areas are the same. In fact, many poor rural areas share similar social beliefs on issues like religion, guns or reproductive rights, as their poor kin in urban centers.
"It's not obvious that poor people in an urban area are that different than poor people in a rural area," Enos said. "A lot of the lifestyle choices are pretty similar. You go anywhere in the U.S., poor people are shopping at Wal-mart and eating at McDonalds. Even in public opinion data, they have similar beliefs on social issues. Where you do see the divide is among the rich."
Wealthier urban and rural residents hold vastly different views on religion, gay rights and gun ownership, he explained, differences that are manifested in our two political parties. So, how are these "conservative" and "liberal" beliefs passed on? During your late teens, Enos said.
"A lot of the way people are socialized, comes from who influences you in the impressionable years, the late teens and early 20s, which have a lot to do with your political beliefs later in life," Enos said.
"If a person is raised in urban area, they are not likely to move to a rural one. A lot of it is a homegrown thing, they adopt these attitudes in the first place. It probably has something to do with some old economic differences between different regions of the country."
Will the parties' beliefs or demographics change over time?
Levesque says that the goal of any party is to win. If that doesn't happen with existing party members and doctrine, then the party will shift and look for new members. That may be behind the Democrats dilemma. As the party (and the country) has become more diverse and younger, these same potential voters will have to become actual voters, or the status quo will likely remain.