Columns » Jay Barth

A tale of three parties


TRUMP: Popular with white voters in diverse areas.
  • TRUMP: Popular with white voters in diverse areas.

In a column previewing the Super Tuesday GOP primary in Arkansas two weeks ago, I linked the three presidential candidates on a collision course in the state to somewhat amorphous factions emerging in the state's Republican party. Before the primary is too far in the rearview mirror, it is important to ponder the longer-term meaning of its results for Arkansas politics. An analysis of the voting patterns from the March 1 contest — with turnout numbers showing the new dominance of the Republican Party in Arkansas — shows just how stark the three factions are and indicate the complexity of policymaking and internal GOP politics and in a state now (and for the foreseeable future) decidedly Republican.

A key story of the GOP primary in Arkansas in 2016 was, indeed, the dramatic uptick in turnout for the traditional minority party in the state, nearly doubling that in the Democratic primary. Many pointed to Trump as the key driver of that turnout increase. However, Trump actually underperformed in those counties where Republican turnout in the 2016 went up disproportionately as compared to the 2008 presidential primary. Thus, while Trump's presence in the race unquestionably enhanced the salience of the GOP primary, new Trump voters did not seem to directly drive up turnout. Instead, it seems the perceived closeness of the race, the rare significance of the Arkansas primary because of its timing, and the general pro-GOP trend in Arkansas were more important forces in jolting the GOP turnout to record levels than Trumpmania itself.

That said, Trump's victory in the state was impressive as he won pluralities in 58 of Arkansas's 75 counties. Across those counties, Trump's support was driven by three key factors. As has been shown across the South, the GOP frontrunner did better in locales with large nonwhite populations, showing signs of the discomfort of the "Trump voter" with the diversity that is a hallmark of contemporary American life. Second, Trump did particularly well in those counties with the lowest education levels: The lower the percentage of a county's residents lacking a college degree, the higher the percentage of the vote for Trump. Finally, the New Yorker did best in rural counties shrinking in population or with exceedingly low population growth. In short, Trump did best in those counties where white voters feel their communities slipping away as their kids move away to the cities and suburbs, their jobs slipping away in an economy that mandates advanced skills, and their vision of America slipping away in a country on its way to being majority-minority. These non-ideological voters "want their country back," and, to them, Trump reflects their last, best hope of bringing that to fruition.

The third-place finisher in the state, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, was the antithesis to Trump in terms of his voting patterns and of the worldview of his voters. Rubio did best in exactly those places where Trump did worst: the highest-educated and fastest growing counties in the state. The correlation between support for the Florida senator in a county and the percentage of the county's population with a college degree was +.75 (a perfect correlation is +1.0). These are voters most comfortable with a new economy driven by technological change and most optimistic about their futures. They are also the voters least tied to a sense of place, as Rubio also did quite well in those counties growing fastest in population in recent years. (It was relevant that the majority of the key state legislative primaries in which Gov. Hutchinson successfully engaged on behalf of candidates supportive of the continuation of Medicaid expansion were in parts of the state where Rubio over-performed.)

Finally, in addition to winning counties in the Shreveport* media market that also covers the eastern part of his state, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz performed best in those predominantly white and racially homogenous counties in Arkansas where President Obama has performed the worst in his two elections and that are the backbone of the new GOP dominance in the state. This explains Cruz's* especially strong performance in the donut of counties around Pulaski County and in the more suburbanized parts of Northwest Arkansas. At the center of these stable, cocooned communities are institutions responsible for supporting kids' educational, physical and moral development. Thus, the very positive response in these counties' voters to a candidate preaching equal parts moralism and opposition to the president who supports Common Core and marriage equality.

While the candidates they support will change, there are clear signs that three factional lines are sharpening and that the newly dominant GOP will consistently work in a complex political landscape in which three similarly-sized factions coexist: one focused on economic growth, a second focused on protecting its non-diverse communities from outsiders and outside ideas, and a third deeply disturbed by the vast change occurring in a modern America from which they feel disconnected. The coming years will determine whether the voters of Bentonville, Bryant and Bald Knob can peacefully coexist under the same political tent.

A previous version of this column mistakenly described counties in the eastern part of the state covered by the Monroe/El Dorado media market instead of by Shreveport's. It also mistakenly referred to Donald Trump's strong performance — instead of Ted Cruz's — in counties around Pulaski County and more surbanized parts of Northwest Arkansas.   

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