Add the terms “Slump Belt” and “Diploma Belt” to the new lexicon of Beltway demographers.  “Rust Belt” and “Sun Belt” are already household terms; everyone knows that the Rust Belt refers to the decaying industrial Midwest and Sun Belt is a catch-all term for boom towns from Orlando to Phoenix to San Jose.

Slump Belt is a term coined by Paul Krugman that refers to a swath that cuts across both the Rust and Sun belts.  “Heavy with manufacturing centers, [it runs] from the industrial Midwest down to the Carolinas,” Richard Florida notes in his recent must-read Atlantic cover story “Meltdown Geography.”

The Slump Belt includes towns from Motown to Upstate South Carolina, where unemployment is creeping above double digits.  I would arguably add some southwestern towns, such as Phoenix, where home values have plummeted 40% in the last year.

On the other side of the economic spectrum is the Diploma Belt, which is more of a demographic classification than a geographic one.   It’s a term coined by Ron Brownstein of National Journal and Dave Wasserman of the Cook Political Report and refers to the 100 most-educated counties with over 20,000 people.

In their must-read NJ article, Brownstein and Wasserman explain that “The Diploma Belt consists of counties dominated by state capitals, major universities, big cities and their suburbs, or playgrounds for the rich.”   This includes communities such as Travis County, Texas (Austin); Fairfield, Ct.; Washtenaw County, Mich. (Ann Arbor); and Teton County, Wyo. (Jackson Hole).

It was only until recently that the Diploma Belt started supporting Democrats.  George H. W. Bush won 64 of today’s 100 best-educated counties in 1988 and even took the home states of Princeton, Stanford and Yale.  But, “Bill Clinton, with his centrist ‘New Democrat’ message that fused economic moderation and cultural liberalism, significantly advanced” the Democratic brand in these communities.

You’ll have to read the article to see how Obama did in the Diploma Belt, but I’m sure you can guess that his cerebral message of post-partisanship played well in these communities fatigued by eight years of a cowboy in the White House.  The Slump Belt has murkier borders, but I’d guess that voters in this belt were also stressed by Bush economics and chose the Democrat.

If Republicans can point to success in one beltway in 2008, it’s the “Jacksonian Belt.” This term, the creation of demographer/columnist Michael Barone, refers to the swath of counties settled by the Scots-Irish stretching from southwestern Pennsylvania down the Appalachian spine, through the Tennessee River Valley, and out westward across Arkansas and into eastern Oklahoma.

Unfortunately for Republicans, the Jacksonian Belt (ironically named after the father of the Democratic Party), is stagnating at best.  More West Virginians voted in the 1964 election than they did the 2008 one.  If the GOP hopes to find some success the most prized belt of all – the Beltway – it needs to find a way to connect with voters in two belts that matter most in the recession economy: the Slump and Diploma belts.

Note: The original story listed Harris County as the home of Austin.  Harris County is the home of Houston.  Travis County is the home of Austin.

4 Responses to “Beltways”

  1. Jay

    27 February 2009 at 1:20 PM

    I think the key to the shift to the left in the so-called Diploma Belt is its increasing dependence on subsidies from the federal government in the form of research grants and college tuition subsidies. The impact of this on the cost of a college education has been to drive it up and up. When you over subsidize something it always increases the demand and that increases the cost.
    Colleges have become increasingly overpriced and wasteful but no one dare question the sacred cow.

    Of course, the increasing lack of diverse political thought in the diploma belt is also part of the problem. A great deal of ignorance and inattention to basic economics and past American history leads to a boring unimaginative conformity of political correctness and increasing support for a greedy and increasingly power mad party as witness the latest Obama overreaching budget with its back to back trillion dollar deficits when the country is already overcommitted fiscally.

    Here in Fairfax County VA, one of the largest diploma belt counties, we have seen a once two party county turn into a one party dominated liberal political machine. We even have had a county chairman who rubber stamped ugly urban development while working for a developer. Increasing taxes, crime and corruption have become the hallmarks of this new machine. Supposedly well educated yuppies vote straight party Democrat without regard to the merits or qualifications of the candidates.

    I think somone needs to do some research on counties and their dependence on government handouts and how that has affected their politics.

    Actually, Kevin Phillips in his best book, “The Emerging Republican Majority”, was the first to point out how the wealthy and elite areas of the country trended to the Democrats as the old business class disappeared and died off and was replaced by this overeducated new class.

    Ironically these new class yuppies were the main force behind the financial bubbles like the dot.com boom in 2000 and the housing bubble of 2008. They also benefited from the Reagan and Bush tax cuts but did not repay the GOP with any support. Instead they increasingly supported the Democrats who opposed the tax cuts and free trade agreements that helped the economies of the Diploma Belt areas.

    The question is now whether they will continue to support the Democrats and follow the path towards a permanent American education-environmental-welfare state complex. Or will they rebel against the record high taxes on the wealthiest Americans which Obama wants to impose on them.

  2. A-gu

    3 March 2009 at 4:00 AM

    Quick note: Harris County is the seat of Houston, not Austin.

  3. Patrick Ottenhoff

    5 March 2009 at 8:16 PM

    A-gu: Thanks for the heads up. I was in Jackson, WY of all places and so didn’t have a chance to update. It’s updated now.


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