Geography plays a major role in politics and voter behavior. Genevieve Atwood, an Adjunct professor of geography at the University of Utah says in geography, everything is connected to everything else. Dr. Atwood grew up in Utah and served in the Utah House of Representatives from 1974 – 1980. She also served as Utah State Geologist and Director of the Utah Geological Survey from 1981 – 1989. She began teaching at the University of Utah in 1993 and is also the Chief Education Officer of educational non-profit Earth Science Education.
Atwood argues that geography is not just capitols and names of places.
“Those of us who enjoy geography enjoy elections in a different way. There are five great themes in geography: Location, place, interactions, movement, and regions.
Location – Utah is in “red” country politically. Our neighboring states generally vote Republican. We are far from the coasts. Place – This can be thought of as “location with an attitude.” Places have meaning. The meaning of the West changes through time, from John Wayne in the 1950s to Robert Redford and A River Runs Through It.
Interactions – Geography is about intersections – social, economic, environmental. It’s about geology and politics and culture. All of these interact to shape voter behavior. Movement – There’s a saying in rural Utah: ‘Put a nickel on the street in any town in Utah and it rolls to Salt Lake.’ Movement covers the push and pull factors of people, ideas, and money. Salt Lake is the economic engine of the state,” explained Atwood.
Another factor is regions. This could refer to political regions, cultural regions or economical regions. Eastern Utah’s coal industry shapes their perception of a “war on coal.”
“Mineral, water, and energy resources have influenced Utah politics, particularly in the past. In the 1930s up until the 60s, Utah tended to vote Democratic. During those decades, federal projects were bringing a lot of money into the state. Then things changed. Watergate and the issues of nuclear fallout in Southern Utah hurt that trust with the government. They say that the currency of business is money and the currency of politics is trust,” Dr. Atwood explained.
Culture is another factor that impacts elections. If we look at a map of how Utah counties voted in the 2008 presidential election, only three counties went to Obama. And if you look at a map of LDS population percentages by county, you see that those three counties had around 50% or lower LDS population. So it’s not just resources, it’s also cultural regions.
Dr. Atwood says she has no predictions about how geography might influence this year’s voting and is fascinated by whatever happens!
“It’s easier to explain the past than predict 2016. Most voters vote against a candidate rather than for a candidate. This year there seems to be general patterns of discontent. The discontent differs in Utah rural regions from Utah’s urban regions. I predict that will make a difference, especially in rural areas,” she added.