Our Political Geography

Does where you live in Knox County determine whether you're conservative or liberal?

Answer this question: Is Knoxville mostly a Republican city—or a Democratic city?

Chances are, you have an opinion. But your answer may depend, with surprising precision, on exactly where you live. Knox County as a whole usually goes Republican, and is a contributing member of red-state Tennessee, considered a lock for John McCain and Sarah Palin. Go to a pool party in Farragut or a buffet restaurant in West Knoxville or a Baptist church picnic in Strawberry Plains, and you're unmistakably in McCain country.

But attend a festival downtown, even if the event has no political intent—or a backyard barbecue in Fourth and Gill or Parkridge or Fort Sanders or Island Home or even certain parts of Vestal—and you may easily gather that the city is Obama-mad.

Not only will you find staunch partisans, you'll find people who find it hard to believe that any thinking person can possibly support the other candidate. And they're all conforming to a national pattern that's decades old. But not necessarily very simple to explain.

YOU CAN SEE SOME EVIDENCE of our politically balkanized community even before the election.

It's doubtful whether yard signs do much good in terms of persuasion, but they may fill a psychological need and help identify friends, perhaps sort of like lightning bugs do; but on a more basic level, they do help us map Knoxville's political topography. The Bush and Kerry campaigns of 2004 sprouted yard signs all over the city and county. Some observed then that the John Kerry yard signs were common close in to town, but got sparser the farther west you went—until, around Bearden Hill, they nearly vanished and Bush signs began to predominate, more overwhelmingly the farther west you went. The same thing happened as one traveled away from downtown to the north, east, and south. The farther you lived away from downtown, it seemed, the more Republican you were.

The phenomenon seems to be in play again, though both yard signs and bumper stickers seem scarce this year. Both local campaigns admit their national campaigns aren't spending a whole lot of money on Tennessee, which in '08 is considered a sure thing for the Republicans. However, today some office windows on Gay Street have Obama signs of an eccentric design by neighbor Yee-Haw Industries, the Gay Street print shop, which displays more of them in its own windows.

A census of bumper stickers in the Market Square parking garage last Thursday night turned up only a handful of stickers, but all were for Obama. The same day at far West Knoxville's Turkey Creek, a drive around the Super Target and Wal-Mart parking lots found only a few stickers, all for McCain.

An hour-long drive around West Knoxville and Farragut turned up about a dozen McCain/Palin yard signs. McCain/Palin signs seemed at least as frequent, on the other side of the county, in the Strawberry Plains/Riverdale area. Maybe fewer than expected, but they outnumbered Obama signs, which, on both those suburban/rural drives, numbered approximately zero. Even the innovative new-urbanist development Northshore Town Center, a small nest of progressive residents in what's planned to be a pedestrian-friendly setting, sports one yard sign, and it's for McCain.

However, most residents seem to be keeping their opinions to themselves this year. Bumper stickers and political yard signs in general seem to be scarcer than in recent memory. Maybe it's the solemn economic times, or the confident assumptions about Tennessee's McCain loyalties—or maybe it's because they mostly seem to be purchase-only this year. Signs and stickers used to be handed out free. Perhaps yard signs and bumper stickers, neither of which existed a couple of generations ago, are just going out of style.

The best way to tell how people feel about politics, of course, is how they vote. The Knox County Election Commission's records of the 2000 and 2004 presidential races, and the 2006 senatorial race, show Knox County in fascinating relief.

When it's all totalled, Knox County as a whole tilts Republican. No surprise there. It's gone that way in the overwhelming majority of federal-level races since the latter 1860s: Reconstruction, that is. When the Republicans were the big-government civil-rights party, much despised throughout the rest of the South, Knox first started going Republican.

Knox County as a whole always goes Republican in presidential races. By the parlance of Bush-era political analysts, it's red, a dutiful contributor to a red state.

However, the red wash obscures deeper complexity. It's just as predictable—though less obvious, because we have to add up the tallies from political precincts to get it—that in presidential races, the City of Knoxville usually goes Democratic.

Many assume the University of Tennessee has something to do with the city Democrat phenomenon, but 10S, the on-campus precinct, was one of the more Republican urban districts, 50-49 percent for Bush. It was also one of the most evenly divided precincts in the county. Even more evenly split was precinct 25, the Vestal area of South Knoxville, where more than 500 votes were cast at the South Knoxville Community Center, and Bush won the precinct by a single vote; the 32nd precinct, Spring Hill Elementary in Northeast Knoxville near Knoxville Center, had exactly the same result. And the Pond Gap area, north of Bearden, reached a 282-282 tie.

Precinct 26, which includes the Island Home and Lindbergh Forest sections, went to Kerry by a narrow margin. In fact, much of South Knoxville, which is overwhelmingly white and has a long reputation for conservatism, tilted toward the Democrats in '04. South of Moody Avenue, farther away from the city, South Knoxville is more decidedly Republican.

The higher-numbered precincts, those with tract numbers over 50, are all suburban or rural, outside of city limits or on the border. And all Knox County's precincts with numbers higher than 50 are Republican. It doesn't seem to matter which direction from town they are, or whether they're occupied by old farmers' families or by affluent professionals in huge new houses—they're all Republican, and most of them by a wide margin.

IT'S TEMPTING TO THINK OF INDIVIDUAL PEOPLE WE KNOW, and speculate about reasons why there might be such a sharp residential divide. But Knoxville's voting patterns seem to reflect, graphically, national trends that are only now being discussed, not to say understood. A new book, The Big Sort, which got a good deal of attention this past summer, touches on the issue. Texas author Bill Bishop's main thesis is that over the last 30 years, America has been sorting itself out into Republican and Democratic extremes, and in so doing, almost abolishing any center ground and the prospects for understanding or reasonable compromise. Bishop observes that the more people isolate themselves among people who agree with them, the more extreme their views tend to become.

Moreover, the author says, America's tilting toward the extremes of both parties shows geographically, almost like internal organs in a PET scan. And not just in the comparatively mild red-state vs. blue-state divisions. According to Bishop, as of the 2004 presidential election, almost half of all American counties are described as "landslide counties," which favored either Bush or Kerry by 20 or more percentage points. That percentage is almost twice as high as it was in the Carter/Ford race of 1976, a time when Bishop holds Americans were much more likely to know, as neighbors, partisans of the opposite political side—know them and even respect their points of view.

Knox County was a "landslide county" in 2004—one of comparatively few urban counties that were landslides for the Republicans—but it's also a county full of landslide neighborhoods, several of which slid the opposite way. Knox County has precincts that are more liberal than Massachusetts, and precincts that are more conservative than Utah.

Knox County's example illustrates a pattern which is remarkably consistent nationwide: Democrats live in the city; Republicans live in the suburbs or in the country. In recent years some theorists have made some astonishing discoveries. Population density alone, it turns out, can be an accurate predictor of how a county votes. The lower the density, the more Republican it is.

So it's not just a Knox County eccentricity: Throughout America, the farther away you live from your neighbors, the more likely you are to vote Republican.

It sounds absurd, at first, but it's apparently so clear that it can be quantified. According to studies of the 2000 and 2004 elections, counties that favored Bush had an average density of only 108-110 people per square mile, a figure considered rural or suburban.

In 2000, counties tilting for Gore had an average density almost seven times greater, of 739 people per square mile. In 2004, Kerry's appeal was even more urban; the average pro-Kerry county hosted 836 people per square mile.

A nationwide study conducted at Virginia Tech by Robert Lang and Thomas Sanchez found a correlation that's almost flabbergasting: "As population density decreases from the urban core to the rural periphery, Mr. Bush's share of the vote increases.... At each greater increment of urban intensity, Democrat John Kerry received a higher proportion of the vote."

There must be exceptions. As of 2000, Knox County was home to 751 people per square mile, a respectably semi-urban density that suggests we should have gone decidedly for Gore in 2000. And potentially for Kerry in '04. All other factors being equal, that is—as they're not, necessarily, in this dyed-in-the-wool, Republican-since-Reconstruction county. Songwriter R.B. Morris compares East Tennessee's Republicanism to Volmania, a permanent and unalterable loyalty, unswayed by changing personnel and strategy. "They couldn't imagine ever voting for a Democrat," he says. "It would be like rooting for Alabama."

But examined on a precinct level, the county is a textbook illustration of the density-politics principle. Knox County's precinct voting reveals ideological extremes, voting populaces so one-sided that no city or state in America can match them.

In 2004, Knox County District 12—the part of East Knoxville closest to downtown—went more than 92 percent for John Kerry. In its voting patterns, that precinct, and several near it, are much more liberal than, say, New York.

The same day, Precinct 92, rural Gap Creek, in southeast Knox County—suburbanizing farm country near the French Broad River—went almost 82 percent for George W. Bush. That section is so conservative it might startle an Alabaman. Between those two extremes is almost every shade of Republican or Democratic tilt: No matter where you're from, there's a Knoxville precinct that votes something like your home state. And its voting patterns generally align with population density and proximity to the historic urban center.

But what accounts for it? That turns out to be a good question, without simple answers. And lurking behind it is a more unsettling and even harder to answer question: Do we choose our houses based on our political ideology—or is our political ideology determined by where, precisely, we live?

In his high-ceilinged office in the old Knox County Courthouse, Administrator of Elections Greg Mackay of the Knox County Election Commission admits he's stumped. "It's pretty obvious, though," he says. "That's what the voting reveals." He's read theories about political "clustering," but doesn't know why it might have so consistently an urban vs. rural dynamic to it.

"I don't think it's education," he says, looking at a map. "I don't think it's just race," though African Americans, centered in the inner city, tend to be loyally Democratic. Some urban Democratic precincts are predominantly white.

"I don't know what it is," says Mackay.

IT'S NOT OBVIOUS THAT POPULATION DENSITY should be inherently un-Republican. The GOP touts traditional American ideals and lifestyles, and the high-density American town, Mayberry or Bedford Falls, with the butcher and baker and banker down the street, are traditional Americana from a Frank Capra movie or a patriotic TV ad, the kind with the flag floating in slow motion over Main Street. A video producer trying to show what the troops are fighting for is not likely to show interstate traffic or suburban strip malls with big parking lots, which may be a more realistic daily scenario for some so-called "Wal-Mart Republicans."

Knoxville, a century ago, was more culturally conservative than it is today, in many respects, but also four times more densely populated than it is now. The car-driven suburban lifestyle might one day be remembered by historians as the most disruptively radical development in American society of the latter 20th century. Why should it be, necessarily, Republican?

In Chattanooga in the 1990s, Republican city councilman and Chamber of Commerce executive David Crockett swam against a strong current in an attempt to prove that population density should be a Republican ideal. Concentrated communities demand less infrastructure like roads and utilities, he explained, fewer public buildings like libraries and schools, fewer miles driven by public vehicles, and less demand for tax dollars. Suburban residents are more expensive to provide basic services to than urban residents, he said. Keeping taxes low has been the most consistent of Republican principles, and the best way to reduce taxes, Crockett thought, might be to re-inhabit the downtown, and get people living closer to each other again.

Knoxville may not have Republican leaders who lay it out exactly like that, but several local Republican politicians have touted downtown development, getting valuable downtown property on the tax rolls, as a way to control taxation of residents as a whole.

But demographics would suggest that in the real world, Republicans just don't like to live close to lots of other people, even if there's a potential tax reduction and even if the other people are Republicans.

Of course, some of the self-sorting makes sense, on a personal level. People who make a priority of keeping their taxes low—and that describes many Republicans—are people who might not voluntarily choose to live inside the city, where property taxes are much higher. Reduction of federal responsibility doesn't necessarily imply reduction of state or local government, and in many cases a reduction in federal taxes might actually increase the need to raise local funds for, say, road-building. But Republicans want small government on the federal level, and some want smaller government on the local level, too. Government is certainly smallest in the countryside, beyond city limits.

Gun rights offers another example of a likely city-country divide. A middle-class city dweller in Knoxville might easily go a year, or a decade, without ever seeing a gun, or thinking much about one. To many, strong conviction on the part of gun-owners is only puzzling. Guns are more elemental to the country life; a rural dweller is more likely to hunt, more likely to shoot skeet, more likely to have to control varmints—and less likely to be confident that the police would arrive quickly if they suspected a prowler outside the window. (In part, of course, because there's less tax-supported law enforcement per square mile in the country than in the city.)

Though gun control has not been a Democratic candidate's outspoken cause in recent memory, gun rights has been a Republican totem for the last 30 years or so. Some country dwellers say they're attracted to the party mainly for that reason.

Automobile use and/or dependency, which is universal in suburban and rural areas, has a natural constituency in the Republican Party, which is traditionally lighter on air-quality regulations and drilling restrictions. A city dweller who needs to drive shorter distances for the necessities and has other transportation options may need to buy less than 10 gallons a week; rising gas prices may seem more a curiosity than an urgent home-budget crisis. A rural or suburban dweller who uses 40 gallons a week is more likely to rally to the Palin battle cry, "Drill, drill, drill!"

At the same time, the rural or suburban dweller may care less about the sort of public works that government funds: the ballet that finds its constituency only in the downtown performing-arts center, or the central library, or public transit.

Corey Johns, vice chair of the Knox County Republican Party and a political science scholar, has observed the phenomenon for years, and remarks that it's consistent with national phenomena. As for explaining it, and determining whether the neighborhood or the political conviction comes first, Johns answers, "That might be a question for a sociologist." That said, he has a few offhand ideas.

"There's a socioeconomic aspect to it," Johns says. "Those who tend to live in lower-income areas and use assistance from the federal government, the entitlement programs, tend to favor the candidates who support those programs." Democrats are more likely to support public programs and affirmative action, which has a natural appeal to minorities and the poor—and the poor tend to live in the inner city, where, despite problems, it's at least possible to live without the expense of a car. Knoxville's most Democratic precincts are those with the highest percentage of black residents.

People in the suburbs, being more affluent, pay the higher taxes, and sometimes resent it. "That's a gross simplification," Johns admits. "But there's something there."

Also, Johns says, it's a clash of values. "The cultural values of folks in metropolitan areas tend to be more liberal," he says, speculating that rural people are closer to their churches, and their churches' particular religious perspectives on abortion or homosexuality. There are thousands of churchgoers in both the city and the country, but Johns says he thinks rural people are closer to their churches and religious values than city people are.

Why rural people might be more motivated about religious or moral issues than city people isn't perfectly clear, but much of the national dialogue about abortion and homosexuality has been set by the Baptist church, especially the Southern Baptist Convention. In the 1970s, that confederacy of churches became more politically active than it had ever been before, reacting to relatively recent social developments like legal abortion and open homosexuality. Beginning with Reagan, Republican politicians have joined forces with the rural morals-based agenda.

Johns also admits that selective campaigning plays some part. Part of Bush advisor Karl Rove's strategy in 2000 was to appeal especially strongly to suburban voters. But that's probably not a determining fact. "You go picking where the cherries are," Johns says. Republicans campaign in places where they're likely to have effect, and that seems to be in the suburbs.

That targeting may be reflected in where the local campaigns' headquarters are: The McCain/Palin HQ is in the middle of West Knoxville, in a strip mall at Downtown West, in precinct 47E, which went for Bush 52-47 in '04. The Obama/Biden headquarters is in the old Farragut Building downtown, half a block off Gay Street. The downtown precinct, number 6, has long voted Democratic.

Some wonder how the multitude of affluent residents, several hundred new ones since the last election, might change that figure. But judging by other upscale neighborhoods like Fourth and Gill, density still seems a more telling factor than affluence. That neighborhood of mostly owner-occupied homes, most valued well into the six figures, went 2-1 for Kerry in '04, and judging by the yard signs, Fourth and Gill is one of the county's more Democratic neighborhoods this year.

Obama campaigners have been conspicuous on Market Square for months, selling pins and stickers at tables, registering voters. Volunteers say downtown events like the weekly farmers' markets have been receptive to the Obama message. McCain campaigners have been scarce downtown this year, though they did set up a table at the Happy Hollerpalooza, the North Knoxville street fair last Saturday, just north of downtown.

At Obama headquarters, Veteran volunteer Colette Magoon affirms that most of their volunteers come from the city, especially commission districts 1 and 2, or from Farragut, which she says seems to have a healthy Obama contingent. "We'll have to see whether that translates into votes," she says. Their sparsest support is in the 8th district of rural East Knox.

The only one in the Obama office to hazard a guess as to why is the youngest volunteer today, the kid in the Vols cap and the Cleveland Browns jersey. "People in the city know people from different backgrounds, different religions, political values, and races," says Chris Ivey, originally from Farragut and a finance major at UT. "They tend to develop an open mind, and go toward the Democrats."

It seems a favorite explanation among Democrats, several of whom speculated, some of them off the record, that people who live near lots of other people tend to be more open-minded through their exposure to a greater diversity of citizens, and are less likely to combine religion or morality with politics, or to feel any acute suspicions about minorities, including gays and even illegal immigrants. To be fair, though, most who offered that opinion were describing themselves, and could be accused of self-flattery.

Gavin Luter holds the office of coordinator for the University of Tennessee's Baker Center for Public Policy, and has some background in political science and voter-registration drives. "As cheesy as it may seem, it may go back to Hillary Clinton, and ‘It takes a village,'" he says. "Residents in high population density areas realize that it's a lot more people than just me, and we have to coexist."

UT architecture Professor Marleen Davis has made a study about how physical environment affects people, particularly in regard to density. Urban dwellers, she says, "are more interdependent in establishing a livable community in close quarters," she says. "Government is more necessary, more visible, and perhaps more appreciated. Government provides essential services for a functional community and protects individual freedoms: traffic control, infrastructure, police, crime prevention, firefighters, transportation systems, parks, etc." The Democratic Party tends to be associated with the idea that government is good, and more government is sometimes better.

"The lifestyle of rural residents requires a high degree of self-reliance in isolated settings, heightening a sense of independence," Davis says. "Even though the Republican Party has long been associated with wealth and deregulation of big business, Ronald Reagan was effective in articulating a message that resonated with the American sense of self-reliance and individualism: ‘Government isn't the solution, it's the problem.' Rural residents respond readily to anti-government sentiment of Republicans because they see government as an interference in a lifestyle that is built on self-reliance."

As for Republicans, Luter says they may regard individual responsibility a higher value than tolerance and believe "I can spend my money better than the government can." But does that suggest a necessity of low-density development? A few downtowners wonder how the influx of wealthy residents will affect downtown's historically Democratic tendencies. Can you be an individualist in a condo? Does rugged individualism in the 21st century always imply acreage?

JOHNS SAYS KNOX COUNTY HAS ITS OWN BATTLEGROUNDS. In County Commission terms, he says, the 4th and 6th district are battlegrounds. They tend to be the fringes of the city, the places where suburban meets urban. Hence, he says, the concern for the proverbial "soccer mom." The family that lives between the city and the green Tennessee countryside, preoccupied, several days of the year, with a European sport.

There are exceptions to every rule, certainly this one. Luter has been interested to encounter white middle-aged people living in public housing in South Knoxville who are hardcore Republicans who would never consider voting Democratic. Another respondent with some experience in the matter claims there are lots of Obama supporters in the country. "Hillbillies are for Obama," he says. "Rednecks are for McCain. There's a big difference, you know."

SOME DIVISIVE ISSUES DO SEEM TO REFLECT THE CITY-COUNTRY DIVIDE. But what of defense? Health care? Where's the urban-rural split there? Are city people less overtly patriotic than country people? Less concerned about defense, or less likely to support any given war? More concerned about affordable health care? How about foreign policy?

Next month, probably, Tennessee will be awash in red. In state maps, the urban counties of Nashville and Memphis will show up as blue. East Tennessee, including Knox County, will be red, indistinguishable from Georgia and Alabama and most of the rest of the state of Tennessee.

Does how we vote reflect where we live? Or is it the other way around? Do we move to neighborhoods because we like their politics—or do our neighborhoods, after a few years of adjustment, determine how we vote? Author Bill Bishop cites interesting psychological studies suggesting we do choose our ideologies not so much from innate personal conviction, but in order to conform to the people we encounter most often, especially our neighbors. Disagreement, we've found, is stressful.

But it could be that neither explanation is perfectly apt. Maybe we move to where we want to live, and deal with the joys and challenges of it, and politics wraps around us. Political machinery has become more sophisticated in recent years that today, a carefully wrought campaign can find us where we live, and redefine itself to describe us.

Maybe the Republican Party, once the party of urbane sophisticates like Thomas Dewey and Henry Cabot Lodge and Nelson Rockefeller, has reconfigured itself to flow around the cities. Maybe the Democratic Party, once the party of the Southern farmer, has become the urban party. Look at the candidates they've picked: Barack Obama, from Chicago, one of the nation's biggest and highest-density cities. Joe Biden's from Wilmington, Delaware, which is a small city, but high in population density. The Republicans chose John McCain, from Arizona, and then Sarah Palin, from Alaska, two states with population densities so low they make East Tennessee look urban. Alaska, in fact, has the lowest population density in America, with only 1.2 people per square mile. A scholar looking for evidence that the Democrats and Republicans are evolving into the City Party and the Country Party might find plenty of anecdotal evidence for it.

Of course, neither party has a particularly consistent ideology. A Democrat who favors gun control isn't literally liberal on that subject. And there's nothing inherently conservative about insisting the federal government should help control gasoline prices. Maybe parties today are more like football teams, recruiting appealing prospects in the form of demographic swaths of America, which express themselves every few years, with an interesting degree of definition, as voting precincts.