Final Project: Upstate Politics

By Brian Ives – State-level politics in New York have been a contentious issue for decades. Like many states, New York’s politics tend to play out with regional divisions: cities vote more Democratic, and rural areas lean toward the G.O.P.

Looking at this map of the 2000 Presidential election, it’s pretty easy to figure out where the cities are: in the blue counties.

Map of New York's 2000 Presidential election results.

New York’s 2000 Presidential election results. Copyright © 2015 CartoDB.

What this map ignores is the sheer size differential between the state’s regions. New York City and its surrounding counties are not only more liberal than the rest of the state; they are also much, much bigger.

Take the same election, the 2000 Presidential election, as an example. Brooklyn, the largest of the five New York City boroughs, had over 600,000 people come out and vote. Over 75 percent of those people voted for Democrat Al Gore. Hamilton County, a deep red county in the Adirondacks and the state’s smallest, had only 3,733 people come to the polls. 64 percent of those people voted for Republican George W. Bush, but that’s still only around 2,400 votes.

This has huge implications for the state’s politics. It means outsiders know New York as the state that always votes Democratic. New York has not voted for a Republican Presidential candidate since Ronald Reagan. Since 2000, every Democratic Presidential candidate has carried the state with at least a 15-point margin; some have even topped 25 points.

New York Presidential Elections, 2000-2012 | Create infographics

But that solid-blue image masks serious divisions in the state’s politics. Look at the numbers: New York City regularly votes around 75 percent Democratic, while the rest of the state looks like a swing state, a-la Ohio or Florida. This next graphic shows the raw votes – not the percentages – from the past four Presidential elections.

Total Raw Votes, 2000-2012 | Create infographics

The three lines clustered near the top are the City’s Democratic votes and the rest of the state’s Republican and Democratic votes. That lonely red line near the bottom? That’s the Republican vote in New York City. Talk about being a fish out of water.

The differences get even more stark when we divide the state along traditional upstate-downstate lines. The division is a little ambiguous – everyone thinks downstate is everything south of them and upstate is everything north – but most political scientists and economists say the distinction is marked where people stop commuting into New York City for work.

I tend to think upstate and downstate New York are pretty much separated by the Interstate 84 corridor. I-84 runs along the northern edge of Orange and Putnam Counties, so that’s where I place my divider: Orange and Putnam Counties are downstate; Sullivan, Ulster, and Duchess are upstate.

So what does the data look like? Well, it certainly lends credence to upstaters’ claims that their votes don’t count.

In every Presidential election since 2000 except 2004, downstate Democrats have outvoted all Republicans in the state. Every upstate Democrat could have stayed home in 2000, 2008, and 2012, and Al Gore and Barack Obama still would have carried the state.

Total Votes, 2012-2000 | Create infographics

All these long-term numbers mask one important trend, though: the increasingly liberal nature of upstate itself. In 2000 and 20004, upstate New York was a battleground between Republicans and Democrats. In 2008 and 2012, Pres. Barack Obama easily carried the region.

Maybe that has something to do with President Obama’s unique electoral appeal, but it is undeniable. Here’s an interactive version of that electoral map of New York. Click through the different years and watch as upstate goes blue – way blue – in 2012, especially. Battleground counties became solid blue wins, and counties that historically leaned Republican were suddenly close votes.

People in upstate New York often claim to get the short end of the stick from the state and national governments. How much that’s true is up to interpretation, but the numbers make it clear New York City and its suburbs more than dominate the state’s overall politics.

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