"Thus, it is appropriate ?that much of the emerging ?Republican majority lies in the top growth states or new suburbia, while Democratic trends correlate with stability and decay."
– Kevin Phillips in "The Emerging Republican Majority" (1969).
With another close national election looming, we seem headed toward another Election Night where most states are safe for either party and just a few battlegrounds – like Colorado, Virginia, Nevada and Florida – will decide who our next president is.
The conventional wisdom about the familiar divisions of Democratic "blue" states, located mostly on both coasts, versus Republican "red" states, in mostly the South and the heartland, is that the phenomenon is based mainly on social issues. Michael Barone, co-author of "The Almanac of American Politics," has argued for years that social or cultural issues like abortion, gay rights, gun control and minority rights have been more important than economics since the 1960s in determining Americans' votes.
On the other hand, Democratic strategists like James Carville have always believed that Democrats win by focusing on economic issues. As we shall see, Carville has a point: As the South has gotten wealthier, it has become more Republican, while as the North lost economic clout, it has moved toward the Democrats in the last generation.
But Barone and the other "culture war" theorists also have a point: In 2008, President Obama carried eight of the top 10 states in per capita income, losing only Dick Cheney's Wyoming and Sarah Palin's Alaska (both with substantial energy wealth). Furthermore, the 2008 exit polls showed that red state voters were more likely to attend church services regularly, and oppose abortion, gay rights and gun control.
So, obviously, social issues count in a mostly middle-class nation. But what if there were more to it than that; what if economics still played a major role? Not in the sense of total wealth, but in the direction that state and regional economies are going? What if economic growth patterns reinforced the cultural divisions?
To examine this theory, we can compare the per capita income figures for the South, the Mountain states, New England and the big-city states of the Northeast and Midwest like New York, Pennsylvania and Illinois in the censuses of 1930 (just as the Great Depression was beginning), 1950 (the first post-Depression census), 1980 (when President Ronald Reagan won big and the South began to permanently move into the Republican coalition) and in the latest 2010 census, when the red/blue states division is firmly established.
We compare the per capita income of these states and regions to the national average as their percentage of the national average. For example, New York is nicknamed the "Empire State." That term was highly accurate in the 1930 census as New York's per capita income was 165 percent of the national average – by far the best of any state. Perhaps we shouldn't be surprised that New York voted Republican in seven of the eight presidential elections from 1900 to 1929. The patterns in Illinois (137 percent), Michigan (110 percent), Ohio (110 percent), Pennsylvania (113 percent) and New England (110 percent) were very similar.
By contrast, South Carolina (with a per capita income just 37 percent of the national average) and Mississippi (just 40 percent) were the two poorest states in America. Obviously, the memory of the Civil War – where Republican President Abraham Lincoln and Gen. Ulysses S. Grant ravaged Dixie – locked these two Southern states into the Democratic Party, but economics played a role, too. Since the South (with a per capita income only 52 percent of the national average in 1930) was the poorest region, Southerners would disproportionately benefit from President Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal social programs. Indeed, FDR called the poverty of the South the greatest long-term social-economic problem facing the nation. Both the Civil War tradition of a Democratic South facing a Republican North and poverty in Dixie kept the South in the Democratic orbit.
For roughly a century after the Civil War era, from the 1850s to 1956, the South was the Democrats' best region. But the Democratic vote for president in Dixie collapsed from 50 percent in 1960 to only 31 percent in 1968. Virtually all historians blame the Southern defection on the civil rights movement that eventually forced federal intervention in the "Southern way of life," i.e., segregation.
The proof offered is that after signing the Civil Rights Act in 1964, President Lyndon B. Johnson, a native Texan, ran worse among white Southerners than did Yankees Adlai Stevenson and John F. Kennedy. Johnson reportedly said after signing the bill, "I've just handed the South to the Republican Party for the next 50 years."
Since the 1960s, Jimmy Carter in 1976 is the only Democratic candidate to carry a majority of Southern states. Social issues obviously played a decisive role, but economics may be the overlooked factor. As noted above, Southern regional incomes were barely half of the national average in 1930. But after the war-time boom of the 1940s, the South had risen to 68 percent of the national average by the 1950 census. Was it a coincidence that Republican President Dwight D. Eisenhower carried the three wealthiest Southern states (Texas, Florida and Virginia, respectively) in 1952? And the South's economic advance would continue.
The Civil Rights Act helped bring the South into the national mainstream, and the South aggressively courted industrial development with low taxes and keeping unions out. By the end of the 1960s, a "New South" of booming metropolitan growth, new industries, white-collar employment, Yankee migrants, central air conditioning, low business costs and improved race relations had bloomed permanently.
In the 1980 census, Southern per capita incomes had reached 84 percent of the U.S. average. Sure enough, Georgia native Carter lost every Southern state except his own to President Ronald Reagan that year. By 2008 (the last year for which figures are available), Southern regional incomes had reached 89 percent of the national average. And if we factor in the lower housing costs and lower taxes, the Southern standard of living is probably equal to the national average for the first time ever.
Over the last generation, a majority of Southern states have voted for Republican nominees in every election. Southern social conservatism, combined with an economic boom, has made the South a Republican stronghold.
If a rising standard of living in the South has helped turn the region Republican, the big states of the North are going in the opposite direction. Led by New York and Illinois, the states that contained the 10 largest Frost Belt cities – New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, Detroit, Cleveland, St. Louis, Baltimore, Boston, Pittsburgh and Milwaukee, respectively – in the 1930 census had per capita incomes that were 117 percent of the national average. By 1950, that figure had dropped slightly to 109 percent. In 1980, the big-city states were down to 103 percent, where they have pretty much stayed for the past 30 years. Given that these states also have higher taxes and living costs, it can be accurately said that their standard of living has stagnated. New York, which was 65 percent wealthier than the national average at the end of the Roaring '20s, was only 8 percent wealthier by 1980. Michigan, with its auto industry problems in Detroit, has seen its relative wealth decline a stunning 20 points (107 percent of the national average to 87 percent) from the 1950 to 2010 census, the worst drop of any big state. The story in New England is much the same, as relative incomes have stagnated.
Perhaps we should not be surprised then that the last Republican nominee to carry a majority of these states was President George H.W. Bush in 1988.
The eight states of the Mountain West region also help bolster this economic theory. In the 1930 census, the Mountain states had only 87 percent of the national average income. Accordingly, they voted for FDR and President Harry Truman five straight times. But by 1950, the incomes of the Mountain West had equaled the national average and this booming new middle class helped Republican nominees carry a majority in the region in every election except 1964 for the next 40 years. By the 1990s, however, immigration from the Third World (mostly Latin America) had caused the per capita incomes of the Mountain states to drop below the national average again (to 93 percent in the latest census). Since 1990, Democrats have become very competitive in the region again.
So, the Frost Belt has lost relative economic strength since the days of FDR and has drifted away from the Republicans. The South has posted huge economic gains in the same time frame and is now part of the Republican base. The Mountain West, intriguing as always, went Republican in the 1950s when its incomes began to equal the national average and stayed in the Republican fold for the next four decades, but began to drift away from the GOP in the early 1990s when immigration helped once again make the region poorer than the national average.
Carville, President Bill Clinton's successful campaign manager in 1992, famously proclaimed the issue that year was "It's the economy, stupid." Carville's wisdom lives on. It looks like political destinies in the 21st century are shaped by whether a state's economy is on the way up or down.