Boston Rambles

Boston Rambles

A Rambler Walks and Talks About the Hub of the Universe

How Blue is Boston?

Boston has a reputation as a very liberal city. I have been a student of Boston elections for over two decades and my research suggests that the city is not as liberal as its national reputation warrants. Is it possible to determine the relative “liberalness” of Boston? Part of this project is dedicated to analyzing data about the city of Boston and politics provides a rich source of data. I also want to situate Boston on the spectrum of large cities both in the United States and internationally.  In order to begin to understand both Boston in relation to other cities as well as the Boston voter in particular, I will start with a comparison of election data for the large cities of the United States. Specifically, I want to investigate how liberal the voters in the city of Boston are relative to those in other large cities.

I will do this by comparing the results of the 2012 presidential election for the 26 largest cities in the country according to the 2010 United States Census. Why 26 cities? As of 2010, there were 26 cities with a population over 600,000 inhabitants. This includes the principal city of  the eight largest metropolitan areas and all but two of the principal cities of the 14 metropolitan areas with more than 4 million inhabitants . There are problems with this data set: it does not include Miami *(9 ) or Atlanta* (11), for example, which are ‘too small’ as cities to qualify, and it includes ‘pseudo-cities’ like Fort Worth (really a part of the Dallas metro area), and Jacksonville (40), which are really not as large as the data suggests (as I discussed in an earlier entry, I have problems with some of these ‘cities’. See ‘What is Boston‘).

In order to make this comparison it will be necessary to use the counties in which each city is located as a substitute for the cities, as most of the election data in other states is presented at the county level.  This too has its problems as some cities make up 100% of the counties in which they are located (New York, Philadelphia, San Francisco) while others make up under 40% of their counties (Phoenix, Seattle, Los Angeles), and the counties vary wildly in area from 47 to 9200 square miles. It is a start however, and as I will discuss, the results are still quite interesting.

Below shows a table I created  to compare the election results of the largest cities in the United States. I used Dave Leip’s Atlas of United States Presidential Elections as my source for the election data and the US Census Data for 2010 for population data. The city population is followed by the county population and the percentage of the population of the county that is from the specific city listed. Following this are the county data for total votes and the votes for the Democratic candidate for President in 2012, Barack Obama, as well as the percentage of the total vote taken by the Democratic candidate. The next column shows the total vote as a percentage of the total population (which includes non-voting populations, such as immigrants who are not citizens, as well as people under 18). The final column shows the area of each county illustrating how deceptive some of the population data can be (for instance, El Paso County is over 1,000 miles square with 1.1 million people, about the size of the state of Rhode Island. Of this population, the city of El Paso makes up over 80% of the population of the county, the same as Boston’s population relative to Suffolk County, which is only 58 square miles in area but contains over 700,000 inhabitants).

RankCityPopulation (2010)County, StatePopulation (2010)City as % of County PopTotal Votes (2012)Obama Votes (2012)% DemocraticTotal votes as % of PopArea (sq. Miles
1New York81751335 counties8175133100.0%2457636199533181.19%30.06%303
2Los Angeles3792621Los Angeles981860538.6%3181067221690369.69%32.40%4058
7San Antonio1327407Bexar171477377.4%51471026485651.46%30.02%1240
8San Diego1307402San Diego309531342.2%119394962695752.51%38.57%4206
10San Jose945942Santa Clara178164253.1%64427745081869.97%36.16%1290
13San Francisco805235San Francisco805235100.0%36179530172383.40%44.93%47
16Fort Worth741206Tarrant180903441.0%61089025307141.43%33.77%864
19El Paso649121El Paso80064781.1%17270311295265.40%21.57%1013
21Baltimore620961Baltimore City620961100.0%25400522147887.19%40.91%81
24Washington601723District of Columbia601723100.0%29377426707090.91%48.82%61
26Denver600138Denver City600138100.0%30241822201873.41%50.39%153
United States3087455383087455381292376426591850751.01%41.86%3535948
%US Total11.55%18.70%16.13%20.83%0.95%


The first thing to notice is that these 26 cities, located in 30 counties (New York has 5 counties), make up less than 1% of the total land area of the United States but nearly 20% of the population. This is despite the fact that the counties surrounding cities such as Middlesex County near Boston and any county near New York, which are small in area but large in population, are not included, while Maricopa County, the bulk of which is the desert around the Phoenix Metropolitan Area, is included and makes up over a quarter of the total area of the 30 counties.

The second thing to notice is that all but three of the counties shown voted for Barack Obama in 2012. Only Tarrant County (Fort Worth), Duval County (Jacksonville), and the aforementioned Maricopa County (Phoenix) voted for Mitt Romney in 2012. All the rest voted for Barack Obama, sometimes by very large margins. Washington DC tops the list at 91% support for Obama, with New York, San Francisco, Baltimore, and Philadelphia all supporting the Democratic ticket with more than 80% of the vote.

Incidentally, these are 5 of the seven smallest counties by area on the list and all the listed cities are coterminous with county in which they are listed. The sixth of these small counties is Suffolk County, where Boston makes up 86% of the county. Suffolk County, Massachusetts is the sixth most Democratic leaning county on the list, with 77% of the vote going to Barack Obama (in Mitt Romney’s ‘home state’ no less!). I also have data for the city of Boston specifically. Of the 289085 votes cast in Suffolk County (Boston, Chelsea, Winthrop, and Revere), 255021 ballots were cast in Boston, of which Barack Obama received 200,190 or 78.85% of the ballots cast. Better than the county as whole but not by much, and still under the 80% received by the Democratic candidate for president in the aforementioned cities. So, Boston is perhaps a little less liberal than one might imagine. I wish to return to this question in a second entry to follow this one.

On the other hand, Boston, along with Denver (the last of the seven ‘small’ counties, 73%), Los Angeles (69%), Chicago (74%), Detroit (73%), Seattle (69%), and San Jose (70%), are much more liberal than the rest of the cities on the list, and more liberal than the average of 66% for the entire group.

So, an initial comparison reveals that Boston is not at the top of the pro-Democratic cities in the most recent Presidential election. In fact, other cities in the Boston area (specifically, Cambridge, at over 86%) preferred Barack Obama even more than the city of Boston. I would like to examine the wider data for metropolitan areas in a future entry but for now I will drill down into the specifics of voting patterns in the city of Boston. In the next entry I will examine the Boston vote by neighborhood.

*Incidentally, Miami (Dade County) went for Barack Obama with 61.6% of the vote and Atlanta (Fulton County) also gave its support to the Democratic nominee with 64.1% of the vote. Thus, of the 14 metropolitan areas in the United States with a population greater than 4 million, all but one of the counties in which the principal city is located (Maricopa, Phoenix) voted for Barack Obama. In fact, of the 43 metropolitan areas with more than 1.4 million inhabitants, besides the aforementioned Jacksonville (Duval) and Phoenix, only Salt Lake County, the county in which Salt Lake City, Utah is located, also voted for Mitt Romney (a Mormon who famously ran the Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City). One other point: although a bit hard to find, a more detailed analysis of Maricopa County (I will spare you the boring parts and cut to the chase) shows that in Phoenix proper (i.e. the City of Phoenix) Barack Obama received over 60% of the vote. In conclusion, Barack Obama won EVERY big city in the United States with the exception of Salt Lake City. Which raises a significant question: Are cities the vanguard of the future electorate or a distorted misrepresentation of the voting public? I will definitely come back to this question in future entries.



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