August 8, 2014

Chart of the Week: The most liberal and conservative big cities

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Big cities in the U.S. tend toward the liberal side of the political spectrum, even when they’re within conservative states (residents of Austin sometimes joke that their city is “an island surrounded by Texas”). But which cities are more liberal — or conservative — than their reputations?

In a paper due to appear in an upcoming issue of the American Political Science Review, researchers from MIT and UCLA pooled data from seven large-scale opinion surveys, conducted between 2000 and 2011, to develop measures of public policy preference in 51 cities with populations of more than 250,000. The most liberal cities were about what you would expect: San Francisco, Washington D.C., Seattle, Oakland and Boston; the most conservative city was Mesa, Ariz., followed by Oklahoma City, Virginia Beach and Colorado Springs. (The chart above, created by The Economist, is based on the researchers’ data.)

Overall, the liberal tilt of big cities is unmistakable. Even cities with conservative reputations (such as Dallas, Santa Ana, Calif. and Cincinnati) show up as left-of-center, if only slightly. This is perhaps not surprising: As the Pew Research Center recently found, 46% of consistent liberals said they’d prefer to live in a city, versus just 4% of consistent conservatives. Liberals also are about twice as likely as conservatives to live in urban areas, while conservatives are more concentrated in rural areas.

As interesting as it can be to ponder the distinctions between, say, Denver and Colorado Springs, the researchers were mainly interested in how responsive municipal governments are to their citizens’ policy preferences. Much previous political-science research assumes that municipal politics are largely non-ideological. But after examining a range of specific municipal-level policy decisions (from the regressiveness of a city’s tax structure to its support for affordable housing), the researchers concluded that in fact, cities’ policies aligned fairly closely with their residents’ ideology. “[C]ities with more liberal populations tend to get more liberal policy…collect more taxes per capita and have substantially higher expenditures per capita….This suggests that not only is city government political, but that it may have more in common with state and national politics than previous scholars have recognized.”

Topics: Political Attitudes and Values, State and Local Government

  1. Photo of Drew DeSilver

    is a Senior Writer at the Pew Research Center.