The Red State-Blue State Divide: Is Economy the Driver?

With another close national election looming, we seem headed towards another election night where most states are spoken for and just a few battlegrounds like Ohio, Colorado, Virginia, Nevada, and Florida will choose the next president.

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. And in the conclusion to The Emerging Republican Majority (1969), Kevin Phillips wrote: “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.”

As we shall see, Carville and Phillips have a point: as the South has gotten wealthier, it has become more Republican; as the North has lost economic clout, it has moved towards the Democrats in the last generation.

But Mr. Barone and the other “culture war” theorists also have a point. In 2008, President Obama carried eight of the top ten 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 to oppose abortion, gay rights, and gun control.

So, obviously, social issues count in a mostly middle-class nation. But what if there was 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, mountain states, New England, and the big-city states of the Northeast and Midwest like New York, Pennsylvania, and Illinois. We’ll use data from the censuses of 1930 (just as the Depression was beginning), 1950 (the first post-Depression census), 1980 (when Ronald Reagan won big and the South began to permanently move into the Republican coalition at the presidential level), and in the latest census of 2010 (when the state divisions into red and blue are 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% 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%), Michigan (110%), Ohio (110%), Pennsylvania (113%), and New England (110%) were very similar.