Receiving a bevy of attention in the aftermath of this year’s political primary season was the fact that Republican primary voters outnumbered those casting votes on the Democratic side for the first time ever (“for the first time since Reconstruction” was regularly misused, as primaries did not replace elite-dominated party conventions until several decades later). No matter the distinctive elements of the 2014 cycle that prodded the turnout dynamics, it’s a noteworthy historical fact that marks the cementing of two-party competition in the state.
Lost in the conversations about overall turnout patterns, however, were some important changes in the geographical sources for Republican primary votes. In 2006, fully one-third of Republican primary votes came from two counties in Northwest Arkansas: Benton and Washington. Four years later, the proportion of primary votes from those counties had dropped to one in four. This May, Benton and Washington counties accounted for just over 16 percent of GOP primary votes.
To where did the voting power in the GOP primary electorate relocate? First, the fast-growing donut of counties around Pulaski; the three largest of those counties (Faulkner, Lonoke and Saline) in 2014 accounted for slightly more votes than the two mega-counties of Northwest Arkansas. Second, areas of Northwest Arkansas developing as their own donut around Benton and Washington counties; booming subdivisions in Crawford and Franklin counties make them increasingly Republican. Third, the mostly rural counties running along the diagonal of counties from southwest to northeast jumping the Little Rock metropolitan area; Northeast Arkansas saw a particular increase in GOP activity in the Obama era. In short, aside from a handful of Delta counties, the Arkansas Republican party is now a statewide party.
During the era when Northwest Arkansas dominated Republican primary voting, the state GOP was almost predestined to nominate candidates from that quadrant of the state. While there were exceptions to this rule (the most notable one being Mike Huckabee), the norm was for candidates to win party nominations on the strength of Northwest Arkansas and then have tremendous difficulty reaching beyond the region to access voters elsewhere in the state sufficient to win general elections. In 2006, for instance, state Sen. Jim Holt won the GOP nomination for lieutenant governor with a healthy majority of the vote (beating former U.S. prosecutor Chuck Banks, a candidate with real general election appeal); Holt was swamped by Bill Halter. This year, Little Rock’s Tim Griffin won his own nomination for that office without a runoff and starts the general election campaign as a strong favorite, particularly because of his proven ability to win votes outside of Northwest Arkansas.
The changing role of Northwest Arkansas in the GOP universe is important enough. Lurking just below the surface are social changes in that corner of the state that portend larger ramifications for electoral dynamics in Arkansas.
Starting around 1980, burgeoning numbers of in-migrants to Northwest Arkansas for retirement and for jobs with companies such as Walmart and its suppliers brought with them economically and socially conservative attitudes that built upon a historical base of Republicanism in the region. As the jobs for Northwest Arkansas-based companies have become more technologically sophisticated, however, a new type of in-migrant has emerged to fill them. These members of the creative class help to support the emerging cultural offerings orbiting the mammoth Crystal Bridges Museum complex. These creative types are voters who voted for President Obama in large numbers whether they were living in northern Virginia, Seattle, or, yes, Northwest Arkansas.
For years, Democrats have known that making some inroads into Northwest Arkansas was crucial to the party’s long-term standing in the state. Many thought that mobilization of Latino voters could be the key to turning the tide in the 479 area code. Instead, it now appears that some important alterations in the worldviews of new voters more than growing Latino mobilization could create inroads for the Democrats in this vote-rich region.
To find those new Democratic voters in the transient population of Northwest Arkansas requires a massive data collection effort accompanied by an even more massive field operation. In all likelihood, state Democrats will make only small inroads in Northwest Arkansas in 2014. And, let’s not be mistaken: The mega-counties of Northwest Arkansas remain sources of a huge trove of Republican votes. However, as one veteran GOP operative has told me, it is Northwest Arkansas that makes him more than a little agitated as he thinks about the future of Arkansas politics.