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

By contrast, South Carolina (per capita income just 37% of the national average) and Mississippi (just 40%) were the two poorest states in America. Obviously, the memory of the Civil War where two Republicans, President Lincoln and General 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% of the national average in 1930) was the poorest region, Southerners would disproportionately benefit from 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 in the 1960s, the Democratic vote for president in Dixie collapsed from 50% in 1960 to only 31% 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, Lyndon Johnson, a native Texan, ran worse among white Southerners than did Adlai Stevenson and John Kennedy, both Yankees. 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% of the national average by the 1950 census. Was it a coincidence that Republican Dwight 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 Acts of the 1960s helped bring the South into the national mainstream, and the South also 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 (both young and old), central air conditioning, low business costs, and improved race relations had bloomed permanently. In the 1980 census, Southern per capita incomes had reached 84% of the American average.  Sure enough, Georgia native Jimmy Carter lost every Southern state except his own to Reagan that year. By 2008 (the last year that figures are available for), Southern regional incomes had reached 89% of the national average. And if we factor in the lower housing costs and less taxes, the Southern standards of living are 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 rising standards of living in the South have 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 ten 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% of the national average. By 1950, that figure had dropped slightly to 109%.