Overlooked Regional Divisions Helped Trump Defeat Clinton

Two divides — between the North and the South and between California and Texas — deserve more attention.

North America is seen on a globe
North America is seen on a globe (Pixabay/Heidi Sadecky)

Hillary Clinton could not just have been the first female president of the United States; had she defeated Donald Trump, she would also have been the first Democratic Party president in recent history from a Northern state.

The past four Democrats who won the presidential election (five if you include Al Gore) were not from the North.

This counts Barack Obama as a sort-of Southern Democrat. Hawaii, where he was born, is the southernmost state, after all. Obama was raised by his Kansas-born mother and grandparents and African American society in Illinois — where he grew up — is rooted in the South.

You have to go back to John F. Kennedy to find a Democratic president not from the Southern United States.

Republican ties

All recent Republican presidents, on the other hand — apart from Gerald Ford, who inherited Richard Nixon’s presidency — have had close ties to either California or Texas.

The Bush family, originally from New England, adopted Texas as their home. Bush Senior represented the state in Congress for four years. Bush Junior was its governor for five years. Dwight Eisenhower came from Texas as well.

Ronald Reagan was a Hollywood actor before he came the governor of California. Nixon was born and raised in the same state and represented California in both the House of Representatives and the Senate before coming Eisenhower’s vice president.

Trump’s victory breaks this pattern. He will be the first New York-born Republican president since Teddy Roosevelt and the first New York-born president of either party since Franklin Roosevelt.

Divisions we take for granted

These patterns are telling. Most of the post-election discussion centers on the ethnic, rural-urban, class, age and gender divisions that helped Trump defeat Clinton. But this is partly because America’s other political macro-divisions — the North-South divide and the California-Texas divide — are taken for granted.

The North-South divide is partially obscured by the fact that there are large numbers of black and Hispanic voters living in most Southern states who tend to vote Democratic. That is why Clinton did worse in states like Idaho, Utah and the Dakotas than in Alabama, Georgia and the Carolinas.

Over 70 percent of white voters in Texas and most of the Southeast (apart from Florida) did not vote for Clinton — a stupefying level of political unanimity for such a large region and demographic group.

Even white voters in the coal-producing states of Wyoming and West Virginia were not enticed to vote for Trump in such large proportions as Southern ones were.

Trump, for his part, was supported by an estimated 49 percent of white college graduates, 23 percent of non-white college graduates and even 29 percent of Hispanic Americans.

Yet in California, he got just 33 percent of the overall vote, less than in any other state other than Hawaii and Vermont.

In Massachusetts, Trump won 33.5 percent support. In New York, 37 percent — making this the first presidential election in which the victor failed to win his home state since Abraham Lincoln lost Kentucky in 1864.

As in 1864, race proved more divisive even than intense regionalism: Trump won only 8 percent of the African American vote.

California-Texas divide

Compared to the bitter North-South divide, which dates back centuries, the California-Texas divide is relatively new.

The two states — the largest in the union — have not voted in unison since 1988, but they used to. They voted for Reagan twice and for Nixon twice.

Had Texas voted for the Democrat this time, Clinton would have won 270 votes in the Electoral College against 268 for Trump.

Had Trump done better in California, by contrast, he could have won the popular vote as well as the Electoral College election.

Shrinking map

Previous presidents used to transcend the more deeply entrenched North-South divide on occasion. Bill Clinton won Arkansas, Georgia, Louisiana and Tennessee. Bush Senior won most of the states in the Northeast and Midwest. Reagan swept the Northeast twice. Jimmy Carter won the entire Southeast, although he failed to win any state west of Texas.

If such outcomes are nowadays impossible, we will see more elections in the future that are not too dissimilar from this year’s, with the Democrats no longer running a Southern candidate, the Republicans no longer running one from California or Texas (since they are no longer swing states) and both of parties focusing their efforts entirely on the Midwest, Florida and a handful of smaller states, like Arizona.