How Important Were the Fast-Growing Counties to Bush's Victory?
Very important--cosmically important!--if we are to believe the analysis in Monday's Los Angeles Times story by Ron Brownstein and Richard Rainey. The story, breathlessly entitled "GOP Plants Flag on New Voting Frontier: Bush's Huge Victory in the Fast-Growing Areas Beyond the Suburbs Alters the Political Map" makes the situation sound dire indeed for the Democrats. Bush rode a tidal wave of GOP votes in these counties to victory and, since these counties are so fast-growing, things will only get worse!
Does the analysis in the Brownstein/Rainey article justify the somewhat extravagant claims made for the importance of these counties? I don't think so. Start with exhibit number one in the article: Bush carried the 100 fastest-growing counties (defined as those that grew the fastest between April 2000 and July 2003) by 1.7 million votes this year. That sounds impressive, especially since the article points out that those votes are "almost half the president's total margin of victory".
But isn't the most relevant measure for understanding Bush's victory how much Bush improved his performance in different areas relative to 2000? It is these improvements in Bush's vote margins in various areas of the country that are responsible for taking him from a half million vote deficit in 2000 to a roughly 3.4 million vote advantage this election.
In that light, how does Bush's performance in these fast-growing counties stack up? Not so different from what I found the other day when I analyzed the role of exurbs in Bush's 2004 victory. In that analysis, I found that exurbs, defined as fringe counties of large metropolitan areas, contributed about 13 percent of Bush's net vote gain between 2000 and 2004.
In the fast-growing counties, as Brownstein/Rainey point out, Bush’s vote margin in 2000 was 1.06 million votes, so his improvement or net vote gain in these counties was a more modest 660,000 votes. That, in turn, works out to a contribution of about 17 percent to Bush’s total net vote gain in the country. That’s good, but it’s hardly overwhelming.
And actually not very different--and in some cases less--than the contributions of other "top 100" groups of counties that don't have that exciting fast-growth label. Take the top 100 counties in terms of amount--not rate--of population growth. My analysis shows that these counties contributed 21 percent of Bush's total increase in vote margin. Or how about the top 100 counties in terms of population size today: Kerry still carried these counties by an overwhelming margin (5.9 million votes) but Bush cut his deficit enough in these counties that they still contributed about 15 percent of Bush's total net vote gains--just about as much as those sexy fast-growing counties contributed.
And no matter which of these "top 100" county categories you look at, the overwhelming amount of Bush's gains still occur outside those county categories. Boringly enough, it looks like Bush's narrow victory was mostly attributable to modest, but broad-based, gains across the country, not to any particular flavor of county, as enticing as that storyline obviously is to journalists.
How broad-based? If you look at percentage point margins, Bush improved his margin by 4 points in the 100 fastest-growing counties--and by 3 points outside those counties. And he improved his margin by 3 points in the 100 largest-growth counties and by 2 points in the 100 counties with the largest populations.
It's fun to talk about exurbs and fast growth, but "huge victory" and "altering the political map"--puh-leeze. In the end it was "two to four points and a cloud of dust". That was the real 2004 election.