In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Political Geography in American Politics

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Journals
  • Sectionalism
  • State Studies
  • Type of Place
  • Party System Change
  • Racial Threat
  • Migration
  • Informational, Participatory, and Preferential Effects
  • Political Contributions
  • Candidate Emergence
  • Representation
  • Polarization and Sorting

Political Science Political Geography in American Politics
Seth C. McKee
  • LAST REVIEWED: 10 August 2020
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 February 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756223-0153


Not that it ever went away, but 21st-century political science research is emphasizing the role of place in American politics. For decades the leading scholarship in the American setting relied heavily on survey research that frequently downplayed the significance of political geography, or ignored it altogether. To be sure, the most salient geographic cleavage, the North-South sectional divide, has perennially received its due. But the unit of analysis in so many studies was overly simplistic—typically employing a dummy indicator for the South (or the North) in a national examination of voter behavior. Contemporary scholarship on the role of political geography in American politics has advanced considerably because of (1) the reemergence of questions such as how place affects behavior, and (2) attendant gains in methodological sophistication. With the use of Geographic Information Systems (GIS) technology, old questions have been revisited and a host of new research agendas spawned by the capability of isolating spatial units and then gauging their contribution to shaping political behavior. At the macro level, the common awareness of political divisions across regions, states, and within states now makes room for micro-level studies that routinely move below the county and go all the way down to the neighborhood. Indeed, recent contributions examining the effects of place have created a veritable renaissance in the way American politics scholars view geography as a factor influencing political behavior and electoral outcomes.

General Overviews

With the exception of Key 1949, a masterful study of Southern politics, few political science works have used an extensive mixed-methods approach to evaluate the role of geography in affecting political behavior. It is not because political scientists lack the training to conduct such studies (at least this is no longer the case), but more likely because they see the task of undertaking an exhaustive spatial examination of politics as more suited for a political geographer. In addition to Key 1949, whose exhaustive account of Southern politics examines electoral differences associated with county density, the racial compositions of counties, various sections within states, where candidates hail from (the “friends and neighbors” effect), and even an enduring sub-regional divide between the Deep and Peripheral South, this overview highlights several other works that have made a lasting impact. Sundquist 1983 is a classic on political realignment that is rich in historical information on the enduring sectional divisions in American politics and provides a compelling statement of the dynamics at work in fostering party system change. Rohde 1991 and its theory of conditional party government is rooted in the evidence that partisan sorting within congressional constituencies has enabled Democratic and Republican party leaders and their followers in the US House to increasingly polarize along a liberal versus conservative ideological continuum. Bensel 1990 on American political development, with the Civil War as its central focus, offers a compelling explanation for how this pivotal event bolstered state authority and perhaps surprisingly why a central authority had an even more powerful role in holding together the Confederate States of America. Elazar 1966 and its classification of state cultures (individualist, moralist, and traditionalist), though often criticized, remains a commonly used measure for distinguishing among political features and practices found within different regions of the United States. For instance, Erikson, et al. 1993 finds little explanatory value in the Elazar state culture categories in its impressive study of state-level variation based on measures of partisanship and ideology that were derived from the aggregation of troves of survey data. Brown 1988 is a study of how migration influences political behavior and has served as a foundational work for later accounts of how party identification and voter preferences are influenced when an individual relocates to a different political environment. Finally, Gimpel and Schuknecht 2004 is an important study of what factors contribute to political stability and change, employing a rich data set that incorporates surveys and county-level information for longitudinal and spatial analyses of some of our nation’s largest and most politically influential states. To be clear, there is no comprehensive textbook account of political geography in the American politics literature; instead, there are numerous studies that center on narrower questions of how place affects politics and, therefore, these aforementioned works are singled out because they have influenced many of the leading strains of subsequent geographic-based research.

  • Bensel, Richard F. Yankee Leviathan: The Origins of Central State Authority in America, 1859–1877. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1990.

    A classic study in American political development that explains how both Northern and Southern responses to the Civil War led to the creation of a strong central state.

  • Brown, Thad A. Migration and Politics: The Impact of Population Mobility on American Voting Behavior. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1988.

    A seminal work on the political effects associated with immigration. Explores how political behavior is influenced when an individual migrates to a new political environment.

  • Elazar, Daniel J. American Federalism: A View from the States. New York: Thomas Y. Crowell, 1966.

    Somewhat controversial, but nonetheless extremely influential for devising a regional classification of state subcultures in American politics. State politics scholars often employ this subculture classification scheme in their analyses of state politics.

  • Erikson, Robert S., Gerald C. Wright, and John P. McIver. Statehouse Democracy. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1993.

    An impressive compilation and construction of the partisan and ideological makeup of all fifty states, based on a longitudinal inventory of numerous large-scale, individual-level surveys.

  • Gimpel, James G., and Jason E. Schuknecht. Patchwork Nation: Sectionalism and Political Change in American Politics. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2004.

    An examination of several key compositional factors that shape the politics within states and across regions, over time. A convincing account of what makes states and regions vary in their partisan compositions and electoral outputs.

  • Key, V. O., Jr. Southern Politics in State and Nation. New York: Knopf, 1949.

    The most impressive, influential, and comprehensive examination of an American region’s politics. Numerous analyses demonstrate how geography shapes voting patterns and election outcomes. A magisterial explanation of the “Solid” South, published when the system began to collapse.

  • Rohde, David W. Parties and Leaders in the Postreform House. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991.

    DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226724058.001.0001

    In this account of a changing American Congress, party-based alterations to district-level electorates have fostered institutional polarization, which, in turn, has enabled a more responsible style of governance.

  • Sundquist, James L. The Dynamics of the American Party System: Alignment and Realignment of Political Parties in the United States. Washington, DC: Brookings Institution, 1983.

    A realignment approach to explaining party system change for several distinct political periods. Sectional conflicts over salient issues that are viewed in moral terms are a motivating factor for aligning and realigning the structure of the national party system.

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