Emily Badger is a former staff writer at CityLab. Her work has previously appeared in Pacific Standard, GOOD, The Christian Science Monitor, and The New York Times. She lives in the Washington, D.C. area.
America's major cities lean Democratic, but these swing state metropolises could end up playing a deciding role.
Cities are seldom the source of much suspense on Election Day. They tend to vote reliably – often overwhelmingly – Democratic, which also explains why candidates from both parties devote little time to campaigning in them. With today's presidential election expected to boil down to turnout, though, a handful of cities in swing states could make a significant difference.
There’s little question President Obama will take Cleveland, Milwaukee, and Denver. But the question is: by how many votes? Will Obama's support in these urban centers be enough to land the president crucial electoral college votes in swing states otherwise heavily painted red? Or will urban turnout dip far below 2008, tipping some states toward Republican Mitt Romney?
Dante Chinni, whose electoral mapping work we previously profiled at Patchwork Nation, suggested we keep our eye out today for turnout in what he calls the country’s "Industrial Metropolises," those high-density, high-diversity older urban centers like Cleveland and Philadelphia. Nearly 70 percent of voters in these counties voted Democratic in the last presidential election. Looking at last week’s Pew Research Center polling data through the lens of Patchwork Nation’s 12 demographic categories, Obama was leading among "Industrial Metro" counties with 64 percent to Romney’s 32. This is the seat of Obama’s largest advantage (Romney, on the other hand, holds a whopping 38-point advantage in “Evangelical Epicenter” counties located largely in the South).
Bearing this in mind, the following cities may play an important role in tonight’s outcome. Almost all of them lean heavily Democratic (with the exceptions of Tampa and Cincinnati). But turnout will matter, so keep your eye on them for news of long lines at the polls or light turnout, or other odd Election Day phenomena.
Cleveland (Cuyahoga County)
The site of Obama’s biggest Ohio landslide in 2008. He won 68.5 percent of the vote here. Put another way: Obama cleared Cuyahoga County by nearly 250,000 votes, while winning the entire state of Ohio by just over 200,000.
Columbus (Franklin County)
Obama won with 59 percent of the vote here in 2008. Like Cincinnati, Columbus is also surrounded on all sides by suburban counties that voted heavily Republican in the last election.
Cincinnati (Hamilton County)
This was the closest of Ohio’s major metros in 2008, with Obama winning 52 percent to McCain’s 47. The county also voted for George W. Bush in 2004 and generally leans conservative.
Denver (Denver County)
Colorado flipped blue last year for the first time since 1992, voting for Obama with 53.5 percent to McCain’s 44.9 percent. Obama was helped in the state’s second most populous county, Denver, which delivered 16 percent of all of his votes state-wide. 75 percent of voters in Denver sided with Obama. Turnout was also up in the county by about 20,000 votes in 2008.
Milwaukee (Milwaukee County)
Wisconsin is expected to be much closer than in 2008, when Obama won the state by 14 percentage points. His greatest number of votes will come from Milwaukee (where 67.5 percent voted for him last time, up about 20,000 votes from what John Kerry earned in ‘04). The city is surrounded to the north and west by “Monied Burbs” that went for McCain in ‘08.
Richmond (Richmond City County)
Virginia's relatively small state capital gave nearly 80 percent of its vote to Obama in '08. But that year about 19,000 more people turned out to vote than did in '04 (most of them for Obama). Popular former mayor (and Virginia governor) Tim Kaine is also on the ballot in a close Senate race and may motivate voters who are now less enthusiastic about Obama.
Tampa (Hillsborough County)
The county narrowly went for Obama in 2008, by about 10,000 votes, after voting for Bush the previous election, which also helps explain why the GOP targeted Tampa for its nominating convention this year. Patchwork Nation considers this a “Boom Town,” and the area hardly mirrors the politics or history of the other “Industrial Metros” on this list, but it'll be a key battleground in Florida.
Miami (Miami-Dade County)
This is more “Immigration Nation” than “Industrial Metro,” but it’s another heavily left-leaning area in a swing state where Obama will need big turnout. In 2008, the county went for him with 58 percent of the vote, when about 80,000 more people voted Democratic than did in 2004 (while Republican turnout stayed roughly consistent).
Philadelphia (Philadelphia County)
Pennsylvania may not be a true swing state, but the Romney campaign has made a last-ditch effort to treat it like one. In 2008, 83 percent of Philadelphia voted for Obama, as he won a decisive 10-point victory state-wide.
Pittsburgh (Allegheny County)
Obama won handily here in 2008, but it was hardly the rout he earned in more heavily minority Philadelphia (he got 54 percent of Pittsburgh’s vote). Turnout has been almost identical in Pittsburgh for the last two presidential elections.
Detroit (Wayne County)
Like Pennsylvania, Michigan is leaning blue, with some late efforts by Romney to make a move there. 74 percent of the county went for Obama last time, accounting for nearly a quarter of his vote total in the entire state.
Top image: People wait in line to vote at a fire station near downtown, during the 2012 U.S. presidential election in Miami, Florida. (Andrew Innerarity/Reuters)