Politically thinking: Obama very strong in ‘bubbles’

Election results released by the Secretary of State’s office show that President Obama won eight communities in Vermont with more than 80 percent of the vote. His best town was Norwich, with 85 percent. The other places on the list are Marlboro, Putney, Brattleboro, Burlington, Montpelier, Strafford and Granville. Middlebury and Ripton, with 78 and 79 percent for Obama, came close to being on the list, but did not quite make the elite league.
Winning an election by at least a 4-to-1 margin says as much about the demographics and culture of a community as about the candidates. I looked at election results outside Vermont, to find other concentrations of Obama support exceeding 80 percent. Many of them were districts with substantial majorities of African-American voters, in both northern urban areas and states such as Alabama, Mississippi and Georgia. I excluded Chicago, Baltimore and Philadelphia from my analysis, because of their histories of electoral irregularities. New York City precinct-level results are not yet available because of the disruption to the election resulting from Hurricane Sandy.
After these adjustments, some patterns in Obama’s strongest districts emerge. The president’s vote share was over 80 percent in several academic communities — for example, Cambridge, Amherst and Williamstown, Mass.; and Swarthmore, Pa. Indeed, there is a relationship between a liberal arts college’s ranking on the U.S. News list and Obama’s vote share in the college town: Obama did better in Williamstown, Amherst and Swarthmore than he did in Middlebury, but he did better in Middlebury than in Brunswick (Bowdoin), Waterville (Colby) and Lewiston (Bates), Maine.
Obama obtained very high vote shares in places known for being gay-friendly and having a large number of GLBT voters, such as Provincetown and Northampton, Mass., as well as in San Francisco, where the president received 83 percent of the vote. Obama also did very well in West Coast communities with a strong environmental presence, such as Bainbridge Island, Wash., just a short ferry ride across Puget Sound from Seattle.
Some of Obama’s very highest support in the nation was in very affluent, very green and very laid back communities in Marin County, Calif., located just north of San Francisco across the Golden Gate Bridge. A few upscale suburbs and countercultural enclaves in Marin gave Obama close to 90 percent of the vote, even better than he did in the comparably affluent and green, but much less laid-back, town of Norwich, Vt.
There are some issues that Obama’s best communities have in common. Voters in both Burlington and Bainbridge Island approved referendums calling for the legalization of cannabis by roughly a 70-30 margin. Marin County’s governing board, known for innovation in environmental policy, is also attempting to prevent utilities from installing smart meters, because of concerns about radio waves and privacy — an issue that may come to a head in Vermont as Green Mountain Power continues to roll out its smart meter program. Obama’s strongest communities on the West Coast include strongholds of opposition from highly educated parents to mandatory vaccination requirements for school-aged children, an issue on which the Vermont Legislature spent considerable time last session.
Massachusetts, the San Francisco Bay Area and Vermont — these are the places where one is most likely to find extraordinarily high levels of support for Obama among voters who are not members of racial or ethnic minorities. I have lived in these three places for most of my life — but hopefully not so long to recognize that these areas are very much “bubbles” that can be far removed from the mainstream of American public opinion.
Eric L. Davis is professor emeritus of political science at Middlebury College.

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