Lies, Damn Lies, and Liberalism

dallas%201.jpgaustin.jpgBy now I’m sure you’ve heard the rumors that Austin is less liberal than Dallas, as reported last Friday in the Statesman and other outlets. This revelation comes courtesy of the Bay Area Center for Voting Research in a report lacking both analytic insight and linguistic precision.

The BACVR’s 48-page document reveals a very straightforward methodology; cities across the country were ranked as liberal or conservative based on their voting patterns. It is important to note two specific details that drove the results. First, cities were defined strictly by their city limits rather than the more general “metropolitan” areas as defined by the Census. Second, the ranking only took Presidential voting into consideration. Using this approach, Austin was deemed to be only the 93rd most liberal city, while Dallas was a decidedly darker shade of blue at 32nd.

The idea of comparing voting patterns across regions is not necessarily a bad one, but to do so as a measure of liberalism is like comparing the depth of ponds by how many rocks you can throw in. Sure, a deeper pond will generally hold more rocks than a shallow one, but this assumption is prone to mistake breadth for depth because it fails to look below the surface. Political ideology represents a spectrum of beliefs, requiring more than a “heads-or-tails” Presidential vote to discern varying degrees of Liberalism and Conservativism. The BACVR would have been on safer ground using the terms Democratic and Republican, but all they’ve truly uncovered is degrees of Kerryism or Bushism.

Compounding the problem is that city-to-city comparisons hide a multitude of differences due to the varying relationships between cities and their surrounding areas. While surrounding communities such as Round Rock and San Marcos may someday eclipse its dominance, for now the City of Austin is more or less synonymous with what people think of as “Austin.” In Dallas, however, the city limits contain far less of the regional population and is thus less representative of the area as a whole [see 2000 Census counts below]. Since the BACVR essentially ignored suburban voters in their analysis, the results are not really comparable between cities with vastly different suburban populations.

Overall, I’d give the BACVR report a C- in my impromptu Electoral Politics class. The City of Dallas may have “outvoted” the City of Austin in the 2004 election, 75% vs. 59% for John Kerry, but this outcome does not inherently equate to Liberalism, nor does it reflect the political leanings of the respective urban areas around each city. The fact that this “think-tank” would assume the former and ignore the latter completely undermines the credibility of their findings, and justifies the skepticism that has met its release.

But the most scathing criticism should be leveled at the media. Despite a readily available report and glaring holes in the research, most outlets either reported the information at face value or put a cheeky spin on it with minimal journalistic investigation. While the Statesman and its ilk joined the chorus of yukking it up, the Star-Telegram was the only paper I found offering some critical assessment and professional opinion. I suppose it’s comforting that at least one Texas paper gave this research the sniff test before passing it along.

Austin Population [% not in city limits]:
656,652 City of Austin
812,280 Travis County [19.2%]
1,249,763 Austin MSA [47.5%]

Dallas Population [% not in city limits]:
1,188,580 City of Dallas
2,218,899 Dallas County [46.4%]
3,519,176 Dallas MSA [66.2%]

City of Dallas Voting:
75% Kerry
25% Bush

Dallas County Voting:
49% Kerry
50% Bush

City of Austin Voting:
59% Kerry
41% Bush

Travis County Voting:
56% Kerry
42% Bush

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