One of the many painted churches in Fayette County, Texas, this one in Praha.
Photo: Princeps autem justus
As you head east out of Austin, Texas, there’s a point past the airport, past the new expressway and the soccer fields and the fireworks warehouse where the land flattens out into a broad horizontal plain. The Hill Country — and the city — are in the rearview mirror and you’ve reached the blackland prairie, land that years ago was thick with cotton and peanuts.
The topographical change is noticeable. You know you’ve left one place and have reached another. You’ve also reached a different kind of politics, at least within the Democratic Party. This is the point in Texas where the vote for Barack Obama starts to diminish and the vote for Hillary Clinton begins to rise.
The rural/urban division is not lost on Clinton strategists. ” I think the big play is rural right now,” one top Clinton advisor told the Yonder Thursday. “As we go from rural to urban, our margins aren’t as big.”
Hwy. 71 is the southern route from Austin to Houston, from hip, tattooed, techie Austin to bold, skyscrapery Houston. It’s also a 150 mile drive through the nation’s political geography. Quite simply, as you drive away from Austin, the vote for Sen. Barack Obama declines and the vote for Hillary Clinton increases. As you get closer to Houston, the vote for Clinton declines and the vote for Obama increases.
Urban and rural residents have shown different tendencies throughout this primary season. In the Republican race, Sen. John McCain has done better in urban areas while former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee has scored better in rural counties.
Among the Democrats, the split has been profound. Clinton has consistently done better in rural counties and in counties that voted Republican in the 2004 presidential election.
But in Tuesday’s primaries in Ohio and Texas, Clinton won a higher percentage of rural votes than in previous primaries. On Super Tuesday, for example, Sen. Clinton won 55.3 percent of the vote in rural communities.
In Texas two days ago, Clinton won 61 percent of rural votes. In Ohio, her take was higher — 64 percent of the vote in rural counties.
Simply, the farther you travel from large cities, the greater the vote for the New York senator.
Hwy. 71 is the perfect political travelogue as it drops from the Hill Country in Austin to the coastal plains around Houston. Austin is self-conciously urban. It’s young and educated, and the city’s downtown is brimming with high-rise condominiums. Barack Obama won nearly two-thirds of the vote here.
As we get out of town, however, not only does the topography change, so does the vote. Bastrop County has been drawn into Austin’s orbit in the last decade, but when you motor past the subdivisions encrusted on the county’s western side, Bastrop grows more rural. Cutting through the Lost Pines portion of the county — an out-of-place stand of pine trees deposited years ago by glaciers — the county turns rural. The livestock auction in Smithville may be closed, but the barbecue is good at Zimmerhanzel’s down by the river, and there is team roping at the Zapalac arena south of town.
Bastrop is bifurcated, rural and urban — and so was Tuesday’s vote. Clinton won 49.5 percent of the vote here and Obama picked up 48 percent.
Hwy. 71 dips southeast then into Fayette County, named the seventh best place to live in rural America by Progressive Farmer magazine. I would have to agree. This is cattle country — with some oil and gas thrown in for good profit. It was settled by Czechs and Germans, and it wasn’t that long ago that I picked up a German-language polka show broadcast out of a radio station in La Grange, the county seat.
(Yes, La Grange was home to the Chicken Ranch brothel, inspiration for the ZZ Top rock anthem — titled, what else, La Grange — and for Larry King’s play, The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas.)
The county is filled with incredible churches. There’s a music festival in Round Top. The barbecue, especially the sausage, is better than in Bastrop.
Fayette County is more rural, and, so, the vote for Clinton increased. She won 55 percent of the vote here and Obama took only 37 percent.
Downtown Columbus, Texas. Photo: David Grant
The highway follows the Colorado River and the next stop is Colorado County, the midpoint between Houston and Austin. The land is flatter here, and as the river slowed, rock carried from West Texas dropped and was deposited in thick layers. Much of Houston was built from the rock and gravel dug from pits around the county seat of Columbus.
Here, Clinton won 57 percent of the vote. Obama won only 40 percent.
To get to Houston from Columbus, you hook up with I-10, the interstate that carves its way from Los Angeles to the Atlantic. You drive through the bottom part of Austin County — 58 percent Clinton; 41 percent Obama — and then head toward Houston.
Waller County is in the Houston metro area and the vote suddenly switches. Here, Obama won 67 percent of the vote to Clinton’s 32 percent. (One of Obama’s advantages here is Prairie View A&M University, an historically African-American institution.)
And then the skyline of Houston crests. The roads grow wider and more crowded. And Obama’s advantage is solid. We’re back in the city now, and the Illinois senator won 56 percent of the vote Tuesday in Harris County. Clinton won 43 percent of the vote in the center of Houston.
Over 150 miles, there was a 26 point swing in Clinton’s vote and a 30 point difference in the vote for Barack Obama.
What changed? Certainly there are differences in levels of income and education. Some counties may be younger than others, or have more Latinos or African-Americans.
But the overriding difference was geographic. The more rural the county, the higher the vote for Clinton. The more urban, the higher the vote for Obama.
The Democratic Party may be divided between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, but it’s divided rural and urban, too.