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Revisiting Q Scores

A while back, Split Ticket introduced a new metric to quantify the relative conservatism of a political region, as defined by educational, racial, and political statistics. This was dubbed the Q-score, and it had the highest magnitude among populist white working-class areas that used to be swingy or Democratic, such as southern Ohio, eastern Kentucky, and north-central Alabama, as well as traditional Republican bastions such as western Ohio. The upshot was simple: the higher the Q-score, the more ideologically conservative the area, at least by modern standards.

To recap, a Q-score is a number given to a county after looking at the 2012, 2016, and 2020 partisanship, the relative swing between 2012 and 2020, the college education attainment rate, as well as the percent white.

We can take the metric to apply it to the county level, using the same formula. The result approximates the map below:

The smaller populations of individual counties (the smallest being just under 100 people) compared to congressional districts (roughly 750,000 in a non at-large state) ensures that swings between elections will be more sharp – 100 people switching votes from Obama to Trump has a much larger visibility in a county with 200 voters than in one that has 200,000 voters. Thus it mandated the creation of a new category for the few counties that have a Q score of greater than 2, visible in the image above. (the most Q district, OH-06, had a Q score of 1.78 for comparison).

The top 5 Q-counties:

Elliott, KY (75% Trump, 8.3% college-educated, Q = 2.13)

Clark, MO (79% Trump, 13.5% college-educated, Q = 2.09)

Reynolds, MO (83% Trump, 11.1% college-educated, Q = 2.08)

Grundy, TN (82% Trump, 12.1% college-educated, Q = 2.08)

Washington, MO (81% Trump, 9.6% college-educated, Q = 2.07)

Unsurprisingly, these are all former mining or Dixiecratic areas which now produce the pulse of the conservative base.

On the converse side, these are the bottom 5:

Charlottesville, VA (87% Biden, 52.6% college-educated, Q = -0.73)

Hoonah-Angoon, AK (72% Biden, 19.6% college-educated, Q = -0.67)

Skagway, AK (71.5% Biden, 24.4% college-educated, Q = -0.66)

Richmond, VA (83% Biden, 38.5% college-educated, Q = -0.66)

Prince George, MD (89% Biden, 32.7% college-educated, Q = -0.65)

These five exemplify the future Democratic coalition best – an alliance of college-educated whites with African-American voters, along with areas of tourist significance and with non-negligible Native presence. Further up the list are more expected entries such as Manhattan, Marin, DeKalb, Baltimore City, and Alexandria City, all of which also fit this pattern.

Room to Fall

Looking at the map, the next question logically circles on where the next surprise swings away from the Democratic coalition are aimed at. Most obvious is the San Luis Valley of southern Colorado and adjoining areas in northern New Mexico, where moderate-leaning Hispanics have historically supported the Democratic Party. As the white voters in these areas who used to be more amenable to supporting Democrats have fled the party, so too have certain Hispanics. Also evident are rural portions of New England, particularly in northern Vermont and Maine.

Areas like these currently hold water for Democrats at roughly 40-45 percent of the vote on average, with the party punching far above what demographics and education rates would predict. Some of this is due to historical regionalism and state party effects; voters are people and have historical attachments to parties, and certain low-education populations may have been spared thus far from GOP persuasion efforts. New England being so heavily Democratic has definitely insulated its working-class whites from the worst of the rightward trend. Likewise, a Colorado GOP that historically has focused on suburban whites and working-class whites has historically ignored minority outreach.

Predicting the next shock swing is a fool’s errand – these ideas are mere suggestions and not guarantees of what will happen. But every election has the shock factor of a demographic thought to be unshakeable, broken loose by education-driven realignment. In 2008 and 2012, it was upcountry southern and Appalachian whites. In 2016 it was working-class Midwestern whites. In 2020 it was Latinos, particularly Tejanos and Cubans. And in 2024, we do not know what it will be, but the Q scores might offer insight into what it could be.

A full list of Q scores is available here.

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