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November 06, 2013 2:34 PM Virginia: Two Regional Cultures, Stark Differences in Gubernatorial Election

By Colin Woodard

For two years now, I’ve been arguing in this space, in the pages of the Monthly, and elsewhere, that the Tea Party was doomed on the national stage because it’s agenda is anathema to the cultural traditions of vast swaths of the country. Instead, it would become isolated in the South and interior West, the only parts of the country where its agenda would find fertile soil.

If subsequent events - including the sharp regional divisions exposed by the actions of the shutdown caucus last month - haven’t provided enough evidence for you, here’s some more:

In Virginia this week, voters narrowly elected the (flawed) Democratic candidate Terry McAuliffe over Tea Party firebrand Ken Cuccinelli. The surprise wasn’t that McAuliffe won, but that the result was far closer than pollsters had predicted.

What went wrong?

As in the Alabama and Mississippi GOP presidential primaries last year, pollsters failed to weight their samples to ensure they properly represented not just the racial, gender, and economic profile of the electorate, but the state’s two, centuries-old, rival regional cultures. I’m not talking about “NoVa” versus the Old Dominion, but something much older that suburban Washington: the massive schism between the state’s Tidewater and Greater Appalachian sections, one that has created tensions since the days of the House of Burgesses and, certainly, the secession of West Virginia.

Those regional cultures - and the nine others that occupy our federation and continent - are described in my book, American Nations, and summarized in this piece I wrote for the Monthly, and their boundaries can be seen on this map:

Across our country, the Tea Party has its greatest support in Greater Appalachia, home to a plurality of the House “shutdown caucus” and a culture that prizes personal sovereignty and individual freedom above all. It’s failed to capture hearts and minds in regions with a strong communitarian tradition such as Yankeedom, or even in the fast-changing Tidewater, whose aristocratic founders had a strong sense noblesse oblige lacking among the founding (West Indies) planters of the Deep South.

I asked one of my research collaborators - Miami University of Ohio geography masters student Nicollette Staton - to run the results of Tuesday’s election through the American Nations model. The regional differences were stark:

McAuliffe won Virginia’s Tidewater by 11 points, 52 to 41.

Cuccinelli won Greater Appalachia by an even wider margin, 57 to 36.

(In case you’re wondering, Libertarian candidate Robert Sarvis doesn’t account for these differences, having fared the same across the state, gaining 6.4 percent of the vote in Greater Appalachia, 6.6 in Tidewater.)

McAuliffe’s overall margin of victory is owed entirely to the relative size of Tidewater’s electorate (over 1.6 million cast ballots in Tidewater on Tuesday, under 600,000 in Appalachia.) Indeed, if West Virginia hadn’t seceded from the rest of the Old Dominion during the Civil War, McAuliffe would almost certainly have been routed.

The lesson, once again, is that Tea Party ideas are embraced as strongly as ever in the Greater Appalachian sections of our federation - and the Deep South and Far West - even as they have become repellant to a majority of voters everyplace else. Given that everyplace else comprises two thirds of the U.S. population, that’s a recipe for national isolation.

Postscript, 11/8/13: A few of you have rightly asked: what of the urban/rural divide? Doesn’t that better explain the results? Take a closer look at the results on the New York Timesexceedingly helpful map and overlay the Tidewater/Greater Appalachia divide. Yes, most of the big cities themselves went for McAuliffe (though not Virginia Beach), and in Virginia, those are all in Tidewater. But look at the rest of the counties, and the pattern falls apart. In Tidewater, Cuccinellii had his best showings not in the most rural places (South Side, southern DelMarva) but in the outer suburbs of Richmond. Indeed, many of the least populous Tidewater counties went for McAuliffe.

But scroll your pointer across the boundary to Greater Appalachia, and Cuccinelli’s margin of victory jumps to over 20 points in almost every county - and sometimes 30, 40 and even 50 points - from the most sparsely populated ones in the southwestern mountains to the suburbs of Roanoke, populous Bedford County, or Fauquier County, just outside D.C. McAuliffe’s wins Greater Appalachia - Montgomery, Albermarle, Charlottesville, Roanoke - were almost all college towns with plenty of transplants from outside the region.

I’m not saying urban/rural electoral divides don’t exist - they do in every nation, from France to India - but their predictive power is often greatly exaggerated. And in the case of this week’s election in Virginia, they are an inadequate means to interpret the results.

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Colin Woodard is State and National Affairs Writer at the Portland Press Herald / Maine Sunday Telegram and author of American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America.

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