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*NEW BOOK* Political Tompkins: Presidential Elections in Tompkins County Since 1828

Sat, November 20, 2021 5:56 PM | Anonymous

Political Tompkins by Joe Mareane is the 4th in a series of historical writings published by the Tompkins County Historical Commission. 

Purchase Political Tompkins through our online bookstore. All proceeds benefit The History Center in Tompkins County. 

Preface - pgs. 4-5

When I arrived in Tompkins County in 2008 to take the job of County Administrator, the liberalism of the area was a defining element of its identity. In fact, my going away gag gift from my previous job in nearby Onondaga County were a pair of Birkenstock sandals and a tie-dyed T-shirt. I soon learned, however, that politics in Tompkins weren’t always so Democratic or progressive. There was a time when the City of Ithaca and the County were among the most “rock-ribbed” Republican places in America. Moreover, the change from “red” to “blue” was relatively recent—well within my lifetime.

The essay that follows began as a statistical tabulation intended to occupy a few days of the new cloistered era of the COVID-19 pandemic and satisfy my curiosity about the transformation of political preferences in Tompkins County. The plan was to track the results of presidential elections from 1828—the first time New York State engaged voters in the presidential election decision—through the 2020 election, plot the trend lines to see when major shifts of partisanship occurred, and then move on to other stay-at-home pursuits. 

Despite the enormity of data available on the internet, I quickly found that the county-by-county results of presidential elections prior to the 1990’s were not easily available via a keystroke. With navigational help from Tompkins County Historian Carol Kammen and the indispensable assistance of Jim Folts at the New York State Archive who ultimately found tabulations of every presidential election through 2012, the statistical foundation was laid.

I’ve always believed that if the right numbers are looked at in the right way, a story emerges. With election results compiled and tracked, the story of the evolution of political preferences in the County became clearer and often far different than I would have expected. The fact that Joe Biden and Hillary Clinton won landslide victories over Donald Trump was not surprising, but Franklin Roosevelt’s successive 30-point losses to four different Republican candidates was. Even Richard Nixon did much better against John Kennedy in Tompkins than in the six neighboring, and presumably more conservative, rural counties.

The statistics begged answers to why voters changed their preferences at certain times and not others; when voting patterns in Tompkins diverged from the mainstream; what developments at the local level might presage changes that would later affect the outcome of presidential elections; and how major electoral events, such as women’s suffrage and the lowering of the voting age, might have affected election results.

This essay attempts to shed light on those questions. While context for the elections is provided, it is only to give the reader a glimpse of the personalities and factors in the environment that may have contributed to the local response to specific candidates. A scholarly assessment of the myriad factors influencing the politics of a specific time and space is beyond the scope of this work and the talents of this writer. Speculations about factors that have contributed to the partisan leanings of the County are also shared. These should be taken only as the observations of one who has gained some familiarity with the political environment through a long career in local government, and not the disciplined work of a political scientist.

Much of the research is based on articles and editorials in the various iterations of the Ithaca Journal that date back to 1828 and, thanks to the Tompkins County Historical Commission and Cornell University, are accessible online. Unfortunately, access to other papers and documents was severely limited by restrictions resulting from the Covid pandemic. 

My hope is only to preserve data that might otherwise be difficult to access and provide a bit of insight into the unique political history and character of Tompkins County, including how it evolved from one of the “reddest” areas of the nation to one of the “bluest” of the blue.

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