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Geographic Curiosities: the East-West Divide in Wisconsin

5 Jun

Those who know me well know that I have an unfettered love for maps.

This love reflects my long-standing fascination with geography. It’s been some time since I devoted an intellectually-oriented post on this blog to the subject (like this one from a few years ago). But sometimes things just spark my interest.

One such thing is the state of Wisconsin. Wisconsin is one of the thirteen states I haven’t been to (aside from a brief layover in Milwaukee, which I don’t count). In other words, it is essentially a mystery to me. I have no idea what life on the ground is actually like, but from my omniscient cartographic bird’s eye view, I have noticed an interesting pattern.

That is, eastern Wisconsin and western Wisconsin often do not like to be the same.

This east/west demarcation was first brought to my attention by the famous pop/soda/coke map, which plots the dominant term for a generic soft drink across the United States:

You’ll notice that in western Wisconsin, “pop” dominates as it does in the vast majority of the Midwest (with the exception of the large “soda” bastion around St. Louis). Eastern Wisconsin is somewhat unusual in its preference for “soda.”

A similar pattern emerges with another dialectal term – that used for the drinking apparatus commonly found in schools or public parks. The three most commonly used terms – “water fountain,” “drinking fountain,” and “bubbler,” are mapped by the Harvard Dialect Survey:

“Water fountain” is used by speakers on the purple dots; “drinking fountain” on green; and “bubbler” on red. Although the pattern in Wisconsin is not exactly the same as for pop/soda, we notice a strong concentration of “bubbler” in the eastern part of the state. (But not by coincidence – the word “bubbler” is derived from the trademarked name of the original water fountain developed by the Kohler Company in Kohler, Wisconsin).

After seeing these dialect maps several years ago, I hadn’t given much thought to the east-west divide in Wisconsin until I watched this fascinating lecture series from Stanford about U.S. electoral geography. In one lecture, the professor discusses the divergent voting patterns of eastern and western Wisconsin, which apparently dates back to the earliest days of the state’s history. To some extent, this pattern is still evident in the modern day. The east/west split can perhaps best be seen in the results for the 1988 and 2004 Presidential elections.

1988 vote by county:

2004 vote by county:

(These maps come from Dave Leip’s wonderful online atlas. Note that the colour scheme follows the pre-2000 convention, with Democratic-leaning counties in red and Republican-leaning counties in blue).

Again, the pattern is not perfectly consistent, but the counties do show a remarkable level of contiguity in their voting preferences. We are certainly not dealing with a north-south divide.

In the Stanford lecture, the professor speculates that the divergent politics could be explained, at least initially, by settlement patterns. Namely, the eastern (or more conservative) area was dominated by people of German ancestry, whereas the western (or more liberal) area had more Scandinavian settlers.

Modern ancestry maps can shed some light on this hypothesis:

Now, surely some of these geographic differences (particularly the dialectal ones) are probably better explained by things like population density than they are by ancestry. The eastern half of the state is clearly the more urbanized overall, as demonstrated by the density map below. But this makes the political division all the more interesting, as the general trend among American whites is for those in more rural areas to vote Republican, and vice versa. This seems to suggest that ancestry or some kind of deep-rooted culture in each part of the state really is important, because it trumps the national tendency.

So, what do you think? Are these geographic patterns all just a vast coincidence? There are certainly few other states with such a seemingly neatly defined duality. But whether there really is a ‘tangible’ east-west difference can only be determined by people who know Wisconsin well. Any natives care to chime in?