How do the communities where people live shape the way they understand national politics? Although the concepts of red and blue states are familiar to most Americans, we have little understanding of how that patchwork emerges from the everyday processes and interactions of the people who live within it. To understand how local contexts produce the geography of American politics, this project follows three communities through the 2020 presidential campaign. These communities are similar socioeconomically, but have historically voted very differently. The three towns are similar blue-collar, Midwestern towns located in predominately rural counties, and yet they vote for opposing parties in presidential elections: one is staunchly Democratic, another is devoutly Republican, and a third has a voting history that is more mixed. What is it about these communities that influences similar people to vote differently? Findings from the project will be of interest to all political actors who have an interest in understanding and predicting voting patterns in presidential elections, as well as those interested in constructing effective political campaigns.

To understand why demographically similar small towns vote differently in presidential campaigns, this project uses both qualitative and quantitative methods. Relying on Census and voting records from 1932-2016, a hierarchical clustering algorithm was used to identify the three cases based on their demographic similarities and their different voting histories from 1964-2016. The qualitative portion of the study will draw on three different types of data: in-depth interviews conducted with 90 voters across the three towns at four different points during the 2020 U.S. presidential election; in-depth interviews with 75 community leaders from churches, non-profits, unions, political parties, and local government; and ethnographic observation of key community organizations’ mobilization efforts during the campaign. All qualitative data will be analyzed using the RQDA qualitative analysis package. Data from the interviews and observation will demonstrate how the meso-level of organizations and community life shape voters’ understandings of national politics. In answering this question, this study advances the scholarship on partisanship and polarization in American politics by re-orienting its focus away from individuals’ demographics and toward the place-based processes of sense-making that help people understand the complex political world. Findings from the project will inform sociological theories of political identity and political participation.

This award reflects NSF's statutory mission and has been deemed worthy of support through evaluation using the Foundation's intellectual merit and broader impacts review criteria.

National Science Foundation (NSF)
Division of Social and Economic Sciences (SES)
Standard Grant (Standard)
Application #
Program Officer
Melanie Hughes
Project Start
Project End
Budget Start
Budget End
Support Year
Fiscal Year
Total Cost
Indirect Cost
University of Chicago
United States
Zip Code