How did George W. Bush, who couldn't even win a plurality of the national vote in 2000, win re-election four years later and also become the first person to top 50 percent since his father in 1988? In my Boston Globe column of June 23, I examined changes in the Republican vote, county by county, from one "W" election to the next. You can see the general change in the map below, but I thought it would also be fun, and possibly instructive, to note the individual counties where the GOP share of the vote increased the most. Below the map, I've listed them and speculated on the reasons for Bush's bump. If you're familiar with any of the areas and have better explanations, please pass them along!
BIGGEST % INCREASES FOR BUSH AMONG ALL COUNTIES, 2000-2004
1. Smith County, Tennessee. Total vote: 7,828. Bush percentage: 47.8%, up 15.3 points.
Carthage, the county seat, is the hometown of Al Gore, so it's not surprising that the Republican vote surged once he was off the ballot.
2. Walker County, Alabama. Total vote: 28,367. Bush percentage: 67.8%, up 15.0 points.
Walker is part of the Appalachian region in the northern part of the state, so it probably has more in common with Al Gore's Tennessee than with Alabama's true "Deep South" counties. It's 93 percent white, and it's largest employer is the Walker Baptist Medical Center. The county seat, Jasper, is referred to as the hometown of Sawyer on the TV series Lost.
3. Terrell County, Texas. Total vote: 469. Bush percentage: 65.3%, up 14.3 points.
A tiny county on the Mexican border, this is the setting for the novel and film No Country for Old Men. Its county seat, Sanderson, calls itself the "Cactus Capital of Texas."
4. Wyoming County, West Virginia. Total vote: 8,718. Bush percentage: 57.2%, up 13.1 points.
This 99% white county in the southern part of the state has 20% of its families living below poverty level (more than twice the national average) and only 41% of its adult population in the workforce (vs. the national average of 64%).
5. DeKalb County, Tennessee. Total vote: 7,173. Bush percentage: 51.4%, up 12.9 points.
DeKalb borders Al Gore's Smith County to the south.
6. Harlan County, Kentucky. Total vote: 11,070. Bush percentage: 60.2%, up 12.9 points.
This Appalachian county was once known as "Bloody Harlan" because of the violence surrounding the unionization of coal miners in the 1930s. (See the documenary film Harlan County, USA.) Its population peaked in 1940, with 75,000. By 2000, it was down to 33,000.
7. Harmon County, Oklahoma. Total vote: 1,192. Bush percentage: 70.3%, up 12.9 points.
Oklahoma's second-smallest county, in the southwest corner of the state, is another high-poverty area that is losing residents; its population slid 7 percent, to 3,042 between 2000 and 2006.
8. Haskell County, Texas. Total vote: 2,416. Bush percentage: 63.7%, up 12.9 points.
Paint Creek, in Haskell County, is the hometown of Rick Perry, who succeeded George W. Bush as governor when the latter moved to the White House.
9. Wilson County, Tennessee. Total vote: 44,432. Bush percentage: 65.1%, up 12.6 points.
Another county just to the south of Al Gore's hometown (see No. 1). Its biggest city is Lebanon, home to the headquarters of three regional banks and the Cracker Barrel restaurant chain.
10. Robertson County, Tennessee. Total vote: 25,323. Bush percentage: 60.5%, up 12.6 points.
A half-hour north of Nashville, Robertson County claims to be the state's "leading tobacco growing county," but it's also a major soybean producer. It also boasts the American headquarters of Electrolux, maker of vacuum cleaners and other appliances.
BIGGEST % INCREASES FOR BUSH AMONG COUNTIES CASTING AT LEAST 10,000 VOTES, 2000-2004
1. Walker County, Alabama. See above.
2. Harlan County, Kentucky. See above.
3. Wilson County, Tennessee. See above.
4. Robertson County, Tennessee. See above.
5. Bedford County, Tennessee. Total vote: 13,706. Bush percentage: 60.9%, up 12.5 points.
Bedford County is in the middle of the state horizontally, but somewhat to the south of Gore Country. It's biggest city is Shelbyville -- not the nemesis city to Springfield on The Simpsons, but the home of the Tennessee Walking Horse National Celebration and "The Pencil City" (Sharpie markers are still made here.) According to its Wikipedia entry, the Tyson Foods plant here has a large Muslim contingent in its workforce.
6. Haralson County, Georgia. Total vote: 10,209. Bush percentage: 75.5%, up 12.4 points.
Bordering Alabama, this is at the edge of the Atlanta metro area; reflecting strong population growth, voter turnout here was up 25 percent in 2004. Blacks make up 5 percent of the residents here, much lower than the state average of 30 percent.
7. Lincoln County, Tennessee. Total vote: 12,457. Bush percentage: 62.9%, up 11.9 points.
Just south of Bedford County (see No. 5). Its county seat is Fayetteville, whose motto is "Where tradition meets tomorrow."
8. Randolph County, Missouri. Total vote: 10,198. Bush percentage: 64.2%, up 11.5 points.
Outside of tiny Union County in northern Florida, this was the biggest swing toward Bush in what can be called a swing state. Randolph County is in the "Little Dixie" part of the state (actually, the northwest), which is characterized by weak population growth and a low percentage of college graduates. Given their weakness in southwestern Missouri, Democrats pretty much have to be competitive in this area to carry the state (and perhaps the nation). John Kerry got a weak 35 percent here, but Michael Dukakis actually won the county with 55 percent in 1988. Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill got 43 percent here in 2006 while narrowly winning statewide, so Obama may be happy if he approaches the mid 40s. Both Obama and McCain were soundly beaten here in their respective primaries this spring (the latter losing to Mike Huckabee).
9. Richmond County, New York. Total vote: 160,143. Bush percentage: 56.4%, up 11.4 points.
You were perhaps thinking that all of Bush's gains were in the South? Richmond County, better known as Staten Island, went from solid Democratic to solid Republican between 2000 and 2004. This didn't help Bush in the Electoral College (New York state was still out of reach for him), but it did help him turn a national popular-vote deficit into an irrefutable, asterisk-free re-election. His response to the terrorist attacks of 9/11 undoubtedly helped him here (about a quarter of the firefighters who died at Ground Zero were from Staten Island). The Almanac of American Politics's Michael Barone also notes that this is one of the most Italian areas in the US, and there is a lot of resentment here toward the more culturally liberal parts of New York City; the borough went heavily for Republican Rudy Giuliani in his three mayoral campaigns.
10. Ocean County, New Jersey. Total vote: 256,306. Bush percentage: 60.2%, up 11.3 points.
On the south New Jersey coast, Ocean County is at the edge of the New York City megalopolis, and it's one of the last parts of the metro area that still has robust population growth, mostly from retirees. (Twenty-one percent of the population is over 65.) Fort Dix, a major deployment center for National Guard troops guarding New York and other major cities since 9/11, is just over the county line to the west.
BIGGEST % INCREASES FOR BUSH AMONG COUNTIES CASTING AT LEAST 100,000 VOTES, 2000-2004
1. Richmond County, New York. See above.
2. Ocean County, New Jersey. See above.
3. Rockland County, New York. Total vote: 131,231. Bush percentage: 49.6%, up 10.1 points.
Just west of Westchester, this suburban area is the 9th wealthiest county in the US. Al Gore won it easily, but Bush eked out a victory in 2004. The 9/11 attacks were obviously a factor here, but like many high-income counties, Rockland has a history of swinging toward political parties seeking a second term in the White House. (It took a while for voters here to warm up to Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, and Bill Clinton as well.) If Obama doesn't improve on Kerry's percentage here, he's probably in trouble in swing states where he depends on affluent suburbs, including Colorado, Michigan, and Virginia.
4. Monmouth County, New Jersey. Total vote: 299,939. Bush percentage: 54.6%, up 9.1 points.
Just north of Ocean County (see above), Monmouth skews somewhat younger in age. It's well-above the national average in terms of income and educational attainment; like New York's Rockland County, it has a history of trending toward the incumbent party.
5. Honolulu County, Hawaii. Total vote: 298,547. Bush percentage: 48.3%, up 8.7 points.
Hawaii also has a pro-incumbent slant, and its geographic isolation may make it especially cautious in terms of foreign policy, but no one thinks native son Obama will have any problem here.
6. Kings County, New York. Total vote: 687,884. Bush percentage: 24.3%, up 8.6 points.
In other words, Brooklyn. Al Gore's 81 percent was the biggest percentage won by any presidential candidate here in at least a century; it's not surprising that Kerry couldn't match that in the first election after 9/11. Obama may not need to increase his vote share in order to win New York's electoral votes, but he'll need huge margins in large urban counties like this one if he wants a popular-vote mandate nationwide.
7. Nassau County, New York. Total vote: 618,343. Bush percentage 46.6%, up 8.2 points.
Eastern Long Island. Another solid Gore county of above-average income that got close when an incumbent Republican ran on a "stay the course" platform. Obama got 39,000 votes in this spring's primary while getting beaten almost 2-to-1 by Hillary Clinton; meanwhile, McCain got 36,000 votes while thrashing Mitt Romney on the Republican side of the ballot.
8. New Haven County, Connecticut. Total vote: 366,392. Bush percentage: 43.8%, up 7.7 points.
The eastern end of the line for New York City's commuter-rail system. New Haven County clearly wasn't swayed by John Kerry's New England roots. Still, the home of Yale University gave Obama 51 percent in the Democratic primary, one of his best showings among suburban counties in the Northeast Corridor.
9. Atlantic County, New Jersey. Total vote: 106,097. Bush percentage: 46.6%, up 7.6 points.
Home of Atlantic City, but not a big risk-taker when it comes to presidential elections. As in most of the Northeast Corridor, Bush's second-term jump was similar to those for Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton.
10. Providence County, Rhode Island. Total vote: 231,324. Bush percentage: 35.6%, up 7.5 points.
It's somewhat surprising that Kerry ran behind Gore in a county that borders his home state of Massachusetts. But Providence County is bit unpredictable because of its large independent vote. Ralph Nader got 6 percent here in 2000, one of his highest percentages outside of smaller college counties; could some of that vote have gone to Bush four years later?
BONUS COUNTIES IN SWING STATES:
1. Wise County, Virginia. Total vote: 14,312. Bush percentage: 58.2%, up 9.3 points.
Bush lost ground in much of northern Virginia in 2004 (dropping by 3 points in Fairfax County, for example), but his statewide percentage actually increased a bit -- thanks in part to Appalachian rural counties like Wise, which borders Kentucky. While Democrat Jim Webb did improve on John Kerry's showing here in his successful US Senate campaign of 2006, he still lost the county (getting 46%). In this spring's presidential primary, Hillary Clinton beat Obama here 82-16, so he may need help here. Democrat Tim Kaine got only 38 percent in Wise County when he was elected governor, so he might not be a huge asset as a running mate in Appalachia; then again, he did win the state, so maybe 38 is enough.
2. Shelby County, Indiana. Total vote: 16,027. Bush percentage: 71.1%, up 8.5 points.
Another county with a seat named Shelbyville! No Democratic presidential candidate has won here since 1964, and Obama isn't going to carry it this year, but he'll need at least one-third of the vote in rural counties like this if he's going to pull off the once-implausible feat of winning Indiana's electoral votes. Shelby County is 97 percent white and 13 percent of its adults are college graduates (well below the national average).
3. Sussex County, Delaware. Total vote: 77,749. Bush percentage: 60.5%, up 8.2 points.
Delaware is considered a reasonably safe state for the Democrats, but that's only because Wilmington's New Castle County has overwhelmed the other two counties (yes, there are only three) in recent elections. Sussex County is the bottom third of the state and, unlike New Castle, it's growing rapidly. As an exurban area with a Southern accent, it could be a secret weapon for the GOP.
4. Lea County, New Mexico. Total vote: 18,181. Bush percentage: 79.4%, up 8.1 points.
New Mexico was one of only two states to flip to Bush from 2000 to 2004 (Iowa was the other), and one reason is that heavily Republican counties like this one (in the state's southeast corner and bordering Texas) became even more Republican. Lea has a high poverty rate and is about 40 percent Latino, but it doesn't have much else in common with the South Bronx. Oil -- both drilling it and selling equipment for people to drill elsewhere -- is the major industry here, and a 2006 article in the Albuquerque Journal notes that "soaring oil prices" is good news for Lea.
5. Robeson County, North Carolina. Total vote: 33,871. Bush percentage: 47.0%, up 7.6 points.
The Democratic share of the vote rose in much of North Carolina in 2004, presumably because John Edwards was on the ticket, but the slow-population-growth, poorer counties in the southeastern part of the state went in the opposite direction. Robeson County is unusual in that 38 percent of its population is American Indian (specifically, members of the Lumbee tribe), but I'm not sure if that has anything to do with its trending Republican. The county seat of Robeson County is Lumberton, notorious as the setting for the film Blue Velvet.