In 1966 in Multnomah County, 59 percent of voters were registered Democrats. In the Eastern Oregon region, 56 percent were registered Democrats. Each region of the state was at least 50 percent Democrat. But, Republican Tom McCall handily won the 1966 gubernatorial election with more than 55 percent of the vote, losing only three counties.
More than 50 years later, Oregon’s political landscape has changed dramatically — and the urban-rural divide couldn’t be more apparent. Multnomah County is more liberal than ever with 71 percent of voters registered as Democrats. Eastern Oregon has gone the opposite way, with only 41 percent of voters registered as Democrats. Democrat Kate Brown won re-election by more than 7 percent statewide, but she was chosen by only seven of Oregon’s 36 counties.
What once was only a 3 percent political registration gap between Eastern Oregon and Multnomah County has now skyrocketed to more than 30 percent.
With the state’s population becoming more concentrated around Portland, and Eastern Oregon and Multnomah County becoming so politically disparate, the political voices of East Oregonians have become increasingly silenced. A state that at one time was politically homogeneous has become as polarized as anywhere in the country.
So, what happened?
In 2008, three professors from Portland State University, Western Oregon University and Oregon State University delivered a paper at the Toward One Oregon Conference in Salem. The paper, titled “The Politics of One Oregon: The Causes, Consequences and
Prospects of Overcoming the Rural--Urban Divide,” explored the dramatic political polarization in the state.
Mark Henkels is a professor of public policy and administration at WOU and co-authored the 44-page paper. He told The Observer the growth of the divide can be boiled down to two major causes.
“One is the economics and the second is cultural,” Henkels said, adding the divide has broadened due to “the polarizing political climate right now, where because of gerrymandering and other reasons we are driven to more extremes if you’re a Democrat or a Republican.”
Henkels and his co-authors, Richard Clucas, professor of political science at PSU, and Brent Steel, professor of political science at OSU, identified globalization, differing views on the environment, demographic changes and urbanization as just some of the factors affecting the state’s divide in 2008.
The state’s rural and urban split has deepened with the growth of Portland, the state’s only metropolitan area with a population in the country’s top 120 — Portland ranks 25th. Salem, the state’s second biggest metro area, is 126th.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, in 1960, Oregon had a population of 1.772 million, while the Portland metro area had a population of 881,961 — 49.6 percent of the state’s population. In 2017, the census bureau estimated Oregon had a population of 4.143 million, and the Portland metro area’s population was 2.435 million — 58.77 percent of the state’s population.
This urbanization of the state’s population is part of a nationwide trend. In 1960, 69.9 percent of the U.S.’s population lived in urban areas. In 2010, that had climbed to 80.7 percent of the population.
With the population growth in Portland has come an influx of jobs and wealth in the state’s marquee city. Over the past 30 years, Henkels said, the metro areas across the country have economically boomed and the rural areas have fallen behind.
This lack of growth can be paired with political changes in the affiliations of the political parties in the late 1970s into the 1980s, Henkels said.
“The Republicans started raising more cultural issues that (caused) lower-income working and middle class people (to) start second- guessing whether the Democrats represented their cultural values,” Henkels said.
According to Cornell University’s Roper Center for Public Opinion Research — one of the world’s leading archives of social science data, specializing in data from public opinion surveys and information on voters in presidential elections beginning in 1976 — Jimmy Carter received 57 percent of the lower-income working class vote and 62 percent of voters in union households in 1976. Just four years later, Carter received only 48 percent of these groups’ votes in an election he lost to Republican Ronald Reagan. In 1984, Reagan received 58 percent of the lower working class vote and 46 percent of voters in union households.
In addition to the Republican Party becoming more popular among the lower-income working class, the Democratic Party also lost support in Oregon’s numerous timber towns, partially due to issues such as protecting the spotted owl. Henkels said Democrats in Portland were blamed by rural communities for the controversy.
According to the Oregon Encyclopedia, “When District Judge William Dwyer prohibited national forest timber sales in potential spotted owl habitat in May 1991 … (his) decision, among other factors, sharply reduced timber harvests on federal land, the greatest reductions taking place in Oregon and Washington.”
Democrats began to become the party of preservation, which alienated rural Oregonians.
“As Democrats embraced environmentalism strongly, it translated in rural Oregon to (the Democratic Party) being against them and their resource-based communities and economies,” Henkels said.
The Associated Oregon Loggers estimated the average annual statewide timber harvest in the 1980s was 7.52 billion board feet. In 1990s, the harvest dropped to 4.71 billion board feet per year, and in the 2000s it fell even further to 3.83 billion board feet per year.
“The decline of the timber industry created much stronger differentials between the rural areas and Portland,” Henkels said. “At one time, Portland was a timber town and a really blue collar town. It wasn’t that much different from all the mill towns in Oregon.”
In addition to Portland’s increased population and wealth, the Democratic Party’s loss of support among the lower-middle class and the environmental issues alienating Oregonians in the timber industry, another factor in Oregon’s polarization is the change in demographics across the state.
Oregon as a whole has long had a large majority of white people, but Portland has diversified over the last several decades, while the rest of the state has done so at a much slower rate.
In 1990, the earliest demographic data available from the U.S. Census Bureau, Oregon was 91 percent white. In 2010, the state was 78 percent white. Portland, however, was 72.2 percent white, meaning the rest of state remains almost 80 percent white.
Historically, members of minority communities are more likely to vote for Democratic candidates. Since 1980, black and Hispanic voters have voted consistently for Democrats. In 2016, black voters voted for Hillary Clinton by a 80 point margin, while Hispanic voters voted for Clinton by a 36 point margin.
The quantifiable political polarization
In light of Oregon’s political rural-urban divide, what would change if instead of Portland deciding almost every statewide election, Northeast Oregon did? Specifically, what would happen if the state’s elections were placed in the hands of voters from Baker, Union and Wallowa counties?
In 2018, Oregon had five statewide measures on the ballot. Only Measure 103 — which allows local bonds for financing affordable housing with nongovernmental entities — passed, and no election had more than a
10 percent margin of victory. Portland voted overwhelmingly for Measure 103 — more than 71.72 percent of the vote — and overwhelmingly against each of the other measures.
In turn, Oregon rejected measures that would have prohibited any future taxes on groceries, would have expanded the application of a required three-fifths legislative majority to raise revenue, would have overturned the state’s undocumented immigrant sanctuary state law, and would have prohibited the spending of public funds on abortion.
In Northeast Oregon, there was agreement with Portland on only one of these measures. Baker, Union and Wallowa counties also rejected the expanded application of the legislative three-fifths majority. Otherwise the vast majority of voters in these three counties voted the opposite of Portland voters.
While Gov. Kate Brown was expected to be challenged by Republican Knute Buehler on election night, the incumbent cruised to a victory by a seven-point margin. Buehler’s popularity — or Brown’s lack thereof — in rural Oregon would have led to a crushing defeat for Brown if Northeast Oregon called the shots in the state. Buehler received 67.91 percent, 72.99 percent and 66.17 percent, respectively, in Union, Baker and Wallowa counties. The only governor who has been close to as popular in Oregon as Buehler was in NE Oregon was John Kitzhaber in 1998 when he received 64.4 percent of the vote.
Will there ever be “one Oregon”?
Henkels and his colleagues’ paper was included in a 2011 book titled “Toward One Oregon” that is described as “examining the prospects for uniting our geographically diverse state in the years ahead.”
The paper co-authored by Henkels admits it presents few “reasons to be optimistic that the divide between rural and urban Oregon can easily be bridged,” but it does offer “glimmers of hope” by suggesting ways the state government may be able to diminish the gap.
The paper notes the Eastern Oregon region will likely become more diverse as time progresses, and more tied to technological advances, making it more similar to the Portland area. The strongest way for Oregon to become less divided, the paper argues, is for a rural economic revitalization.
“More than anything else, if the state government took steps to help booster the economic position of the rural communities, the rural and urban areas would no longer be as divided by differences in economic well-being,” the paper concludes. “As a result, one might find more agreement on other policy issues.”
Henkels acknowledged in an interview with The Observer there are other differences in principles between the rural and urban parts of the state.
“As long as the state is divided along different values and ideologies, it will be hard to find common ground,” Henkels said. “Agreement will only be reached when the political values and ideologies held by Oregonians become more alike, or alternatively, less all encompassing.”