KEY POINTS FROM THIS ARTICLE
— Democrats, particularly at the presidential level, are maintaining or increasing their electoral strength in populated areas, but Republicans are strengthening their hold on more rural areas.
— This tradeoff has led to a decline in the number of counties won by Democratic candidates since 2000, especially on the presidential level. So while Democrats continue to win a large number of votes, those votes are being concentrated in a smaller geographic footprint, which can affect the party’s competitiveness for offices where district lines are drawn.
— The number of states where Democrats have seen the strongest decline in the number of counties won since 2000 is 5 times as large as the number of states where they have seen the strongest increase in the number of counties won. And the states with declining numbers of Democratic-won counties include such crucial presidential battleground states as Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin.
The growing concentration of the Democratic vote
One of the inexorable political trends of recent years has been the declining number of counties won by Democrats. Put simply, Democrats, particularly at the presidential level, are maintaining or increasing their electoral strength in populated areas, whether urban and suburban, as Republicans strengthen their hold on more rural areas.
During the era of President Donald Trump, Republicans have made gains even in those less-populated areas where Democrats once had a chance of winning — from the small towns of Iowa and Wisconsin to the coalfields of eastern Kentucky and West Virginia to the industrial areas of northeastern Ohio.
While Joe Biden won marginally more of the nation’s more than 3,100 counties (and county equivalents) than Hillary Clinton did 4 years earlier, it was still a smaller number than was won by every other Democratic presidential candidate this century (Al Gore in 2000, John Kerry in 2004, and Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012). A note: We used Dave Leip’s Atlas of U.S. Presidential Elections to assemble the tables in this article, and we omitted Alaska, which doesn’t have counties or county-equivalents, as well as Washington, D.C.
Table 1: Counties won by Democratic presidential candidates, 2000-2020
In many states, Democratic strength — where it exists at all — is concentrated in a handful of populated counties.
For instance, in the 2020 presidential election, 2 states saw every single county vote for Trump: Oklahoma and West Virginia. Meanwhile, Biden won just 2 of 120 counties in Kentucky, 5 of 92 counties in Indiana, and 3 of 95 counties in Tennessee.
This pattern held even in states that were more favorable to Biden in their topline results. In Michigan, Biden won just 11 of 83 counties. In Minnesota, he won 13 of 87. In Pennsylvania, he won 13 of 67. And in Wisconsin, Biden won 14 of 72 counties. Yet Biden managed to win each of those 4 states, enabling his victory.
In some ways, this should not necessarily be a problem for Democrats. After all, they won the presidency in 2020, while holding the House and moving into a narrow Senate majority. The Democrats were able to do that because most of the populous counties in the U.S. backed Biden, more than compensating for the loss of less-populous counties. According to calculations by demographer William Frey, 67 million more people lived in counties won by Biden than those won by Trump.
Still, bleeding support in lower-population counties is not a great long-term strategy for the party. For starters, it’s an indication that the party’s positions and rhetoric are not being well received throughout the country. And in a more practical sense, the imbalance in population density between Democratic and Republican areas could mean that Republicans will have a leg up as congressional and legislative districts are drawn.
Below the presidential level, most statewide Democratic candidates’ results have mirrored those of the presidential race. Those who did better than that are clear outliers.
Among sitting Democratic senators, Montana’s Jon Tester won in 2018 with 13 counties, compared to the 7 Biden would win in 2020. West Virginia’s Joe Manchin won the same year with 24 counties, compared to 0 for Biden 2 years later. Ohio’s Sherrod Brown won 16 counties in 2018, compared to Biden’s 7 in 2020. And in Minnesota, Amy Klobuchar won in 2018 with 51 counties, compared to 13 for Biden two years later.
Among governors, Louisiana’s John Bel Edwards won 24 parishes in 2019 — the Bayou State’s county-level equivalent — compared to just 10 for Biden the following year, while Kentucky’s Andy Beshear won 23 counties in 2019, far more than the 2 won by Biden a year later (although that was many fewer than Beshear’s father, Steve, won when winning a second term for governor in 2011).
Four Democratic governors elected in 2018 also fared better than Biden would in 2020, though by more modest amounts: Kansas’ Laura Kelly, Michigan’s Gretchen Whitmer, Minnesota’s Tim Walz, and Wisconsin’s Tony Evers. Four northeastern Republican governors have done the reverse, winning far more counties than Trump did in their state: Maryland’s Larry Hogan, Massachusetts’ Charlie Baker, New Hampshire’s Chris Sununu, and Vermont’s Phil Scott.
To gauge how serious the Democratic county declines have been, we took a look at how many counties the Democratic presidential nominee won in the elections of 2000, 2004, 2008, 2012, 2016, and 2020. Determining whether Democrats improved in winning a state’s counties over that period, stayed roughly the same, or declined is more art than science, but we’ve done our best to categorize the 49 states with counties or their equivalents.
Ultimately, we decided to split these states into 6 categories based on a comparison of 2000 and 2020: States that went strongly pro-Democratic in terms of county shifts; states that went modestly pro-Democratic; states that didn’t change much; states that went modestly pro-Republican; and states that went strongly pro-Republican, plus a lone example that has by far the most counties of any state — Texas — that merits highlighting on its own.
One issue to note is that in many states, the number of counties Democrats won ticked upward in 2008, when Barack Obama won, and to a lesser extent in 2012, when Obama was on the ballot the second time, before falling back in 2016 and 2020. By looking at the comparison between 2000 and 2020, we’re effectively setting the “Obama bump” aside, though it’s an interesting question to ponder whether the Democrats will ever be able to harness some of what went into that “bump” in the future to reverse the negative trends outlined here.
Let’s start with the good news for the Democrats: the states that saw either modest or more substantial gains in counties between 2000 and 2020.
Table 2: States with strong gains in Democratic-won counties
The 3 strongest states on our list have all moved toward Democrats since 2000. In Colorado, Gore won 13 of Colorado’s 64 counties in 2000, but Biden won 24. In Virginia, Gore won 31 counties (or independent city equivalents under Virginia’s system) while Biden won 46. And in California, Gore won 20 counties but Biden won 35.
Table 3: States with more modest gains in Democratic-won counties
Maryland, Oregon, Vermont, and Washington, all blue states, saw gains in Democratic counties over that period, as did competitive New Hampshire. But perhaps more interesting is that 7 red states have also shown (generally modest) increases in Democratic counties: Idaho, Kansas, Mississippi, Montana, Nebraska, Utah, and Wyoming. Kansas and Nebraska, for instance, have seen Democratic gains in suburban areas (like Johnson County in suburban Kansas City) and Douglas County (which includes Omaha). In Utah, the Democratic victories have come both in urban Salt Lake County and resort areas like Summit County (Park City) and Grand County (Moab).
Table 4: States where the number of Democratic-won counties was largely steady
We found 12 states that had a generally steady number of counties won by Democrats between 2000 and 2020. They’re a mix of red (both Dakotas), blue (Hawaii and Massachusetts, where Democrats have carried every county for the past several elections, as well as New Jersey), and purple states (North Carolina and Nevada). One state stands out here as notable: Arizona. Biden won just one more county than the other Democratic nominees since 2000, but that extra county was Maricopa (Phoenix), a mega-county that is the source of about 60% of Arizona’s votes. This was crucial in his narrow statewide victory.
The strongest moves, however, have been in the states that saw declines in the number of Democratic-won counties.
We found 21 states where the number of Democratic counties generally declined between 2000 and 2020 — 14 with stronger movement towards the GOP and 7 with more modest movement. The 14 states with strong movement towards the GOP in counties won is almost 5 times as many as the 3 states with strong movement towards the Democrats over that period.
Table 5: States with modest declines in Democratic-won counties
Table 6: States with stronger declines in Democratic-won counties
A few of these “declining” states for Democrats are blue states. Two of them — Illinois and New York — have a dominant and strongly Democratic urban center along with an outstate region that has been drifting away from the party.
But at least 9 (possibly more, depending on your definition) are solidly red states, or almost half of the 21 states in the declining category. They include some of the strongest numerical declines in Democratic counties of any state. For instance, between 2000 and 2020, the number of Democratic counties declined from 32 to 8 in Arkansas, 15 to 2 in Kentucky, 36 to 3 in Tennessee, and 13 to 0 in West Virginia.
The declines were even more massive if you compare 2008 — the year of Obama’s first election victory — with 2020. Obama won his home state of Illinois with 46 counties in 2008, but Biden won just 14. Obama won 53 counties in Iowa, but Biden won just 6. Obama won 47 counties in Michigan, but Biden won just 11. Obama won 22 counties in Ohio, whereas Biden won just 7. And Obama won 59 counties in Wisconsin, compared to just 14 for Biden.
Perhaps the most worrisome trend for Democrats is the number of purple states in the “declining” category. Not only are such Trump-won states as Florida, Iowa, and Ohio in this category, but so are the Biden-won states of Georgia, Michigan, Minnesota, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin. That said, the number of counties won can be deceiving: Biden flipped Georgia despite winning fewer counties there than Gore, who lost the state by double digits — such is the power of Democratic growth in the fast-growing metro Atlanta area.
The Georgia trend is somewhat similar to the final state, Texas, which we’ve put in its own category. In Texas, the Obama bump held on through 2016, before declining in 2020 — even though Biden came much closer to winning the state than Obama ever did.
Table 7: A hard-to-characterize county pattern in Texas
This owes to a set of unique circumstances in Texas, a state where urban and suburban counties have been trending blue while predominantly Hispanic, rural counties have been trending red.
In Texas last year, Democrats won previously Republican Tarrant County (Fort Worth) and Williamson and Hays counties (suburban Austin), but they lost a numerically larger number of Clinton-won counties in the rural, Hispanic Rio Grande valley.
This is a microcosm of the Democratic trend nationally: gains in populous counties, losses in smaller-population counties. In Texas, it was enough to enable Democrats to narrow the Republicans’ presidential margin of victory in the state from almost 9 points in 2016 to about 5.5 points in 2020. Will the tradeoff between big and small counties be enough for Democrats to win elections nationally over the longer term? Only time will tell.
|Louis Jacobson is a Senior Columnist for Sabato’s Crystal Ball. He is also the senior correspondent at the fact-checking website PolitiFact and is senior author of the Almanac of American Politics 2022. He was senior author of the Almanac’s 2016, 2018, and 2020 editions and a contributing writer for the 2000 and 2004 editions.