The New York Times has a piece out, 100 Days of Protest: A Chasm Grows Between Portland and the Rest of Oregon. It is one of those articles where the reporter talks to individuals who present a gripping narrative in an ethnographic sense. Aside from Portland, there are names of towns that are probably unknown to most people. Gresham, Sandy, and Boring.
I’m an Oregonian. I grew up in Northeast Oregon, close to Idaho. I’ve spent time in a liberal college town in western Oregon, a liberal arts town in southern Oregon, and also a few years in Southeast Portland, south of the Hawthorne district. There are even a few readers of this weblog who will date to the period when I lived in Southeast Portland in the early 2000s, and would sometimes post about strange things I’d observe around the Powells on Hawthorne (e.g., the one time I walked past a Haredi Jewish guy who seemed to be speaking in ebonics inflected English, arguing with a pierced individual, on the issue of Israel).
The piece in a general stylized sense reflects a reality: Oregon, and the Pacific Northwest, is highly polarized between liberal urban islands in the midst of conservative rural hinterlands. Over my lifetime this has gotten more extreme. One of the reasons is that the decline of the unionized resource and manufacturing has meant that a Left faction similar to Northern European social democrats is not a major force anymore (towns like Ballard and Astoria have strong ethnic Nordic flavors). In its stead has been the rise of cultural liberalism, driven in large part by the migration of “Californians” into cities like Seattle and Portland, but also smaller cities and towns such as Eugene, Bend, and Ashland (some of the most anti-California people I’ve met turned out to be the children of people from California, of course). I put Californians in quotes because a lot of the Californians may not even be from California, but rather people who made a successful career in California after graduating college in the Northeast.
My major gripe with the piece in The New York Times is that it presents a false picture of reciprocal polarization. The data people at The Times actually have put out their precinct-level 2016 results that illustrate what I’m saying. For example, here is a sentence from the piece: “In the town of Gresham, 15 miles from the urban canyons of downtown Portland.” Gresham is contiguous with the eastern half of Portland. In 2002 on a clear weekend day with good weather I actually walked from my place in Southeast Portland to Gresham on surface streets. The main thing you’ll notice is that Gresham is noticeably more working class. The meth epidemic that hit Oregon hit Gresham particularly hard. But Gresham is not a deep-red suburb. As is clear from the map, Gresham narrowly voted for Hillary as opposed to Trump.
The precinct that I lived in Southeast gave 5% of its votes for Trump. In contrast, 40% of people in Gresham voted for Trump. Another town mentioned was Sandy. It is true Sandy is on the conservative side. I knew people from Sandy. But again, if you check on the map above you’ll see that 55% of people in Sandy voted for Trump. This is the majority, but this is not overwhelming. 35% seems to have voted for Hillary (large third party vote obviously).
If you’re an Oregonian you notice some other patterns. The very wealthy suburb of Lake Oswego only gave 25% of its vote to Donald Trump. This is very Trumpy compared to Portland, where most precincts are 5-10%. But, it shows the strong cultural trends in the broader zone around the city. Further to the east, where there are some more conservative suburbs, wealthy West Linn voted 30% for Trump, while poorer and more working-class Oregon City voted 40% for Trump.
What is the major takeaway? Looking at the map it is hard to find any populous region in “Red Oregon” which is as anti-Hillary as Portland is anti-Trump. The conservative town of Baker City gave 22% of its votes to Hillary. The conservative city of Medford in southern Oregon voted about 40-50% for Hillary (depending on the precinct).
There are places where very blue cities are surrounded by red-tinged suburbs. Look at Milwaukie. But that’s not the story here. Portland is basically a political culture where the right-wing is occupied by the liberals and the left-wing is occupied by the radicals. To some extent, it’s always been like this, but the dynamic has amplified over the past 40 years. In 1988 George H. W. Bush won 37% of the votes in Multnomah county, dominated by the city of Portland. In 2016 Trump won 17%. If you look at these two elections you see some evidence of polarization on both sides, but the counties which went noticeably more Red are very lightly populated (e.g., < 5,000 votes!). Suburban Portland has gone from a Red tilt to a Blue tilt (e.g., Washington county, which is the wealthier suburban Portland area was slightly leaning toward George H.W. Bush but now only gave Trump 30% of the vote). Jackson County, the most populous Red county has only become more marginally Red (9% margin in 2016 vs. 7% in 1988).
As an Oregonian articles like this just make me more skeptical of these narrative-driven pieces about American regions. Interesting. But true? Check the data journalism of The New York Times first!