Oregon's political divide

Obama beat Romney in 10 of the state's 36 counties

By Lily Raff McCaulou (@LilyMcCaulou) and Andy Zeigert (@BulletinGrafx) / The Bulletin

Oregon is reliably blue. The Beaver State has thrown its seven electoral college votes behind the Democratic candidate in every presidential election since 1988. But look at the results on a county-by-county basis and the map suddenly becomes more colorful.

This year, Barack Obama won more votes than Mitt Romney in 10 of Oregon's 36 counties. However, four of those happened to be the biggest four counties, population-wise. There were more votes cast in Multnomah, Washington, Clackamas and Lane counties — all heavily Democratic — than in the rest of the state combined.

According to Jim Moore, a professor of politics and government at Pacific University, the state is politically divided for a number of reasons, most of which stem from the economy.

Communities built around more modern, post-industrial economies tend to lean Democratic, Moore says. Communities with traditional manufacturing and resource-based economies tend to lean Republican.

Moore lives in Washington County, where he says nearly every town voted Democratic in last month's election. “All you have to do is walk across the (town) boundary. You get into fields and, all of a sudden, it's Republican,” he says. “So there's some self-selection going on here.”

Moore's hypothesis is that a person who moves to Oregon to work at, say, Intel is more likely to live in a city than on a nearby farm. This member of the “new” economy is likely to have a higher education and is likely to vote Democratic.

As a blue city grows, it tends to attract like-minded people who agree with the political majority.

Meanwhile, some counties with zero or negative population growth, such as Malheur County, are actually becoming more Republican.

Moore says this is because Republicans tend to be older than Democrats. Rural counties such as Malheur are having trouble retaining young people, who often move to cities in search of jobs. The rural population that remains tends to be extremely conservative.

“Deschutes County is a fascinating case because when the economy was roaring and people were moving there, it was getting less Republican and more Democratic,” Moore says. “Now that the recession has hit, it's going back the other way.”

Moore says it remains to be seen whether the recession is causing a political blip or a new long-term trajectory.

Back when the lumber industry was booming, Moore says, Oregon politics were more regional.

“It wasn't Portland versus the rest of the state,” he says.

For example, politicians from natural resource-dependent Deschutes and Jackson counties had a lot in common with legislators in Portland, where lumber companies were headquartered.

When the timber industry collapsed, in the early 1980s, Portland's economy shifted away from natural resources. Its political similarities with Deschutes and Jackson counties dwindled.

Ronald Reagan's election in 1980 altered the way voters approached environmental issues, according to Moore. Environmentalism had long been a bipartisan concern, particularly in Oregon. Suddenly, it became an issue that Republicans and Democrats fought about. Tom McCall, Oregon's governor from 1967 to 1975 and a hero to environmentalists, was a Republican. Moore says McCall “ended up hating Ronald Reagan.”

Since 1976, a greater percentage of Oregonian voters have registered outside of the Republican and Democratic parties.

The Watergate scandal first made voters less trusting of both political parties, Moore says.

But Moore cautions that these “independent” voters are rarely true independents. Instead, they tend to vote with one of the two major parties.

“So someone may say, 'I hate the tea party, I'm not going to be a Republican anymore,'” Moore says. “But they still tend to support Republican candidates. It's like they're cranky-unaffiliated, not ideologically-unaffiliated.”