Tuesday, July 05, 2016

Losing the North: Republican Realignment

People have been asking if we're seeing a realignment of American electoral politics, with Donald Trump  scrambling the campaign map. There are no real signs of that yet: polls show the presidential electoral map unchanged so far, with the Democrats and Republican leading in the same states they carried last time and the time before that. The real story is the realignment that has already happened, without fanfare, over the past quarter-century. This Fourth of July weekend I'd like to talk about Maine and Vermont.

The largest political realignment of the last half century has been the movement of the Dixiecrats, the traditional Southern bloc of segregationist whites, out of their traditional home in the Democratic Party and into the GOP. That realignment took decades, and made uneven progress; some key Dixiecrats, such as Robert Byrd, remain Democrats for their entire lives while other figures, such as Strom Thurmond, literally switch party affiliation over the course of their careers. LBJ famously remarked after he'd signed the Civil Rights Bills that he'd likely signed away the South for a generation, and the results of his re-election campaign a few months later bear him out. (Here I'm going to use 270toWin's collection of historical electoral maps as the perfect digital visual aids.) Although LBJ absolutely destroyed Barry Goldwater in the 1964 landslide, Goldwater carried the five states of the Deep South (Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, and South Carolina), all traditional Democratic strongholds. That switch in party allegiance is all the more striking because those were the only states Goldwater carried except for his home state, Arizona.

But the realignment LBJ had been worrying about had already been solidly underway for at least sixteen years, since Thurmond's rebellion against Harry Truman and run for President on the third-party Dixiecrat ticket in 1948:

As you can see here,  four of those five deep-South states that defected to Goldwater in 1964 had already made an attempt to secede from the Democrats well before the Civil Rights Act. (Thurmond and his followers left the Democratic Party in a righteous rage over Harry Truman's allegedly radical civil rights agenda. That included things like desegregating federal housing projects and integrating the military. Some white Southerners were not only ready to walk but actually in process of walking before Brown v. Board of Education, the Bus Boycott, the Freedom Rides, and the rest of the classic Civil Rights Movement as we remember it.)

In 1968, there is yet another third-party run by another Southern Democrat, George Wallace, still angry about the Democratic position on civil rights but not entirely ready to turn Republican. In this map you can see some division and indecision: Texas voting Democratic, Arkansas and four of the five Deep South states voting for Wallace, and the rest of the South (including South Carolina) voting for Nixon. But from 1972 on, those states trend solidly Republican, part of Nixon's "Solid South." The South does vote for southern-boy Jimmy Carter in 1976, but abandons him for Reagan in 1980 (with Carter only carrying his native Georgia in the South). And in 1992 another Southerner, Bill Clinton, manages to take roughly half of the Southern States, and holds on to a little less than half in 1996.

But by 2000, even a Democratic nominee from the South can't get any purchase. Al Gore doesn't get a single electoral vote in the South, not even in his home state of Tennessee. From 1976 to 200 we go from the South willing to vote for a Democratic President, but only if he's a southerner, to the South willing to split its vote for a Democratic nominee from the South, to the South voting as a solid Republican wall no matter where the Democrat is from.

That's a striking and extremely important realignment. And it leaves us, by 2000, with our familiar red-state/blue-state battle lines. Each party has its own fairly stable electoral base, with a handful of swing states (Ohio, Florida, Colorado, etc.) in active play.

But I want to talk about a smaller development that we've overlooked. While the Southern tier was migrating to the Republican column, some long-time Republican strongholds have turned reliably blue. That includes what had been the two most reliably Republican states in the nation: Vermont and Maine.

Vermont and Maine have voted for the Democratic Presidential candidate in every single one of the last six elections, from 1992 to 2012. (Current polling, which could change, suggests that it will be seven in a row.) This in itself is not a huge deal, because those states are so small. They have only seven electoral votes between them, the equivalent of Oregon or Oklahoma. (Of course, in a polarized election, every little bit counts.) I'm more interested in Vermont and Maine as bellwethers of changing political coalitions. Since 1992 those two northern New England states have always voted Democratic in Presidential elections. Previously, they almost never did.

Vermont voted Republican in 33 of the previous 34 presidential elections, from 1856 to 1988. That's every presidential election from the founding of the Republican Party until the election of Bill Clinton. The single exception is the 1964 landslide in which LBJ blows out Goldwater. Maine voted Republican in 31 of those 34 presidential elections. The three exceptions are the Goldwater election of 1964, the second Dixiecrat uprising in 1968, and the 1912 "Bull Moose" election in which Teddy Roosevelt and William Howard Taft split the Republican vote. (Vermont was one of only two states to stick by Republican incumbent Taft when his home state abandoned him.) For 132 years, Maine and Vermont were the two most reliably Republican states in the nation. This map shows how reliable they were: the only holdouts in FDR's 1936 re-election landslide.
One of the striking things about this is that Maine's turn against the Republicans in the Electoral College begins with a repudiation of George H. W. Bush, who is nominally a Texan but actually a prized resident of Maine. (GHWB voted from a hotel address in Houston but owned a home in Kennebunkport.) And then Maine went on to vote against another Bush twice, despite his local Down East ties.

What happened? How did Vermont and Maine go, over the last 80 years, from the most Republican of Republican strongholds to solid membership in the Democrats' national base?

Most of the stories we hear about changing party allegiances focus on urbanization and changing ethnic demographics. States become more Democratic as they become more urban, and as minority populations, especially African-American and Latino populations, grow. All of that is true enough, but none of it explains Maine or Vermont. Those states are still extremely rural. (I have been to Burlington, Portland, and Bangor, and they are all wonderful towns, but none of them will be mistaken for a major metropolis.Neither state has any city with even 100,000 inhabitants.) Furthermore, Vermont and Maine are the two whitest states in the union: Vermont is 94.3% non-Hispanic white, while Maine is a resplendently snowy 94.4% non-Hispanic white. (The two states' shared neighbor, New Hampshire, is 92.3% non-Hispanic white; Vermont and Maine are actually whiter than the White Mountains.) This is not about racial politics, or at least not in the terms we usually discuss it.

One possible explanation is Democratic voters moving to Vermont and Maine from other, more urban Northeastern states, bringing a more general Northeastern liberalism, and Democratic party loyalties from places like Hartford, Boston, and New York. There's at least some truth to this theory; Brooklyn-born Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT) is only the most obvious example.

But that is not the whole story. People have also been migrating to the Sun Belt without changing its social conservatism. And rural New England's social liberalism is not simply an urban import. The Vermont and Maine Republicans were traditionally socially liberal: not merely moderate Republicans but progressive and liberal Republicans. Remember, the Republicans were originally the civil-rights party, and the Northeast was originally one of their heartlands. It was Maine who sent Margaret Chase Smith, a Republican, to the US Senate for four terms.

Those voters don't fit terribly well with the Dixiecrats. And part of what we're seeing is that adding one of these groups to a party means that, over time, the other group will leave. It is basically a counter-realignment, a smaller response to the large movement of the Dixiecrats from the Republicans to the Democrats.

Look at that Goldwater map from 1964 again: Vermont and Maine flip blue when the Deep South flips red. Vermont, which had stuck by every single Republican candidate including Taft. abandons the Republican nominee that the South crosses party lines to vote for.

It's not that anyone articulates this. No one in Vermont or Maine announces, "I won't stay in the party with those Southerners!"  Nobody complains when a national election swings a party's way because a region that usually goes for the other side suddenly goes for yours. Northern Republicans like having majorities in Congress. But northern Yankee Republicans and Southern converts to Republicanism make strange bedfellows, who disagree strongly about the temperature of the bedroom. They have different cultures and different priorities. Their religious histories are different. As the old Dixiecrat bloc has become ascendant in the party, they have come to set an agenda that often leaves the old-school New England Yankees indifferent and sometimes actively upsets them. You can't keep both groups happy, and pleasing the (relative) newcomers means gradually driving the old guard into the other party.

This doesn't mean that there aren't plenty of Republicans left in Vermont, Maine, and the rest of New England. Of course there are. (Maine currently has a Tea Party governor who squeaked through in a four-way race and is currently antagonizing everyone in the state including the lobsters.)  Regions change political allegiance slowly, by fits and starts.  State and local Republicans can still win in Vermont and Maine even if Republican presidential nominees can't, just as conservative Democrats could keep winning state and local races in the South for years after it had switched its Presidential loyalties. (See: Senator Susan Collins (R-ME).) In fact, you can see a surprisingly large number of independents winning statewide office in Vermont and Maine, and to some degree in other New England states like Connecticut. For a while there, Vermont's three-person Congressional delegation included a Republican, a Democrat, and a Socialist Independent.

But I would suggest that all those independent officeholders are part of the region's piecemeal migration from the R to the D column. It's fairly rare for voters, much less career politicians, to switch parties after a certain age; party identity is an identity, too, and it's hard to switch sides. You have some official party-swapping in Northern New England, including some pretty high-profile examples, but you have many more examples where former Republicans simply become independents: disaffected from their original (and in some sense natural) party, but not willing to sign on with the Democrats yet. So you see former Republicans running as Independents, but also former Democrats running as Independents in order to appeal to that body of swing voters who've migrated away from the Republicans but aren't ready to call themselves Democrats. Senator Angus King (I-ME), who became an Independent in the 1990s, won both the governorship and a Senate seat with this strategy.

But you also can see dramatic switches happening in real time: back in 2001, Senator Jim Jeffords, (R-VT), a traditional Yankee Republican, left the party to become (I-VT), caucusing with the Democrats and handing the Senate majority over to the Democrats from the Republicans. Jeffords blamed George W. Bush. (That Bush did not know how to handle New England Republican Senators, despite the fact that his own grandfather had been a New England Republican Senator, tells you how much the party has changed.) But that's part of a larger story, in which the original, foundational base of the Republican Party, the heirs of the Lincoln Republicans, leave (or are driven off) because they can't co-exist with the party's new, post-Confederate base.

cross-posted from, and all comments welcome at, Dagblog

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