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States Aren’t Red or Blue Forever

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

We shouldn’t assume that the political alignment of the last decade will be permanent. It may even change significantly in the next election, with quite a few states dropping out of one of the red, purple, or blue categories and moving into another.

We are accustomed to speaking of red (Republican) and blue (Democratic) states, and some of us are accustomed to speaking of purple (marginal or target) states as well. But states don’t stay red or blue or even purple forever. The political alignments of today are different from those of previous political eras, including some not so long ago.

To demonstrate this, I calculated the Republican and Democratic percentages in three sets of states, red, blue, and purple. I started off by defining as purple the 12 states where Gallup has been conducting joint polls, on the theory that these states are the most marginal and will decide the outcome of any reasonably close election. From there, it was pretty easy to classify the other 38 states (and even easier to classify the District of Columbia) as red or blue. I ended up with 23 red states, 12 purple states, and 16 blue states (counting D.C. as a state). The list is as follows:

Red states: Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, Georgia, Idaho, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, North Dakota, Oklahoma, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, West Virginia, and Wyoming.

Purple states: Colorado, Florida, Iowa, Michigan, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Mexico, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and Wisconsin.

Blue states: California, Connecticut, Delaware, District of Columbia, Hawaii, Illinois, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Jersey, New York, Oregon, Rhode Island, Vermont, and Washington.

In 1976, the two parties happened to nominate candidates who were from their party’s historic bases.

Note some anomalies here. Purple Colorado, North Carolina, and Virginia weren’t targeted by either party’s presidential campaigns in 2000 and 2004. But they were carried by Barack Obama in 2008. And notice that states like Missouri and West Virginia, which were very close in 2000, are now classified as red; West Virginia hadn’t voted for a Republican presidential nominee, except incumbents reelected in landslides, since 1928, but has recently become more reliably Republican. On the blue side, California went Republican in close elections in 1960, 1968, 1976, and 1988; now it’s safely Democratic.

Here are the results of my calculations. For each election year, I show the percentages voting for the Republican and Democratic candidates and the percentage margin of victory by party for the whole nation, and for the red, purple, and blue states. Republican percentages come first.

Barone 3.12.12

The red, purple, and blue classifications do a pretty good job differentiating the states in the last three elections and in 1996 as well. But they don’t work so well for 1992: the purple states are only a couple of points different from the red states. Similarly, in the three elections of the 1980s, the red and purple states look pretty much the same.
For 1976, the categories make no sense at all. The Democratic nominee actually ran (slightly) better in the red states than in the blue states and ran (very slightly) weaker in the purple states.

One reason for this is that in 1976 the two parties happened to nominate candidates who were from their party’s historic bases—Gerald Ford from outstate Michigan, Jimmy Carter from south Georgia—at the same time that both parties were losing strength in those bases. Remember that George McGovern had been beaten by vast margins in the once solidly Democratic South in 1972, just four years before, and the weakness of Richard Nixon in the Watergate year of 1974 was demonstrated when the Republicans lost two special elections in outstate Michigan (one in Ford’s old district). Carter carried every Southern state currently defined as red, while Ford carried states currently defined as blue, including California and Illinois.

The political alignments of today are different from those of previous political eras, including some not so long ago.

Four years later, the Republican presidential nominee was a man who grew up in the party’s historical heartland (downstate Illinois) but was proud to be from California, and the vice presidential nominee was from Texas. The historical decline of the Democrats in the South and of the Republicans in their Yankee heartland in the North was set in motion.

My lesson for 2012 is that we shouldn’t necessarily assume that the political alignment of the last decade will be permanent, and that it may even change significantly in the next election, with quite a few states dropping out of one of the red, purple, or blue categories and moving into another. If I were managing either of the two parties’ campaigns, I’d certainly want to be alert to that possibility, as the Obama campaign was in 2008.

Michael Barone is a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.

FURTHER READING: Barone also writes “How to Understand Obama’s Chances in 2012,” “James Q. Wilson's Insight Improved America,” and “Can Mitt Lure Upscale Whites Back to GOP?” Karlyn Bowman and Andrew Rugg explain “Obama’s Weakness in Historical Context.” Lee Harris contributes “Explaining the Santorum Surprise.” Jonah Goldberg describes “Bipartisan Apathy.”

Image by Rob Green / Bergman Group

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