The remarkable thing is that Obama was unable to transfer enough of this popularity to Clinton, his chosen successor, despite the dramatic improvement in the devastated economy he inherited in January 2009. Consider the 1988 election as a comparison: According to Gallup, Ronald Reagan had a 51% approval rating in late October 1988, but the incumbent was a key factor — maybe the key factor — in Vice President George H.W. Bush’s 53%-46% victory over Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis.
...Clinton ran well ahead of Obama in Mega Cities (and there are quite a few in this region), though she “wasted” a lot of these votes in Atlanta. Everywhere else was a bit of a disappointment. She only tied Obama in large cities (though this is still ahead of Bill’s performances in the region), but ran behind Obama (and Bill) everywhere else. In large towns, she ran about even with Michael Dukakis, and in rural counties and small towns, she ran behind Dukakis by significant amounts. Again, rural counties and towns don’t cast a lot of votes standing alone, but they do add up.
From 1988-1996, the Democrats’ coalition was well balanced. Bill Clinton basically took the Dukakis vote, and tacked on 10 points across the board. But beginning with Al Gore, the distributions are increasingly skewed toward the mega cities. The gains there are significant, but they aren’t enough to offset the losses in rural areas.
As of 1988, the Democrats had a robust coalition in the South. They showed strength across Appalachia, in the “black belt” (named for the fertile soil), and in the Rio Grande Valley. Southern Louisiana (Catholics) and Arkansas outside the traditionally red northwest portion of the state were blue. Republicans, by contrast, were strong in the historically Republican areas of southeastern Kentucky, eastern Tennessee, and western North Carolina. They also held the cities, as metro areas like Miami, Dallas, Houston, Atlanta, and Northern Virginia were all purple-to-red.
...And the Midwest:
In summary: In 2009, we identified the outlines of what would become a Democratic problem: weakness among traditionally Democratic voters in rural areas and towns. In 2016, this weakness became significant enough that it overwhelmed Democratic strength in urban areas in two states that President Obama had won. As we saw above, this is significant, because while urban areas are growing, they are growing at a slower rate than many analysts seem to appreciate.
As you can see, the Massachusetts governor performed well in the region, especially in the western division. This is in part because of the farm recession, but as we’ll see, it wasn’t limited to this. We note Democratic strength in eastern Ohio, which is part of Appalachia, along the Lake Erie coast (reflecting the strength in old industrial cities), in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, and in the Balkans (a rural, yet ethnically diverse section of southeastern Kansas). But in general, it is difficult to identify any particular home for the Democratic Party here. Democrats perform well in all sorts of places. This helped Dukakis carry Iowa, Minnesota, and Wisconsin, while coming close in South Dakota, Missouri and Illinois.
Again, the Democratic decline in rural areas is apparent, although Clinton performed worse than any Democrat since 1988 in almost every area (and worse even than Dukakis in rural and small-town areas)...
As late as 1996, Bill Clinton ran strong in [Ohio portion of] Appalachia, and dominated in the industrial Northeast and along Lake Erie. The state had strong east/west and north/south splits that gradually disappeared over the course of the decades. In 2016, Democrats ran strong in Lucas (Toledo), Cuyahoga (Cleveland), Summit (Akron), Athens (Ohio University), Franklin (Columbus) and Hamilton (Cincinnati) counties. Again, these are significant prizes. But the drop-off in rural areas and the towns looks much like it does in the southern region, with Clinton running almost 15 points behind Dukakis in the rural areas, and about 10 points behind him in the towns...During the summer, Dukakis told Slate's Isaac Chotiner:
My first convention was in Los Angeles in 1960 with Jack Kennedy. [Laughs.] So I go back a long way. We had a very good convention in 1988 and this was a very good convention. But my demise demonstrates pretty clearly that you can have a great convention and get beat.