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Cambridge, MA — The American political geography is currently split along cultural and religious lines, but as a vast majority of Americans fall in the center of the political spectrum, so do most of the states. Those are the conclusions of a new Kennedy School working paper co-authored by Edward L. Glaeser and Bryce A. Ward.
The report, titled “Myths and Realities of American Political Geography,” examines the red state/blue state framework, and concludes that the heterogeneity of beliefs and attitudes across the United States is enormous, and that America’s cultural divisions are not necessarily increasing.
“There are a great many misperceptions of U.S. politics at the moment,” Glaeser said. “With all the talk of the red state/blue state divide, we actually found that the states are not split into two distinct camps, but lie on a continuum. Historically speaking, the number of swing states is not particularly low at the moment, and the cultural divisions that we see are relatively stable.”
The authors also found that:
• America is a country with remarkable geographical diversity in both habits and beliefs. The country is not divided into two politically homogeneous areas; the distribution of states among all dimensions is continuous, not bimodal.
• There is scant evidence to support the theory that the two major political parties are more spatially segregated than in the past. Both Republicans and Democrats live in counties where just slightly more than 50 percent of the voters share their party; the precise figures are much lower than in the Republican 1920s or the Democratic 1930s.
• America’s political geography is currently relatively stable, consistent with prevalent historical patterns. About 95 percent of the voters who elected George Bush in 2000 voted for him again in 2004. This is high, but lower than the degree or electoral stability engendered during the re-elections of Franklin Roosevelt and Dwight Eisenhower.
• Although there is anecdotal evidence showing that politicians are quite divided on many key social issues, empirical evidence indicates that the lay population is no more culturally divided than in the past. National surveys indicate that the majority of Americans are grouped in the middle on such key social questions as abortion and homosexuality.
• We live in political partisan times, but this does not appear to represent any sort of a secular trend. There have been sharp increases in both Republican and Democratic Party partisanship in recent years, but it might be described as more of a “George W. Bush effect” than any ongoing move toward greater partisan hostility.
• Church attendance is today a more precise predictor of political party membership than is income. While the rise of religious politics does appear like a break from the mid-20th century, when economics drove party affiliation, the trend closely mirrors political party loyalties in the United States prior to 1930.
Glaeser serves as co-director of the Kennedy School’s Taubman Center for State and Local Government and as co-faculty director of the School’s Rappaport Institute for Greater Boston. Ward is a Ph.D. candidate in the Harvard Economics Department
This paper is currently accessible on the Kennedy School Working Papers website: http://ksgnotes1.harvard.edu/Research/wpaper.nsf/rwp/RWP06-007
It is to be published soon in The Journal of Economic Perspectives.
Journalists who wish to interview the authors may contact the Kennedy School Communications Office at (617) 495-1115.