Media, Politics, Republicans

Population Shifts and the Nationalization of Politics

Ashley Parker and Jonathan Martin’s A-1 story in the New York Times today makes an interesting argument about the nationalization of politics and its role in explaining Eric Cantor’s primary loss and Thad Cochran’s forced runoff.

For all the talk about how partisan polarization is overwhelming Washington, there is another powerful, overlapping force at play: Voters who are not deeply rooted increasingly view politics through a generic national lens.

Friends-and-neighbors elections were already a thing of the past in congressional campaigns. But the axiom that “all politics is local” is increasingly anachronistic when ever-larger numbers of voters have little awareness of what incumbents did for their community in years past and are becoming as informed by cable television, talk radio and the Internet as by local sources of news.

If you read closely, you’ll find that the article conflates two intertwined but very different factors. The first concerns the decline of local news reporting and the increasing consumption of nationally-oriented cable, radio, and internet sources of political information. There is plenty of evidence to back this up (though, regrettably, none of it in the actual article) from Markus Prior’s work on the post-broadcast media environment to Dan Hopkins’ on the nationalization of politics. (Side note: Tom Patterson has argued that some of the blame for the death of local news lies with the success of the NYT itself attracting readers beyond the northeast corridor.)

The second factor concerns domestic migration flows and the supposedly uprooted nature of contemporary American residential life. Mississippi, as a sun belt state, is held up as a chief example of this phenomenon.

As of 2010, 72 percent of DeSoto County’s population was born outside Mississippi, according to census figures.

Some of those nonnatives are people who grew up in the county after being born in Memphis hospitals. But the real estate numbers tell an equally striking story about the explosive growth here: Over 88 percent of local residents moved into their current home since 1990. Asked to describe the changes he has seen since his 1950s boyhood here, Mr. Davis said: “You can’t tell it in a year.”

There may well be something to this as theory, but I do not find this lone bit of evidence particularly convincing. Americans move around a lot and always have, but overall there has been a decline in the moving rate compared to the 1970s (during the recession, it reached its lowest recorded level ever). While the 88 percent figure cited above may sound like a lot, in 2010, the Census found that 61 percent of moves were intracounty and less than 15 percent were from 200 miles away or farther. Meanwhile, DeSoto County, which includes suburbs of Memphis just across the border, is hardly representative of Mississippi generally.

census on moving

Now it’s certainly possible that suburban Richmond and Mississippi broadly are exceptions to these national trends and that voters there are actually much less locally minded than elsewhere compared to in the past. But it’s a dubious proposition. The first factor—the media—is the far more likely explanation for the nationalization of these primary races. While demographic flows have a lot to do with changes in the competitiveness of states like Virginia, North Carolina, Colorado, Nevada, and New Mexico in presidential elections, I’m not sure they really explain all that much in terms of low-turnout primary elections in reliably conservative Republican territory.

Finally, I do find it troubling that in lieu of actual evidence, the article relies instead on extensive quotes from Karl Rove whose track-record of self-serving electoral analysis should raise more than a few eyebrows. In laying the blame for Cantor’s loss and Cochran’s struggles on domestic migratory flows, it’s as if to say the voters who turned out in Virginia and Mississippi aren’t real Republican constituents voting out of concern for their communities. But that’s actually backwards. It’s the career politicians themselves whose time in Washington has left them vulnerable to charges that they no longer represent their home districts.



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