When most Americans think of Delaware — if they ever do — it’s mostly as the place where corporations register, thanks to the state’s business-friendly regulations. In fact, corporations outnumber residents in the state — well over a million companies are registered here, compared with a population of a little more than 950,000. But there’s more to Delaware than being just a tax haven for the wealthy.
Boasting a population of just over 36,000 people, Dover is, nonetheless, one of the most powerful capitals in the nation in terms of how much of the state’s business it handles. Because Delaware is so small, both in area and in terms of population, it made more sense for most civic business to be handled in a central manner, as opposed to being handled at the local and county levels. In fact, Delaware only has three counties — the fewest of any state.
But despite having a highly centralized state government, Delaware is still heavily divided when it comes to political issues — a division which dates back to before the United States was even a nation. Prior to the American Revolution, Delaware’s population leaned more toward remaining with the British than breaking away. But revolutionaries were able to convince those in power that revolt was necessary, and Delaware fought alongside the patriots against the crown, going on to become the first state to ratify the Constitution.
This nature carried through the Civil War, with Delaware opting not to secede, despite having refused to outlaw slavery outright the previous year. Many of the state’s residents went on to fight with neighboring states Virginia and Maryland on either side of the war.
With such a background, it should come as little surprise that Delaware was a swing state for much of its history. It has only been in the last 20 years that the First State has become a reliably Democratic stronghold, though because it only has the minimum of three electoral votes it ties with Vermont as the smallest blue state by population.
But just because the state as a whole has swung to the Democrats doesn’t mean that there isn’t significant dissent within. The shift to the left has been mostly driven by growth in the northern third of the state, around Wilmington and in New Castle County, the most urban area of the state, long a Democrat stronghold. As you move southward in the state, it becomes gradually more conservative, with Kent County fairly evenly divided in 2016, and the southernmost Sussex County being heavily conservative.
Dover lies near the middle of Kent County, and is a very diverse city overall. More than half of the population identifies with a racial minority group, most predominately African-American, and women outnumber men by a few thousand. Additionally, a solid two-thirds of the population is under the age of 45.
But despite those seemingly left-leaning demographics, Kent County went Republican in 2016. Donald Trump narrowly won the county by less than two points, even with Dover proper favoring Hillary Clinton by double digits. This is indicative of the state’s identity crisis — never fully a southern state, but certainly not northern either. In most states, this dichotomy would lead to a highly dissatisfied electorate as the state wobbled from left to right, but the vast majority of Delawareans are center-left or center-right, so switching from one party to the other doesn’t make much difference in the daily lives one way or the other.
Additionally, the state’s highly centralized government and relatively small population has led to a cooperative mindset, where getting along with the other side is not only desirable, but a necessity. And Dover is where this cooperation is most evident, with the government always seeking the middle, if a little to the left of it most of the time.
As the First State attempts to lead the way once more, offering its guidance as to how a divided nation can find common ground, it still eludes much of the rest of the country. Whether this is due to the cooperative nature of Delaware, or the much more ideologically diverse nature of the rest of the nation remains to be seen. But in Dover, cooperation is the only way forward.