To Understand America, Check Out the Nation’s Reddest And Bluest Places

We are a deeply divided country with red states, blue states and a handful of battleground states that will decide who is elected President on Tuesday. As a frequent traveler who also follows politics, I often feel the need to hit the road just to understand the country I live in.

The country wasn’t always so geographically polarized. According to the New York Times, John F. Kennedy campaigned in 49 states in the 1960 presidential election and Richard Nixon visited all 50. This year the candidates have campaigned in just 10 states since the conventions. Many of us now live in communities that are overwhelmingly blue or red and we inhabit parallel universes with little knowledge about the people on the other side of the electoral landscape.

I’ve spent my whole life living in very blue places: Buffalo, Philadelphia, Boston, New York, Washington, D.C., and Chicago. I’m an independent and I have friends and relatives who support both parties, but living where I’ve lived has, in some ways, kept me isolated from red state culture.

I don’t know a single person who owns a gun (at least that I’m aware of). I don’t know any evangelical Christians, at least not well. None of my friends have pickup trucks. I’m used to walking out my door and having my choice of Thai, Vietnamese, Middle Eastern, Indian or any number of other ethnic restaurants, and I go out for chicken vindaloo more often than chicken fried steak.

And most of the people in my social circle listen to NPR or sports talk radio, not Rush Limbaugh, Glen Beck or Shawn Hannity. I live in a very blue world.

And so, I love to get out and see what the rest of the country is like. It’s amazing how you don’t have to drive very far to be in a completely different world – a country where even the people working in fast food restaurants are white; a country where people would sooner eat rats for lunch than buy a Subaru; a country where people say “yes, sir” and “no, mam,” and mean it. It sounds silly but traveling from blue state to red state or vice versa can be real culture shock.

But of course, it can also be fun to travel within shades of blue or red. A couple years ago, I visited Boulder and, even coming from a blue state, couldn’t help but notice how seemingly almost everyone there drove a Subaru Outback, most with Thule ski carriers on top. President Obama carried 72% of Boulder County in 2008 and 70% in 2012, probably closer to 90% in the city itself. Obama supporters like Subarus. But you could drive across the entire state of Oklahoma, carried by Senator McCain with just a hair under 66% of the vote in ’08, and not see a single one, at least not with Oklahoma plates.

If you take the time to meet some locals when you travel, your politics probably won’t change but your perspective and understanding might. And you might not even have to leave your state to enter a whole different country. In my adopted home state of Illinois, for example, President Obama took 76% in urban Cook County in ’08. (74% in 2012)

And much more in some places. According to NPR, the residents of Altgeld Gardens, a public housing project on Chicago’s South Side where President Obama worked as a community organizer, supported the President in 2008 by the tune of 1900 to 12. But drive an hour to the south, to rural Iroquois County, which straddles the Indiana border, and you enter another world, one in which Senator McCain took 64% of the vote and Governor Romney took 71% of the vote.

A couple years ago, I attended a fair in the town of Sandwich, Illinois, just about 60 miles west of Chicago and while my son was entranced by a pig exhibition, I fell into conversation with a pig farmer named Brice who was absolutely certain that President Obama was: A) born in Africa, B) a Muslim, and C) the antichrist. If he had espoused any of these viewpoints in River Forest, where I lived, he would have been laughed out of the room.

But standing outside the pig corral in Sandwich, 60 miles to the west, his diatribe resonated with two other farmers in earshot, who told me they agreed with him. After listening to the man for a bit, and only challenging him very diplomatically, I ran off to find my wife, like a child who’d just discovered a rare species normally found only in Madagascar.

“I want you to meet this pig farmer who thinks Obama’s a Muslim!” I said excitedly to my wife, but alas, she wasn’t interested.

Brice’s viewpoints didn’t influence mine whatsoever, but now when I see something like this Pew poll from this summer, showing that 17% of the country thinks that Obama is a Muslim, I don’t have to wonder who those people are, because I know Brice and his friends in Sandwich.

In many cases, you don’t have to go very far to travel from one political extreme to the other. Check out Macon County in Alabama, for example, where 87% of voters, mostly African-Americans, went for President Obama in ’08, then drift over to Elmore County, which borders Macon on the northwest side, where 75% of the electorate, mostly whites, voted for Senator McCain. The same applies to the neighboring counties of Glascock (84% Obama) and Hancock (81% McCain) in Georgia.

In January, I had an eye-opening venture into red-state country on a visit to the Richmond, Virginia vicinity. I got a whole heaping dose of Southern gun culture after stumbling upon a “Guns Save Lives” rally in front of the capitol building. I sat and listened to a host of speakers, some of them ordinary citizens, others low-level elected officials, but they all had one thing in common: an all consuming fear that President Obama’s “radical socialist agenda” included taking away their guns.

I was fascinated, and later that day when we passed a busy looking gun store called Green Top Hunting and Fishing in nearby Glen Allen, I pulled over and brought my family inside for a look. I have zero interest in hunting and guns but the scene inside captivated me. It was a little after noon on a Sunday, right after church time, and the place was swarming with men, mostly fathers and sons who were checking out all kinds of very intimidating looking firearms.

There were row upon row of rifles you could pick up and handle on your own and then behind the counter, there were much more dangerous looking weapons you had to ask a salesperson to see. There were three salespeople at the counter and yet there was a scrum that must have been 20 deep waiting to get their hands on these weapons. I was less than a 100 miles away from my home at the time in Falls Church, but it was a world away from where I lived in and I’m glad I went.

When this election is over, hopefully on Tuesday and not weeks from now after a myriad of court proceedings, half the country is going to be furious. How could they elect that guy! My advice to everyone, no matter what the result is, is to get out and see the part of the country you’ve been missing. Most of us live in red or blue places but don’t get out enough into that other world.

I’d like to take a dozen people from Ochiltree County, Texas, where Senator McCain captured 92% of the vote, and lock them in a room with voters from Washington, D.C., which supported President Obama to the tune of 93%, for a few hours just to let them have at one another. I guaranty you that both sides would learn something form the other.

Get out and see how the other half lives. Your politics probably won’t change but if you take the time to talk to people, you might at least understand where they’re coming from.

Where to go to get a taste of red- 2008 & 2012 election margins for 10 of the country’s reddest counties

· Uintah County, Utah (NE Utah- 83% McCain, 90% Romney)
· Madison County, Idaho (NE Idaho- 85% McCain, 93% Romney)
· Garfield County, Montana (E. Montana- 82% McCain, 89% Romney)
· Crook County, Wyoming (NE Wyoming- 81 McCain%, 85% Romney)
· Ochiltree and Roberts Counties, Texas (North Texas- 92% each, McCain, 91% Romney, 93% Romney)
· Beaver County, Oklahoma (NW Oklahoma- 89% McCain, 89% Romney)
· Blount County, Alabama (North-Central Alabama- 84% McCain, 87% Romney)
· Holmes County, Florida (NW Florida- 82% McCain, 84% Romney)
· Glascock County, Georgia (East Georgia- 84% McCain, 85% Romney)

Where to go to get a taste of blue- 2008 & 2012 election results for 10 of the country’s bluest counties

· Multnomah County, Oregon (Portland area- 77% Obama in ’08, 76% in ’12)
· Alameda County, California (S.F. area- 79% Obama in ’08, 78% in ’12)
· Sioux County, North Dakota (Standing Rock Indian Reservation, South-Central ND- 83% Obama in ’08, 79% in ’12)
· St. Louis County, Missouri (St. Louis- 84% Obama in ’08, 83% in ’12)
· Orleans Parish, Louisiana (New Orleans- 79% Obama in ’08 and ’12)
· Claiborne County, Mississippi (SW MS- 85% Obama in ’08, 88% in ’12)
· Macon County, Alabama (SE Alabama- 87% Obama in ’08 and ’12)
· Hancock County, Georgia (East Georgia- 81% Obama in ’08 and ’12)
· District of Columbia (D.C. – 93% Obama in ’08, 91% in ’12)
· Bronx, New York (The Bronx- 88% Obama in ’08, 91% in ’12)

Note: Election results were updated on 11/7.

[Photo credits: Dave Seminara, Flickr users James Jordan, aesedepece]