The Chronicle Review

Running for President on a Divided Continent

Colin Woodward

June 25, 2012

During the recent presidential primaries, we heard a great deal, as we do every election year, about the founding fathers, and how their ideals, intents, and religious views were allegedly reflected in the policies and life stories of various candidates and opposed by their dastardly, un-American rivals. In a politically polarized America, it was—and still is—argued, we must consult the founders' writings, probe their biographies, contact them with our Ouija boards if need be to determine what they would have done if confronted with, say, a defense-allocation bill or a proposal to regulate traders of derivatives. If we only did so, we would find our lost sense of common purpose, restore our civic virtue, and return the union to unity.

But those arguments are frustrated by the simple fact that the men who came together to confront a common enemy in 1775 and to craft an enduring alliance in the late 1780s were not our country's founders, but rather the founders' great- or great-great-, or great-great-great-great-grandchildren.

The real founders—early-17th-century Puritans and Dutch West India Company officials, mid-17th-century English aristocrats, late-17th-century West Indian slave lords and English Quakers, early-18th-century frontiersmen from Ulster and the lowlands of Scotland and so on—didn't create an America, they created several Americas.

Some of these American societies championed individualism, others utopian social reform. Some believed themselves guided by divine purpose, others by freedom of conscience and inquiry. Some embraced an Anglo-Protestant identity, others ethnic and religious pluralism.

Over the past half-century, scholars and political observers including Raymond Gastil, David Hackett Fischer, Joel Garreau, and Kevin Phillips have explored aspects of these separate regional cultures, but nobody had yet assembled the full picture, either spatially (the continent as a whole) or historically (over the four centuries since the territory of the present United States was first colonized.)

As I reveal in my recent book, American Nations, throughout the colonial period these regional cultures regarded one another as competitors, and occasionally as enemies, as was the case during the English Civil War, when Royalist Virginia stood against Puritan Massachusetts.

Only when London began treating its American colonies as a single unit—and enacted policies threatening to nearly all—did some of these distinct societies briefly come together to win a war of liberation and create a joint government. Nearly all of them would seriously consider leaving this new union in the 80-year period after the Battle of Yorktown; two of the cultures went to war to do so in the 1860s.

Recognizing these centuries-old cultures makes our history a lot easier to understand (see related story). The fault lines appear on the county-level maps of most closely contested presidential elections, and in recent Congressional debates over health-care reform, financial-industry regulation, and the debt ceiling.

Which brings us back to this election cycle. The recent primaries demonstrate that America's most essential and abiding divisions are not between red states and blue states, conservatives and liberals, capital and labor, blacks and whites, the faithful and the secular. Rather, our divisions stem from this fact: The United States is a federation comprised of the whole or part of 11 regional nations, shown in the map above. Some of them truly do not see eye-to-eye with one another, and despite the rise of Wal-Mart, Starbucks, and the Internet, there is little indication that they are melting into some sort of unified American culture.

This winter and spring, the invisible map of our underlying regional cultures exerted a remarkable degree of influence on both parties' presidential primaries, and in November it will play an outsized role in the dynamics of the general election.

The chief reason the Republican nomination contest lasted as long as it did is that three of the four leading candidates had strong regional affiliations and, thus, were mistrusted and despised by voters from regions with opposing values and ideals.

Mitt Romney, born, bred, and elected to statewide office in Yankeedom, swept Yankee-settled areas, including every single county in Massachusetts and Vermont and comfortable majorities in Maine, New Hampshire, Wisconsin, Michigan, and the Western Reserve of Ohio and Yankee far north of Illinois, to which he owes his victories in those two states. Romney's Yankee conservatism and (Yankee-influenced) Mormon background also gave him a leg up in the Far West; he won Alaska and crushed his rivals in Wyoming, Idaho, and Nevada, and the Far Western portions of Arizona (the northern two-thirds), and Washington State (the eastern two-thirds, which he won handily in aggregate). Not surprisingly, he also clinched Left Coast parts of Oregon and Washington. (His only real rival in these regions was Ron Paul, an idiosyncratic figure without clear regional policy positions or identification.)

Rick Santorum was born and raised in Appalachia and elected to statewide office in Pennsylvania, a state bitterly contested between its Appalachian and Midlands sections. True to this heritage, he appealed to GOP voters from those two regions and did poorly almost everywhere else. On Super Tuesday, he took Appalachian-dominated Tennessee and Oklahoma and won nearly every Midlander county in Ohio, plus most of the Appalachian ones. (Romney routed him in Cincinnati.) Many pollsters were surprised by Santorum's easy victories in Mississippi and (especially) Alabama, on March 13. Had they weighted their polls to reflect those states' divided regional origins, they might have done better. In the Deep South parts of those states, the race was close. But Santorum crushed his opponents—including the "Southerner" Newt Gingrich—in the Appalachian sections of both states, winning almost every county by double-digit margins. By contrast, Santorum's earlier, hairbreadth victory in Iowa received little help from that state's handful of Yankee counties. He lost Illinois, but in the Appalachian-settled southern third of the state, he won nearly every county by 20 points or more.

Newt Gingrich was born in Pennsylvania but moved to the Deep South for high school and college and has stayed for his entire academic and political career. His presidential candidacy had little traction outside the Deep South and had only patchy support even there. He did win the Deep South portions of South Carolina and northern Florida, but lost (more cosmopolitan) Central Florida to Romney. He won all but three counties in Georgia (Atlanta and Savannah went for Romney) but lost every Deep South county in Tennessee and Louisiana to Santorum, along with most of those in Alabama and Mississippi. Indeed, Republicans didn't see fit to give Gingrich victory in a single one of the hundreds of counties in Yankeedom, the Midlands, or the Left Coast. In fact, the only counties he won outside his home region are in Appalachia—almost all of them in Georgia—save for rural Bent County, Colorado, in the Far West.

For the record, one has to exclude Virginia from this analysis (Santorum and Gingrich weren't on the ballot there) plus all of the contests after April 10, when Santorum dropped out. (If you're curious: Tidewater Republicans in the southern part of Maryland went for Romney on April 3.)

There was never any doubt that President Barack Obama would get his party's nomination. Nonetheless, his campaign received a scare in May from the shocking strength of no-name challengers in Democratic primaries in Greater Appalachia. In West Virginia, 41 percent of his party's voters cast their ballots for a Texan prison inmate, while 42 percent of Kentucky Democrats preferred "uncommitted." Obama won Arkansas, 58 to 41 percent, but lost many of that state's Appalachian counties by 30 to 50 percentage points to John Wolfe Jr., an attorney from the Appalachian part of Tennessee.

That, too, should not have been a surprise. There's a fascinating map on the Internet that shows the counties where Obama got a lower share of the 2008 electoral vote than John Kerry had in 2004. They form a solid, nearly contiguous mass extending from southwestern Pennsylvania to north-central Texas, a near match for my map of Greater Appalachia. Even in 2008, at the height of his popularity, Appalachia disliked Obama, a fact some conservative pundits have celebrated.

There's a catch: Appalachian voters also dislike Romney, who, like Obama, is a Harvard-educated Yankee with a questionable commitment to the Southern evangelical worldview. Greater Appalachia has always been a lost cause for Mr. Obama, but Mr. Romney is unlikely to inspire a rush to the polls to bolster his chances of taking key swing states like Ohio, Missouri, and Pennsylvania, each of which have significant Appalachian sections.

Indeed, November's election is unusual in that it features two men who have identical regional strengths and weaknesses. Obama was born and raised outside the 11 "nations" (in Hawaii and Indonesia), but he has spent almost his entire career in Yankeedom, whose values and political priorities he largely reflects. Like Romney, he is strong in New Netherland, the Left Coast, and Far West (Obama won Colorado and Nevada in 2008 and nearly took Montana), and weak in the Appalachia and the Deep South.

Superimposed on the Electoral College map, this makes for a close election, with Romney's candidacy pushing back the Democratic advance on the Far West but perhaps failing to inspire crucial turnout in Appalachian sections of swing states like Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Missouri. In the end, the election will very likely be decided in the Midlands and Tidewater, whose voters remain up for grabs.

Colin Woodard is a longtime Chronicle correspondent and a state- and national-affairs writer at the Portland Press Herald and Maine Sunday Telegram, in Portland. His most recent book is American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America (Viking).