That’s not necessarily surprising, mind you. The idea of “the big sort” is fairly well established by now, the idea that the places Americans live are increasingly homogeneous in political thought. There are a lot of implications to this, including in terms of districting and electoral outcomes. An underappreciated implication, though, is that it reinforces existing political bubbles: If you don’t know a single person who disagrees with you on an issue, or even if nearly everyone you know agrees with you, it can be increasingly hard to believe that people who hold the opposing issue actually exist.
We created a visual look at that a few weeks ago, using poll data that shows deep partisan splits on issues. Overall, opinions are mixed. Within parties, opinions are pretty uniform.
But to what extent do people actually live in homogeneous areas? A massive set of data from California, compiled by the Los Angeles Times, can help answer that question.
The Times data offers a good look in part because it breaks data down to the precinct level, across the state. As you probably know, most voting takes place at the local level, with voters assigned to precincts where they cast their ballots. In California last year, there were 24,568 precincts, with a median of 665 voters in each.
That’s basically the size of a neighborhood — figure 300 or 400 houses or so. It’s still a little big, but it offers a better look at the local communities that were voting than, say, a county.
California overwhelmingly voted for Clinton, so it’s not a surprise that the median percentage of support across those 24,568 precincts was 62 percent.
The red-blue coloring here is only a guideline; Clinton won some precincts with less than 50 percent of the vote, because of third-party candidates. There are peaks at the edges because a lot of precincts had one voter.
Consider what that means: Californians heavily live in neighborhoods where three out of five people voted for Clinton.
This analysis, though, equates people in very small precincts with very large ones. That’s not a fair depiction of what’s happening. A lot more people live in places that voted more heavily for Clinton than in places that voted heavily for someone else.
(The most votes cast in a single precinct were cast in the city of Thousand Oaks, a bit northwest of Los Angeles.)
If we count up the number of people in the precincts based on how the precinct voted, we get a better picture of what happened.
As it turns out, nearly 4 million Californians live in precincts where 3 in 4 voters backed Clinton. That’s 4 million out of 14.2 million votes in total — about 28 percent of all California voters. One-fifth of California voters live in a precinct — a local neighborhood! — where 4- in 5 voters backed Clinton.
This is a look at one, liberal state, but the point remains: A lot of people live in areas where most people agree with their politics, at least as measured by presidential balloting. The odds are good that in heavily conservative areas, we’d see a relatively similar distribution.
Shortly after the election we made a tool that might help with this bubble problem. Enter a location and see the closest county that voted the opposite of your own. Go visit! Have a meal. It’s hard to extract this data at the local level, but — rest assured — your political opponents are out there. And their views are no more imaginary than your own.