Campaigning in ‘the Big Sort’

2 July 2008 at 10:12 pm 1 comment

Rachel Kelnar writes:

I’ve been interested to see the noise generated by Barack Obama’s decision to deploy and maintain staff in every US state during the current US presidential election campaign. Leaving aside the politics of such a decision (there’s a useful overview of this here) what’s most intriguing is how this decision will play out within each state, in light of reading Bill Bishop’s The Big Sort, recommended to me by the Yankelovich CEO J Walker Smith.

Bishop writes about the growing clustering of like-minded individuals in small neighbourhoods across the US. His crunching of the data shows that over the last 30 years Americans have sorted themselves into homogenous neighbourhoods, where culture, economics and politics are alike. Individuals look to move to and settle in neighbourhoods of ‘people like me’, and so the political clustering has followed.

The big sort helps to explain the wonderful quote from the playwright Arthur Miller on the 2004 presidential race: “How can the polls be neck and neck when I don’t know one Bush supporter?” It’s about the company one keeps, locally.

The fact that people are less likely to have their views challenged or questioned, because they are less likely to come across individuals who disagree is a serious political (and indeed democratic) concern. Where we shop, who we meet at the school gates, and those we socialise with (physically and virtually) are all likely to share our views, rather than challenge them. And by reinforcing each other’s views our collective position becomes more extreme and more certain over time – thus shrinking the middle ground where political decisions tend to (have to?) be made.

In light of this ‘clustering of like-minded Americans’, it seems sensible decision for Obama and his campaign team to contest every state. For while one might think that California is a ‘blue state’ and Texas a ‘red state’ this simplification hides some real pockets of electorally significant dark red in the blue states, and dark blue in the red states (such as the liberal Austin in Texas, where Bill Bishop lives). So Obama has substantial pockets of support in some strongly red states.

But it’s not enough to know these supporters are there, deep in ‘enemy’ territory, and expect them to vote after getting a bit of attention from the campaign. Obama will need to work very hard to get such individuals to actually vote. That’s because, as Bishop illustrates, individuals are less confident about making their voice heard when their view is in the minority. Bishop quotes survey research on past presidential voting data by a fellow researcher, and concludes:

“rather than buck the majority and risk social sanction, citizens in the minority simply stayed away from the polls. They didn’t vote. In communities with large political majorities, people tend to give up battling over ideas…”

So, from Obama’s point of view, making such people feel that they are not alone and that his ideas are worth fighting for, should increase the likelihood that they will vote come November. If he succeeds, by Bishop’s account, Obama would have the significant challenge of trying to govern a country of ever more extreme groups, each of which is increasingly sure of its own extremist views.

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Entry filed under: cities, class, communities, identity, marketing, politics.

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1 Comment Add your own

  • 1. CM'Blog  |  2 July 2008 at 10:24 pm

    Hi. Campaign strategy or “strategery,” depending on who you ask, is so marked up that it’s worse than military battlement’s plan. If you read what Karl Rove writes on the deal, it’s scary to see how campaigning will sort you based on who you are, age, race, religion, income, location etc. Anyway, interesting post.

    I’m looking to build up incoming links for my blog. Would you like to exchange blogroll links with me? If yes, please visit: and leave your URL there. The purpose of my blog is to generate debate on anything and everything that matters.


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The Futures Company was created through the merger of Henley Centre HeadlightVision and Yankelovich in 2008. This is the blog of the new company - but the former posts from the former Henley Centre Headlightvision blog still can be found here.

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