Shortly after the election, CNN's John King made an all-too-common comment about American politics.
"Hillary Clinton winning the popular vote, but Donald Trump wins in the electoral college," he says, looking at a state map colored by victor. Then he switches to a county map. "This map, to me, is the most important lesson of all, and it's a tough one for Democrats. Just take a minute, and take a look. This is the presidential election, county-by-county."
It's this map, essentially.
"You look at all these little lines, more than 4,000 counties in the United States," he says (inaccurately; there are about 3,100). "See all that red? America is a center-right country. It is a lot more conservative -- especially out in the heartland -- than Democrats think."
That pronouncement, based on that map, will give a lot of people aneurysms, myself included. (I am recovering.) Our electoral maps tend to reward our conflating "land area" with "political belief." Wyoming is a big state that's very Republican. It's a big red blob on most electoral maps, despite the fact that has only a little over half the total population of very-blue San Jose, Calif.
The design site Blueshift has an interactive map that adds the critical dimension of population to King's map. The result looks like this.
Sure, there are lots of red counties with small populations. And there are a lot of blue counties with huge populations that offset them. Hillary Clinton won the popular vote by nearly 3 million votes. That doesn't exactly scream "center-right."
That America is "center-right" is an argument that's been around for years, first appearing in the New York Times in 2003. "You look where the country is: foreign policy and national security, economic and tax policy, and line them all up -- it is a center-right country," said Michigan pollster Robert Teeter at the time.
It's hard to draw that conclusion based on the results of 2016. FiveThirtyEight's Harry Enten was digging into poll results from the election on Monday night, highlighting odd or incongruous results from small populations. His summary of what he found was simple: America is a political muddle.
This isn't a majority conservative or majority liberal country. Nor is it a majority Republican or majority Democratic country.
— (((Harry Enten))) (@ForecasterEnten) December 27, 2016
Polling backs that up.
The General Social Survey has been asking people about their ideological leanings for 40 years. In that time, there has never been a majority of respondents who described themselves as either liberal or conservative; the most common response has always been that people see themselves as moderate.
There are more people who identify themselves as conservative to some degree than liberal -- but both are smaller than the number who describe themselves as moderate.
That's not the whole picture, though. Gallup regularly asks people how they identify themselves by party. In recent years, more people have described themselves as Democratic than Republican -- but it's the number of independents that's increased.
Most of those independents, though, still lean toward one party or the other. If you combine Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents, they constitute slightly more of the country at this point than Republicans and Republican-leaning independents.
The most recent survey from Gallup came out earlier this month. Around the time of the election, the split was different, with Democrats and Democratic-leaning Americans making up 48 percent of respondents.
That explains Clinton's popular-vote victory better than it does the Republican victories in state and congressional races. It's tricky to evaluate political thinking based on electoral outcomes in part because so many Americans don't vote and in part because state and congressional races have built-in biases that come into play. What we can say is that Republicans retained the House, though they lost six seats, and kept the Senate while losing the presidential popular vote.
That's in part because, for the first time since senators were elected by popular vote, no state voted for a senator of one party and a president of the other. The best descriptor for America continues to be that we're an evenly-split country with a deep partisan rift that manifests itself in different ways. There are a number of metrics on which people generally prefer liberal or conservative policies, as Teeter pointed out in 2003, but Americans generally don't identify as being a majority of either ideology or party.
Put another way: America is probably about as center-right as it is center-left, depending on how you want to answer the question. One thing we would ask, though, is that you not try to answer it by pointing to a map of the counties in the United States.