The Fastest Growing Counties Stay Republican, But Does It Matter?

If there's one statistic I remember hearing over and over after the 2004 presidential election, it's this: Bush won 97 of the 100 fastest growing counties ...
by | November 7, 2008

If there's one statistic I remember hearing over and over after the 2004 presidential election, it's this: Bush won 97 of the 100 fastest growing counties in country. That fact, as much as anything else, seemed to herald a lasting Republican majority.

Since the Republican majority didn't last, I was curious to figure out who won the fastest growing counties this time around. As it turns out, they're still Republican territory. By my count (using data from Dave Leip's Atlas of U.S. Presidential Elections), John McCain won 85 of the 100 fastest growing counties. That number might change slightly as vote totals are refined, but it won't change dramatically.

That finding raises two questions: How was Barack Obama able to be elected president without winning the places with the most population growth? And, does McCain's strength in these areas still suggest that the long-term prospects of the G.O.P. are bright?

The first question is pretty easy to answer. Most of the fast-growing counties aren't especially large in population. Only two, Clark County, Nevada and Riverside County, California, have populations over 1 million. Obama won both of those. Ninety-one of them have populations under 500,000.

Democrats have succeeded recently by dominating in the most populous jurisdictions -- including cities and large suburbs -- and surviving everywhere else. When you do that, you can afford to lose the majority of counties. The map of the presidential vote in Pennsylvania, where Obama won a double-digit victory while losing the vast majority of counties, is a good example of that.

It's clear that Obama did survive in that "everywhere else." McCain only improved on Bush's performance in 22 percent of counties, most of which were in reliable red states in the South.

That, of course, gets at the answer to the second question. Just because these counties are growing a lot and just because Republicans are winning them, that doesn't necessarily mean that the growth is in Republican voters. Many counties are becoming less Republican as they grow (or, at least, became less Republican in 2008), reducing their punch for the G.O.P.

Also, it's worth noting that the fastest-growing counties are concentrated in a relatively small number of states. Eighteen of them are in Georgia and twelve of them are in Texas. So, from an electoral standpoint, these counties are less significant than they might appear on the surface. In the short term, Republicans never were going to maintain a majority just by winning the fastest growing counties.

In the long term, though, there is still some good news for the Republicans. Fast-growing counties tend to be in fast-growing red states. By one estimate, states that Obama carried will lose a net total of seven electoral votes before the 2012 election because of reapportionment (eight if he pulls out Missouri). That won't get Republicans a lasting majority, but it should give them at least a little bit of solace. 

Josh Goodman
Josh Goodman  |  Former Staff Writer
mailbox@governing.com  | 

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