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America the Purple

Looking at the electoral college map, it’s easy to imagine that the U.S. is a sharply divided country. The northeastern and western coastal states are all blue, while a broad band across the country is mostly red. But that’s an artifact of our winner-take-all electoral system, which paints small electoral differences in broad primary colors.

Consider Florida, where neither party won an outright majority and where the difference between red and blue was about half a percentage point. States where the margin was larger still generally had both red and blue counties. Princeton professor Robert Vanderbei’s map of the presidential vote, which colors individual counties along a spectrum from red to blue according to the percentage of votes for each party, shows pockets that are very red or very blue. But most of country is fairly mixed, with Democrats and Republicans living together side by side. The truth is that America is largely a purple country.

In fact, while Obama won more than 50% of the votes that were actually cast, neither party won an outright majority of the voting-eligible population. As Andrew Gelman points out, just 30% of the total electorate voted for Obama. Another roughly 30% voted for Romney. The other 40% of the eligible voters simply didn’t vote. More people didn’t vote, in other words, than voted for either of main candidates. Some eligible voters—a disproportionate number of whom were minorities—faced obstacles to voting. Others may have calculated that their vote wouldn’t make a difference in their state. But it’s probably safe to say that as a group this non-voting 40% didn’t have strong enough feelings about the race to get to the polls.

In general, our electoral college system has the effect of exaggerating the differences between us. As Nate Silver says, right now it probably works to the advantage of Democrats. Democrats may have won the presidency and added seats in both the House and the Senate, making this a decisive victory by contemporary standards. Long-term demographic trends—the electorate is becoming more urban, less evangelical, and less white—may also favor Democrats. But Republicans still managed to win a majority of seats in the House. With a strong candidate or another recession they could easily win back the presidency. As John Sides says, this was not a fundamental electoral realignment. The shift in the electorate between George W. Bush and Barack Obama was just a shift of a few points.

We are not really such a divided country. We are, by most standards, a moderate, politically centrist country. But we are also—as we have been throughout our history—a changing country. Republicans lost this election because it is hard to unseat a sitting president while the economy is improving. But they also lost because they were reluctant to accept or acknowledge the changing concerns of voters in the middle of the electorate. And if the Republican Party doesn’t adapt its platform on issues like immigration, reproductive rights, and marriage equality they are likely to lose again four years from now.

Electoral map image courtesy of Robert J. Vanderbei under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.5 License