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.
The heart of Bethesda is less than 2 miles from the boundaries of the District of Columbia. So it's not surprising that many people interested in politics live in this Washington suburb. In addition to its location, Bethesda's economic prosperity (major government-related companies, such as Lockheed Martin, are located here) attracts residents who are likely to be politically active. Bethesda's median family income was $168,385 in 2007, according to the Census Bureau.
Laguna Niguel, Calif.
Even before it became famous on the television show The O.C., Orange County was known as the wealthier, more conservative sister to Los Angeles. While the median family income in Orange County is $81,260, Laguna Niguel is even more upscale, with a median family income of $108,647. The town is also well educated for its region, with 62 percent of residents ages 25 and older holding bachelor's degrees, compared with just over a third for all of Orange County. Orange County is a rare Republican bastion in Southern California. Laguna Niguel is represented by a Republican in the House, and it narrowly went for John McCain last November.
This small city in the mountains of western North Carolina is known for its free-spirited population. In 2006, PETA awarded Asheville the title of most vegetarian-friendly small city. But it's not a uniformly liberal bastion: Asheville's Buncombe County is eclectic when it comes to politics. The county went for George W. Bush in 2000 and 2004 and Obama in 2008. Asheville is also a college town, home to the University of North Carolina-Asheville. That juxtaposition—a hippie college town in an area that often votes Republican—gives Asheville an unusual intellectual atmosphere that seems to be good for political junkies.
Walnut Creek, Calif.
The San Francisco Bay area is perhaps the most liberal metropolitan area in the country. Suburban Contra Costa County fits that mold: Only 26 percent of its registered voters are Republicans, according to the California State Board of Elections. But Walnut Creek, a city of more than 60,000, is more evenly divided between the major parties. According to the most recent statistics, there are 18,942 Democrats registered in the town and 13,848 Republicans.
If, as political scientists have found, tight-knit communities produce more interest in politics, Reston, Va., is a prime example. Located 20 miles outside of Washington, Reston is a planned community with a neighborly spirit. It stands out in Northern Virginia for its green pathways, European-style town plazas for commercial districts, and a neighborhood association that provides public services.
San Ramon, Calif.
San Ramon is another city in the San Francisco Bay area's Contra Costa County. Like Walnut Creek, San Ramon has a more competitive balance between Republicans and Democrats than much of the rest of the area. According to the most recent voter registration statistics, there are 13,317 Democrats and 11,016 Republicans in San Ramon.
Mission Viejo, Calif.
Mission Viejo is a larger neighbor of Laguna Niguel in Orange County. The two cities border each other and have similar demographics, including high incomes. Mission Viejo stands out as a particularly healthy community and is well suited for political involvement. A 2007 ranking of violent crime statistics by CQ Press found it to be the safest city in America.
One of the larger suburbs of Washington, Annandale is in Fairfax County. It is another town where partisans are often pitted against each other in close standoffs. Once reliably Republican, Fairfax County has become much more competitive in recent years—2004 was the first time a Democratic presidential candidate had won the county in 40 years, and Barack Obama received 60 percent of the vote in 2008, compared with 52.7 percent statewide.
In 1888, the New York Times dubbed this Boston suburb the wealthiest town of its size in America. Brookline might not be able to claim that title anymore, but it is still very affluent. Median family income is $120,933, much higher than the $77,409 average for the entire state. Those high income levels partially explain the town's interest in political affairs. Equally important might be the town's status as a tony residential area for one of the biggest centers of education in the country. The campuses of Boston University and Boston College are adjacent to the town.