"By the Numbers" is a new regular web-only feature with a goal of illuminating some of the key numbers in Arkansas politics. Have a comment or have a request for a future piece? Email Jay Barth at email@example.com.
In previous works — including our second edition of "Arkansas Politics and Government: Do the People Rule?" — the late Diane Blair and I have contended that this small state is composed of five distinct regions when it comes to its political geography. Two of those regions are reliably Republican in their voting patterns. The first is the historically Republican Northwest Arkansas region where GOP sentiments going back to the Civil War era have been emphatically reinforced by the monstrous growth in the contemporary era that has brought large numbers of economically conservative voters to the area as retirees and workers for the mega-corporations based on the area. A combination of white flight and white-collar new arrivals in the suburbs around Little Rock have created a second reliably, fast-growing Republican region in this donut of counties surrounding Pulaski County.
Although muted by Republicanism around the edges of the county, the combination of African-American voters and white progressives makes Pulaski County a third distinctive "region" that skews decidedly Democratic in its voting patterns. Joining it on the Democratic side is the swath of counties to the southeast covering the Arkansas Delta. While white voters in those counties have converted to Republicanism in national elections, they are typically overwhelmed by reliably Democratic African-American voters to create a second Democratic-leaning region.
Because neither set of regions composes a majority of the state's electorate, modern state elections have been decided in the rural swing counties running diagonally from the southwest corner of the state to the northeast corner skipping over the Little Rock metropolitan area. Predominantly white, sparsely populated, and culturally conservative (one indicator is the fact that almost all are "dry"), this collection of 25 counties swung hard for the "states' rights" campaign of George Wallace in 1968, against George McGovern in 1972, and back again for Jimmy Carter in 1976. Though they remained in the Democratic fold in 1980, they swung wildly again for Ronald Reagan's reelection in 1984 and George Bush in 1988, back again to Arkansan's own Bill Clinton in 1992 and 1996, and back the other direction for George W. Bush in both 2000 and 2004. In 2008, of course, it is these counties that fervently rejected Barack Obama as "not one of them" culturally or racially. While more consistently Democratic in state politics (especially in electing Democratic state legislators and local officials) their role in close state-level contests has been decisive, often delivering wins to Democratic and Republican candidates in the same year as they did for Mike Huckabee and Mark Pryor in 2002. They are counties where Mike Beebe's populist message (pro-minimum wage yet pro-gun; pro-grocery tax repeal yet pro-property rights) led to overwhelming margins in both 2006 and 2010.
As we move towards the 2012 presidential election and the 2014 elections that will determine control of state executive offices, it makes sense to take a snapshot of where the votes are in Arkansas using these five regions as our key categories. The map below shows the percentage of the total popular vote cast in the state in each of the 75 counties in the 2008 election — ranging from Pulaski County (casting nearly 15% of the state's votes) to tiny Calhoun in south Arkansas (casting only 0.2%).
The recent growth in northwest Arkansas and in the suburban counties around Little Rock means that now just 40% of the total Arkansas vote comes from the two most reliably Republican areas of the state. The table below shows the five most Republican skewed counties; specifically, it shows the ratio between the percentage of the county's electorate gained by the GOP nominee and the percentage gained by Democrat Obama (A ratio of 1.0 would mean that the county's electorate contributes exactly the same to the two parties.). Unsurprisingly the Republican-skewed counties include a mix of suburban and northwest Arkansas counties (although it is notable that Grant County, now an increasingly suburban county to the south of Little Rock, was once a consummate rural swing county).
Moreover, while they have yet to achieve a majority of the state's electorate, these areas continue to be the fastest growing areas in the state.
The reliably Democratic areas — Pulaski County and the Delta counties — compose just one-third of the state's electorate. As shown below, the most decidedly skewed counties are all in the Delta with each providing more than twice the votes to the Democratic rolls than they do to the GOP. Pulaski County is just below this group as the 8th most Democratic-skewed county (at 1.91), casting nearly 30% of the state's Democratic vote in most elections.
Clearly, the gap between reliably Republican areas and reliably Democratic counties is significant and growing as population growth in the most Democratic counties is flat or negative. Still, the rural swing counties remain crucial in Arkansas statewide elections. When Democrats can swing these counties decidedly in their direction they can win statewide (in such cases, Democrats have also typically made some inroads into northwest Arkansas and into the suburbs). When they swing in the other direction, however, this typically means a large statewide margin for Republicans. We know which way these counties will swing in the 2012 presidential election; their direction in the 2014 statewide elections remains a decidedly more open question.