Earlier this week, Gallup released an impressive data set on American political partisanship in the 50 states through 2010. Combing this, with the historical data Gallup offers, we can get a good sense of the changes in partisanship over time, as well as a sense of where the political winds are blowing in various parts of the country. As we shall see, it’s a mixed bag for both parties.
(Quick note: the Gallup data is for American adults, which usually “skews” Democratic if one is trying to predict the electorate. However, if one wants a general sense of where the country at large is, polls of adults are the most valuable. Also, to maintain consistency across years, I have dropped Alaska and Hawaii.)
To start, let’s compare changes in partisan identification from 2008 to 2010. We’ll examine it in two different ways. First, we’ll look at it by the competitiveness of the state in presidential elections. “Dem States” are those won by Gore, Kerry, and Obama. “GOP States” are those won by Bush twice, and McCain. “Swing States” are those won by both sides at least once in the last decade. Second, we’ll group the states into their Census-defined regions -- Midwest, Northeast, South, and West.
The following chart shows the median statewide value for each party along these two axes:
As we can see, this is mostly good news for Republicans. Relative to the party’s nadir in 2008, there has been a notable improvement across Dem, Swing, and GOP states as well as geographical regions. In fact, the GOP has improved its standing relative to the Democrats in every state in the last two years.
However, all is not sweetness and light for the Republicans. Most of the movement has been in the decline of the Democratic Party, rather than a massive rebound for the GOP. So, in the last two years, it is not so much that the Republicans have restored their reputation as the Democrats have damaged theirs.
We can appreciate this even more so by comparing 2002 to 2010 along the same two axes (competitiveness and region). Recall that 2002 was a year that Republicans were riding high: George W. Bush’s job approval rating was astronomically positive, and the GOP actually picked up seats in the midterms. That’s as close to a high water mark as anything we have seen for the Republicans in our lifetime. How does 2010 stack up to that year?
Clearly, it is the Democrats, not the Republicans, who are in a better position relative to where they were in 2002. This is despite the fact that the Republicans saw their fortunes turn around last year. If we study this chart carefully, we’ll see that, by and large the Democrats have not advanced very much between 2002 and 2010; instead, it’s that the Republican position has declined substantially.
This should put the 2010 midterm election victory into broader perspective. Clearly, the GOP has not rebounded entirely, or even very much. Instead, it’s the Democrats who have fallen.
If we broaden our historical perspective, we can move beyond the ebbs-and-flows of the parties' reputations in any given cycle, and reflect instead on trends. Where have the parties gained lasting ground? Where have they lost it? If we step back and look at 1993, we can get an answer to that question. Again, we’ll keep all of our categories the same – Dem, swing, and GOP; Midwest, Northeast, South, West.
This evidence points to a lot of interesting conclusions. First, it underscores the nature of our political polarization. In the last 18 or so years, Republican-leaning states have become more Republican; Democratic-leaning states more Democratic; and the swing states haven’t budged (which helps account for why they are swing states!). Members of Congress generally try to reflect the views of their constituents, so these numbers help explain why polarization has increased quite substantially.
Second, it indicates the continuation of a long-running trend, one that dates back at least to the election of 1928. That year, Democrat Al Smith broke into the previously Republican bastion in the Northeast to win Massachusetts and Rhode Island. Meanwhile, Republican Herbert Hoover made “Hoovercrats” out of voters in the peripheral Southern states. That was the first manifestation of a long-running process, one in which the two regions basically flipped their partisan allegiances: the Northeast became Democratic while the South became Republican. These numbers suggest that this has been an ongoing process in the last two decades.
Additionally, note the West and the Midwest's move in a slightly different direction. Colorado, Nevada, and New Mexico – which had been safely Republican on the presidential level through the 1970s and 1980s – have become toss-up states. Meanwhile, in the Midwest, Iowa, Minnesota and Wisconsin – all of which went for Michael Dukakis in 1988 – basically split their votes in 2000 and 2004.
There’s one other pattern I’d like to point out here, and to do that I’m going to introduce the following map. This tracks each state's change in the partisan balance between 1993 and 2010. Deep red states have seen the GOP gain by 10 points or more over the Democrats while deep blue states have witnessed 10 point or larger gains for the Democrats. Light red and light blue states have had 5-to-9 point gains for the respective party.
Again, we see here the gains each party has made in the West and the Midwest. But take a closer look at the Border states – Arkansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Missouri, and West Virginia. All of these states went for Bill Clinton two times in a row. Yet, they’ve all seen strong movements toward the Republican Party in the ensuing years – and though Barack Obama won a 7-point nationwide victory, he lost each of these states (by wide margins everywhere except Missouri).
Both parties have their problems in this map, but I think this is an under-discussed dilemma for the Democrats. Combined, these states will account for 37 electoral votes in the 2012 election, and they have basically drifted from being swing votes to solidly Republican ones. Add in the net of 6 electoral votes that have moved from safely Democratic to safely Republican states thanks to the 2010 reapportionment, and you’ve seen a shift of 43 electoral votes toward the Republicans. This, in turn, has put more pressure on the Democrats to perform in states like Ohio and Virginia, which historically have not been reliable supporters of the party.