Despite promises of change, Americans still seem as politically polarized as they did in the George W. Bush years. Fiery debates over healthcare, the causes of the financial crisis, and race have brought out partisans on both sides. The people who care the most about politics are often at each other's throats.
Although polarization might be ubiquitous on television, in blogs, and on the radio, it does not follow that the most politically active and politically interested people live in polarized communities, interacting only with those who agree with them. When U.S. News looked for the places where residents have the greatest interest in political affairs, it wasn't the heavily red or blue areas that popped up. Sure, there are plenty of political junkies in very liberal places like Portland, Ore., or very conservative places like small towns in Texas, but the places on our list are in more purple regions: Orange County, Calif., an area that is red relative to its deep-blue home state, or Fairfax County, Va., a county that traditionally elects Republicans but went heavily for Obama in the last presidential election.
It shouldn't be surprising that places with a mix of ideologies tend to breed more interest in the political system. Data show that political participation increases in areas where parties are competitive. People are motivated to vote and participate when they know the election won't be a wash for one side. So, voter turnout in a place often depends on how purple it is, says Thomas Patterson, a professor of government at Harvard's Kennedy School.
Other important factors that play into political participation are the quality of education in a community and the level of incomes. Cities on this list tend to be more educated and well off than nearby cities or the country as a whole. They also tend to be residential suburbs of cities with service-based economies. Those characteristics lead to greater political interest not only because wealthier people with children tend to care more about public affairs. Such interest also stems from the fact that prosperous, tight-knit communities are natural breeding grounds for political activity. "Personal contact means a lot" when it comes to increasing voter turnout, says Curtis Gans, director of the Committee for the Study of the American Electorate at American University. Residents of these cities tend to have plenty of contact with their neighbors and the time and leisure to act on political interests.
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The list is primarily based on data from Onboard Informatics aimed at measuring household activity in current events and political affairs. The data are derived from surveys of more than 40 million households and from analysis of products purchased by households—for example, subscriptions to political magazines. Onboard used this data to create an index, from which U.S. News screened for the top cities and towns with populations of more than 50,000. We further narrowed down the list using the most recent voter registration statistics from local election boards. When statistics for locality or precinct were not available, U.S. News made estimates based on county information. Voter registration numbers were then adjusted for population using census data on the number of voting-age residents of the city or county. (Note that these numbers are only approximations of the true number of voters in an area, because they include non-citizens who cannot vote.)
Syracuse, N.Y. This city seems like a strange inclusion. Its economy has suffered as it has tried to transition away from heavy industry, and it is racially diverse. Both of those factors tend to be associated with low political participation, says Gans. But Syracuse has a few elements that point the other way. First, although Syracuse is decidedly in blue territory, it tends to be a little more competitive politically than the rest of this heavily Democratic state. In the 2004 and 2008 elections, John Kerry and Barack Obama won by thinner margins in Onondaga County than they did in the state of New York as a whole. Second, seniors tend to be more active politically, and the city has a higher percentage of people 65 years and older than New York overall.