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The Increasingly Republican States of America

The percentage of Americans who say they lean Republican has increased in 47 of the 50 states
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President Obama has at best a 50-50 shot to win reelection, according to Nate Silver's most recent analysis. And the outcome of upcoming Republican primaries are uncertain at best. So the pundits will sift through today's off-year election returns for clues that might have any bearing on the race for the presidency. Did big labor defeat Ohio’s union-busting SB5? Did New Jersey voters show their love for Chris Christie by sending more Republicans to the statehouse? We'll just have to wait and see, but one thing is clear: America is becoming a more Republican nation.

Polling data by the Gallup Organization identifies the percentage of state voters who "lean Republican" or "lean Democratic," taking the partisan inclinations of self-declared political independents into account. Measured this way, Republican identification now tops 50 percent in six states: Utah (58 percent), Wyoming (57 percent), Idaho (56 percent), Kansas (50 percent), Nebraska (50 percent) and Alabama (50 percent). The number of states where 40 percent or more of voters lean Republican has doubled, rising from 17 in 2008 to 34 in 2011. In only one state, Hawaii, do less than 30 percent of voters lean Republican.

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The map above by Zara Matheson of the Martin Prosperity Institute (MPI) shows the change in partisan political identification for the fifty states from 2008 through August 2011. The speed and intensity of the shift are notable. In just three years, Republican identification jumped by more than five percent in 20 states. Maine registered the biggest jump (11 percent), followed by New Hampshire (9 percent) – both states that Obama carried in 2008. Other Obama states that saw big increases in Republican identification include Massachusetts, Iowa, and Wisconsin (6 percent each) and Michigan, Ohio, Indiana, Oregon and Colorado (5 percent each). Republican identification increased by 3 percent in the key battleground state of Pennsylvania and in the president’s home state of Illinois as well. Republican identification fell in just three states, two of them in the deep south: Georgia, Mississippi, and Arizona, but only by 1 percent in each.

What lies behind this Republican drift? Is it a byproduct of the sagging economy or does it continue to be shaped by deeper socio-economic divides? 

With the help of my colleague Charlotta Mellander, I ran a correlation analysis, comparing Republican identification in 2008 and 2011 as well as the change between the two periods with a variety of key economic, demographic, and cultural factors by state. We also examined the effects of  rising unemployment and voters’ perceptions of current and future economic conditions on partisan affiliation. As always, I hasten to point out that correlations, even strong ones, do not necessarily add up to causation; other factors that we haven’t measured may play an equal or stronger role.

Rising Republicanism is often credited to the stalled economy, and more particularly on the stagnant job market and high unemployment rates. But Gallup asks how people view current economic conditions in their states, and when you look at their answers, partisan identification holds little relation to whether people believe that economic conditions in their states are good or bad. There is no statistical association whatsoever between perceptions of current economic conditions and Republican identification. Unemployment is associated with Republican identification, but its effect is different than might be anticipated. The correlation between the unemployment rate and Republican affiliation is negative. That is, the higher the unemployment rate, the less conservative the state. Strikingly, Republicanism has increased less in states with high unemployment rates and where the unemployment rate has increased the most since 2008.

Rising Republicanism appears to be more tied to voters’ perceptions of the future of the economy. Gallup also asks voters whether they believe the economy in their state is getting better or worse. Republican identification is far more likely in states where more people are pessimistic and say the economy is likely to get worse.

Those latter sentiments reflect the increasingly divided economic prospects of American states. Income levels vary considerably by state and Republican identification tracks closely with them. Counterintuitively perhaps, the correlation between state income and Republican partisanship is negative. In other words, Republican identification grows higher in states where incomes are lower. In his analysis of state voting trends, Columbia University political scientist Andrew Gelman explained this paradox: while richer people vote Republican, richer states tend to vote for Democrats. The correlation between income and Republican identification has only gotten stronger with time (increasing from -.40 in 2008 to -.46 by August 2011).   

Partisan affiliation also continues to cleave by religion; we found that Republican identification is positively associated with religiosity (.32). This correlation has decreased slightly since 2008 when it was .4, suggesting that Republicans are making some inroads in less religious states as well.

The diversity of states remains a key factor in America’s partisan divide. American views on immigration and gay and lesbian rights are deeply polarized. Not surprisingly, Republican identification is negatively correlated with two key measures of demographic diversity: the percent of the population that is gay and lesbian (-.55) and foreign-born (-.53). Both correlations have gotten stronger since 2008, indicating that diversity has become a larger source of partisan cleavage across the states. The number of immigrants plays a particularly substantial role in this tilt toward Republicanism. It is the only variable in our analysis which registers a statistically significant association to the change in Republican identification from 2008 to 2001.

In a 180-degree shift from the great electoral realignment of the 1930s, the Republicans have increasingly become the party of blue-collar working class states. The transition to a knowledge-based economy has been spiky and uneven. De-industrialization and the consequent loss of high-paying manufacturing jobs has been concentrated in the Rustbelt; much of the Sunbelt has crashed along with its housing bubble. At the same time, the growth of knowledge and creative class jobs has been concentrated on the East and West Coasts and in college towns. Republican identification is highly positively associated with the percentage of the workforce in blue-collar occupations (.52, again up from 2008). Conversely, Republican affiliation is negatively associated with the proportion of the workforce engaged in knowledge-based and creative class work (-.39). Growing Republicanism reflects the highly uneven geography of work and class in America.

The percentage of Americans who say they lean Republican has increased in 47 of the 50 states, and it has grown by more than 5 percent in 20 of them. This shift has little to do with how Americans perceive the current condition of the economy. At bottom it reflects great cleavages of income, class, religion, and diversity that continue to divide Americans by state and region. Republicanism is most pronounced and is growing fastest among America's least well-off, most blue collar states with the bleakest futures. Democratic identification remains strongest in richer, better-educated, more-diverse, and more prosperous states.

Republicanism is increasingly the politics of the economically left behind. And millions of Americans are being left behind. Until and unless the Obama administration can make real inroads on jobs and economic recovery and give these voters some reason for optimism, America is likely to continue its rightward drift.