Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Regionalism in American Electoral History: Revisiting Kevin Phillips and Hypothesizing About November

In thinking about the competition between the campaigns for the “swing states” necessary to put either over the top in November, I got to wondering about how these states fit into the broader sweep of American political history. The underlying belief that guides what we do on this site is that the past matters. Elections do not occur in isolation from our history. Rather, what we observe today has been shaped by the series of demographic, economic, social, and cultural shifts that have preceded us. Thus, we need to be appreciative of the “evolutionary” nature of our politics. While there is certainly much that is unique about this election (thus making predicting the outcome very dangerous)—most notably the presence of the first African American on the top of either party’s ticket—we can perhaps look backwards for some sense of whether our expectations or assumptions are realistic.

One classic exposition of the “evolutionary” nature of American politics is Kevin Phillips’ “The Emerging Republican Majority.” In it, Phillips described the degree to which the shifts observed in the mid to late 1960’s were shaped by a series of demographic, economic, and cultural changes in various parts of the country. The result of these shifts was a series of Republican presidential victories, beginning with Nixon and continuing, perhaps, to this day. Another aspect of Phillips’ analysis is the regional nature of these changes. For Phillips, different parts of the country evolved in different ways, thus producing differing types of politics. Within these regions we tend to see very similar types of voting, with changes and shifts taking place at roughly the same time and lasting roughly the same period of time. The region that most clearly stands out—and for which Phillips received quite a bit of acclaim for identifying—is the south. Now a solid part of the Republican coalition, the dramatic shift in the south’s voting took place in the mid ‘60’s. While Barry Goldwater was trounced in the 1964 election, his support in the south laid the foundation (despite the third party effort of Wallace in ’68 and the regional appeal of Carter in ’76) for the new coalition that would begin with Nixon, mature under Reagan, and perhaps reach its high point under George W. Bush.

Recently, Judis and Teixeira have argued that this Republican majority is ready to be replaced by a durable and lasting Democratic ascendancy. Modeling their analysis along the lines of Phillips’ they suggest that recent demographic, economic, and educational shifts have set in motion the emergence of a new regional coalition. The debate about how and when this will finally transpire has been hotly debated this year among those on the left as they strategize about how to produce an Obama victory. While some have argued that the south is not as Republican as it once was and could, given high levels of black turnout, potentially provide Obama some electoral votes, others such as Thomas Schaller have suggested that the west is where Democrats have their best opportunities.

With all of this in mind, I thought I’d revisit these arguments with a particular focus on the regional dimension of voting. If we look at presidential elections over the past century, we find some pretty interesting dynamics that might help us understand what will or will not transpire just a few weeks from now.

To get a visual sense of what I’m talking about, I produced the very simple chart above. In it, I’ve broken the country down into the regions first described by Phillips. Next I coded how each of these regions’ states voted in each election from 1896 to the present. States in blue voted Democrat; red voted Republican; green voted for a third party candidate. What we see, I think, are a few things. First would seem to be a tremendous amount of stability in the voting patterns of states and regions. Once states and regions vote to support a particular party, they tend to do so over a long period of time. The obvious examples here are the solidly Democratic south up until the 1960’s, the solidly Republican mountain and plains states for much of the past half century, and the recently Democratic north east. A second thing I’d note is that some voting shifts are very short lived. These may be brought about events, the regional appeal of one candidate, or poor candidate performance. The shift that many states made to the Democrats and Carter in 1976 can surely be tied to a Watergate backlash and his southern regional appeal. Likewise, the Johnson landslide in 1964 brought many traditionally Republican states into the Democratic column at a time when they might normally not be—also no doubt aided by the perceived extremism of Goldwater. Thus, stability seems to be the norm as fluctuations are soon corrected. A third thing I’d point out is that when broader and regional shifts take place, you see most of the states in that region moving at the same time. Here, notice the northeast’s movement to the Democrats and perhaps most dramatically, the formation of FDR’s majorities beginning in 1932.

For the Obama campaign especially, there is a tremendous interest in winning previously Republican states. That’s the only way they can get to 270 electoral votes. Thus, I looked at how many states tended to change hands in each election year. In 2004 we saw the fewest states change hands, 3, that we saw over the entire course of this examination (3 also switched in 1908) with New Hampshire becoming Democratic while Iowa and New Mexico became Republican. On average, 14 states changed hands over the course of these 28 elections. Not surprisingly, the biggest landslides saw the most states switch, with almost all going in the same direction. In 1932, 34 states became Democratic putting in place the New Deal majority. The 1964 and 1968 elections also saw great flux: in 1964 30 states switched (25 became Democratic, 5 Republican); 1968 served to correct much of the LBJ landslide as 36 states switched (31 became Republican; 5 voted for Wallace). This election also served to cement Phillips’ “Republican majority” as the 5 Wallace states became Republican in the ’72 Nixon re-election. Finally what we see is that when states do change in a given election year, one party tends to reap almost all of the gains, often across several regions. In 13 of the 28 elections, one party made all of the gains. Only in 1924, 1952, and 2004 when you only had 4, 2, and 3 states change hands respectively was there anything approaching parity in the parties’ ability to both make gains. Change tends to be unidirectional.

Another thing to ask, again given Obama’s goals, is what happens in those elections in which the presidency changes from one party to the other. Do those elections come about because the new party in power converted a lot of states or did they win much more narrowly, because only a few states switched? In those 10 elections in which one party took the presidency over from the other, 23 states on average changed hands!!! In the discussion of this year’s electoral map, no one that I’ve heard has made any attempt to argue that this many states are “in play.” The current set of Republican states being targeted by Obama includes Virginia, Colorado, New Mexico, Nevada, Iowa, Florida, Missouri, North Carolina, Ohio, and perhaps Indiana and Georgia. That’s 11 states. Thus, if Obama were to have a perfect storm of factors come together and give him all of the states he could possibly dream of, he’d still perform well below the average of what we’ve seen in party changing elections. Also worth noting is that these 11 states come from 6 of the 8 regions. What Phillips found was that regions don’t all change at the same time or in the same direction, so we might look at this list of states as wildly optimistic, given the historical evidence. Also, we see that when one state in a region changes, others also do. Shouldn’t we, then, be expanding the list? More important than the number of states, obviously, is the electoral vote count. Here, assuming Obama were to win all of the states John Kerry won, adding these 10 states would give him 390 electoral votes—a huge landslide. Should this year produce an Obama victory, one would have to think it will probably not look like the other elections in which party control switched, either in magnitude or geographic scope.

What I haven’t looked at in this analysis, and what is obviously of great importance, is the margin of victory that we saw in these states, especially in times of change. Some previous posts have looked at this and I’ll certainly spend some more time on this fundamental question as we go along in the next few weeks. If we’re trying to identify opportunities for future change, the degree to which things are changing will need to be gauged. This would, it seem, bring us back to the beginning of this discussion—we need to be aware of the “evolutionary” changes taking place.

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