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By Jay Cost

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Electoral Polarization Continues Under Obama

In 2000, George W. Bush campaigned as a "uniter, not a divider." It didn't pan out that way. In four years time, the electorate was evenly divided, with about half the country favoring his reelection and the other half opposing it.

This year, President-elect Obama campaigned on moving the country past its political divisions to focus on what unites it. The results from this month's election suggest he might have his work cut out for himself on this front. While his popular vote and Electoral College victories were decisive, there are indications that the electoral polarization we have seen in the Bush years persists.

To begin, we need a way to measure polarization, which is simply the accentuation of differences. So, the greater the differences among factions in the electorate, the more polarized we can say the whole electorate was. We'll put forth two ways to measure this concept.

First, we'll take an unweighted average of Obama's share of the vote from every state plus D.C. We'll use this as a baseline to calculate the standard deviation, which is a measure of the variation around the average. That's what we're really interested in. The greater the standard deviation, the more the states varied around the average, the more accentuated were their differences, and so the more polarization there was.

We replicate this method for every presidential election going back to 1948, which enables us to compare this cycle to the last fifteen:


First, notice how the graph confirms widely-held beliefs about polarization. We see that it was higher in the 1960s than the '50s or '70s. Note 1964 in particular. While Lyndon Johnson won a large nationwide victory, the South swung heavily against him. He won 61.1% of the national popular vote, but just 12.9% in Mississippi. This is polarization.1

Second, notice that it was up in 2000 and 2004. Between Nixon's reelection and Clinton's reelection, polarization was as low as it ever was in the 20th century. However, it jumped up in 2000, and remained steady in 2004. Again, this squares with common knowledge of the last eight years - which holds that there has been more polarization recently. Now, turn to the final point on the chart, 2008. Polarization was about the same this year as in 2000 or 2004. In fact, by this metric, it actually ticked up a little bit.2

This metric uses an unweighted average of a victorious candidate's share of the vote in all states as a first step in calculating polarization. This means that, regardless of population, each state plus D.C. counts for 1/51 of the victor's average. So, it might be helpful for our second metric to use the nationwide popular vote as a first step.3

We'll do that by taking the victor's share of the nationwide vote, and then by counting the number of states where his share of the statewide vote was at least ten points higher or ten points lower than his nationwide vote. This can tell us how many "polarized" states there were that year. Again, we'll replicate this method going back to 1948, and graph the results:

Polarized States.jpg

While there are some minor differences, this chart generally squares with the previous one. We again find polarization peaking in the 1960s - by this measure 1968, not 1964, was the peak year. From the 70s through the 90s, it again settled down, only to rise again with George W. Bush. Once again, we see it go a little higher with Barack Obama.4

Let's push this analysis forward by examining which states have been polarized. We'll use our second metric for this. Instead of counting the states, we'll color code maps. The following picture does this for all elections going back to 1976. States shaded blue are pro-Democratic "polarized" states. Those shaded red are pro-Republican.5


Typically, strong Republican states can be found in the Mountain Region. Utah is consistently red. Idaho and Wyoming are frequently so. We also see states in the West North Central region tilt red with some frequency: Kansas, Nebraska, and the Dakotas. George W. Bush's elections were especially polarizing because he swung all of these states into his column, rather than just a few. Meanwhile, four states in the northeast swung strongly against him: Massachusetts, New York, Rhode Island, and Vermont.

Many of these states again showed a high degree of polarization in 2008. This time, however, they were joined by most of the remaining states in the South Central regions: Arkansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Tennessee. Never before have we seen these states vote so heavily against a victorious Democrat. Ditto West Virginia, which went for Michael Dukakis in 1988.

So, by both metrics, we find that polarization did not decline this cycle. It was about where it was in the 2000 and 2004 cycles, a point that's higher than anything we have seen in the last 30 years.

Before we discuss the implications of this, there are some important caveats to note. To start, any argument about a concept like polarization is only as good as the empirical metrics for it. We have two metrics that are pretty good, but any limitations they have will inevitably limit the conclusions we can draw. For instance, these are not metrics for ideological polarization - so we're not discussing that concept here.

Another caveat. We have operationalized the concept of polarization such that we're measuring divergence around some central number, be it the average vote across all 50 states or the national vote. However, we have not yet taken into account the central number itself. It's pretty important. By these metrics, polarization was about where it was in 2000. However, Bush won 47.9% of the vote in 2000 to Obama's 52.7% in 2008. That puts President-elect Obama in a stronger position than his predecessor. President Bush won a polarized election in 2000 with less than half the vote. President-elect Obama won more than half. That makes a big difference.

With these caveats down, what conclusions can we draw from this analysis? First, it is fair to say that this indicates that the political polarization we have seen in recent cycles cannot solely be chalked up to the personality of George W. Bush. Instead, it appears as though there might be a systemic cause, one that accounts for the elections of 2000, 2004, and 2008 displaying polarization regardless of who is on the ballot.

There's a second conclusion to draw. Pundits have been giving a lot of free advice to the President-elect, drawing heavily upon the experiences of exceptional presidents from years gone by. FDR and Lincoln seem to be the most widely referenced. If I were to suggest a previous Chief Executive the new President-elect should study closely, I'd recommend George W. Bush.

The essential job of the President is to be the leader of all the people. He is the only official we all select; accordingly, he's the only one who can claim to represent all of us. That poses a special challenge when the people are polarized, and this has been a problem for the 43rd President. Regardless of one's opinion of George W. Bush, it is fair to say that he has not governed with an eye to those who have strongly opposed him.

When you consider Article II of the Constitution against what past Chief Executives have actually done, it becomes clear that the President's greatest powers are informal, not written down. In many respects, the President does what the people allow him to do. Accordingly, if he begins his tenure with a faction that is disinclined to him, and proceeds to antagonize it - his power can be diminished. That faction can rise in opposition to thwart him, which is easy to do in our system of "checks and balances" that intentionally protects minority rights. I think something like this has happened to Bush over the last few years. What was perhaps a mere disinclination to him in 2000 became much more salient in the subsequent years. This opposition had eroded his informal power by 2005, put the Democrats in control of Congress by 2006, and delivered Obama a sweeping victory by 2008.

Given the data presented here, I think this is a cautionary tale for the President-elect. This does not mean, of course, that he must govern like a Republican from Kentucky. Far from it! It just means he should be aware that there are factions in the country that strongly opposed him, and he should be careful with how he manages these groups. He does not have to do what they want him to do, but he should not overly antagonize them.

The political consequences of that could be harmful. For instance, in the states shaded red in the 2008 picture, there are about 20 white Democratic Representatives and 7 Senators who will stand for reelection at least once in the next eight years. President-elect Obama has to be mindful of them - otherwise, they could go the the way that the New England Republicans have gone in the Bush years.


[1] Prior to 1948, polarization was much higher by either metric. The reason is that the South was a one-party region, voting overwhelmingly Democratic in most every cycle. Occasionally, Republicans who won large nationwide majorities could snag a few Southern states. However, by and large, Republicans ran into the same trouble that Teddy Roosevelt faced in 1904. TR won 56% of the nationwide popular vote that year, but pulled in less than 5% in South Carolina. Conversely, FDR won about the same share of the nationwide popular vote in his four victories while winning 85%-99% of the vote in South Carolina.

[2] The value for 1964 needs to have a metaphorical asterisk placed next to it because Lyndon Johnson was not on the ballot in Alabama. The standard deviation for that cycle is calculated by taking no value for the state. If he had been on the ballot, he probably would not have done much better than he did in Mississippi, which typically votes in tandem with Alabama. The same goes for 1948 when Harry Truman did not appear on the ballot in Alabama. Including Alabama would increase the standard deviation for both years.

[3] I also calculated weighted standard deviations (where each state is factored according to its share of the nationwide popular vote) and tracked them over time. The results were quite similar to the unweighted standard deviations:

Weighted Polarization.jpg

Again, we see polarization drop in the 70s, 80s, and 90s - only to make a comeback with the elections of George W. Bush and now Barack Obama.

We also see that, overall, polarization is lower by this metric - even though the ratios from year to year are about what they were using the unweighted metric. The reason for this is that a lot of sparsely populated states - Alaska, the Dakotas, D.C., Wyoming, etc. - tend to exhibit polarized behavior in most cycles. In our unweighted average, each of these places counts for 1.9% of the total. Now that we're weighing each state for population - they count for less, typically between 0.2% and 0.3%. This has the effect of pushing the metric down across all years. Of course, because these places always tend to vote the same way cycle after cycle, weighing them does not alter the ratio between cycles, which is what we are really interested in.

[4] We can tweak our cutoff point, maybe make it +/- 8 points or 12 points, instead of 10 points. That would change the number of polarized states in each cycle, but the crucial point is the same: the last few cycles have seen polarization go up, and in the most recent cycle it is as high as it has been in many decades.

[5] The picture doesn't capture it, but Washington D.C. would be shaded blue in every election. Alaska would be shaded red in most of them, and Hawaii in many of them. This should condition how we interpret the previous graph. Alaska first voted in a presidential contest in 1960. The District of Columbia voted for the first time in 1964. Since polarization is typical in both places, that essentially inflates the number of polarized states from 1960 to the present by at least one and sometimes three units.

-Jay Cost

Is 2008 a Realignment?

Barack Obama's decisive victory last Tuesday has some wondering whether this was a realigning election.

"Realignment" is an overused term, and some scholars have questioned whether it is a profitable category to apply to elections. Temple University's Robin Kolodny wrote this a few years ago:

Realignment has been in trouble as a theory for explaining party identification and electoral behavior for some time. The most obvious problem is that there has been no full realignment since 1932, and no consensus has emerged on what, if any, partial realignment has taken place in 1968, 1974, 1980, or 1994.

Yale University's David Mayhew wrote a cogent critique of realignment theory in 2004, arguing that the facts don't fit the story so well.

So, let's lower our sights a little bit. Let's put aside the terminology and compare 2008 to three times that, regardless of whether they were realignments, were definitive moments in American electoral history: 1860, 1894-96, and 1932. Realignment or not, it should be profitable to see how today compares to these past times.


Upon James Polk's election in 1844, the Union was equally balanced between slave and free states. The addition of so much territory during his term disrupted that balance. The South wanted to extend slavery to the Pacific. A growing segment in the North wanted to limit it to existing slave states.

The government tried two solutions in four years. The first was the Compromise of 1850. The deal ultimately split the Whig party into regional factions. By 1856, it was gone. The second was the Kansas-Nebraska Act, implemented in 1854. It allowed popular sovereignty to determine whether the Kansas and Nebraska territories would be slave or free, precipitated a violent conflict in Kansas, split the Democrats, and effectively created the Republican Party.

By 1860, the stage was set. The Republicans nominated Abraham Lincoln. Southern Democrats nominated Vice-President John Breckinridge on a pro-slavery platform. Northern Democrats nominated Senator Stephen Douglas on a popular sovereignty platform. Finally, a group of old Whigs and "Know-Nothings" formed the Constitutional Union Party, nominated former House Speaker John Bell, and called for saving the Union.

The following picture shows how this played out. As usual, Republicans are in red and Democrats are in blue. Also, Whigs are in brown, Southern Democrats are in gray, and Constitutional Unionists are in purple:

Taylor Pierce Buchanan Lincoln.gif

Lincoln won less than 40% of the popular vote, not having appeared on the ballot in most Southern states, but his Electoral College victory proved how politically powerful a unified North could be: 180 for Lincoln, 72 for Breckinridge, 39 for Bell, and 12 for Douglas.


By the 1880s, the Democrats had returned to electoral competitiveness by accepting many of the political premises of industrial development. The end of Reconstruction and the Panic of 1873 ultimately gave them control over the House for eight of the next ten Congresses. The lone Democratic President of the era - Grover Cleveland of New York - favored the gold standard, which was good for industrial interests in the East but hard on farmers in the South and Midwest.

The grievances of farmers and rural people found expression via the Populist Party (shaded yellow in the subsequent picture), which had become a regional political force by 1892. The economic crisis precipitated by the Panic of 1893 brought these tensions to a head. The midterm election of 1894 saw the GOP pick up 130 House seats, based on big gains in the Northeast and North Central regions.

This was the beginning of a change that would manifest itself on the presidential level in 1896 when William Jennings Bryan captured the Democratic nomination, promising "free silver." His opponent, William McKinley, supported the gold standard. The election of 1896 was fought over the currency issue, and the result produced a sharp industrial-agrarian divide.

Cleveland Harrison McKinley.gif

Though the South is joined this time by the Mountain West and the Great Plains, the divide again favors the North. McKinley won 271 electors to Bryan's 176.


This was a significant election not simply because the Depression began under the GOP's watch. It also had to do with the party's response. President Herbert Hoover failed to address the crisis to the public's satisfaction. Meanwhile, the Democrats nominated New York Governor Franklin Roosevelt, who had a great last name and a solid reputation of his own, having mobilized his government to fight the Depression in the Empire State.

Hoover Roosevelt.gif

Unlike in 1860 or 1896, a very broad transregional consensus emerged. As famed newspaper editor William Allen White later observed, the election of 1932 signaled "a firm desire on the part of the American people to use government as an agency for human welfare."


While the particulars of these elections are different, they tell a similar story about the political parties. In all three, the parties had to manage issues of great importance that could not be ignored. This is why we remember Lincoln's "House Divided," Bryan's "Cross of Gold," and Roosevelt's "New Deal." They each took clear stands on issues whose resolutions would determine the course the nation would set.

What's more, there was little room for common ground those years. Either slavery would expand or it wouldn't. Either the government would authorize the free coinage of silver or it wouldn't. Either it would take a more active role in the economy or it wouldn't. Practically speaking, the differences could not be split.

So, these issues upset the normal functioning of the parties. By their nature, parties select issue positions and emphases in pursuit of electoral majorities. Obviously, no party can undertake a full-scale reinvention of itself. However, in pursuit of a majority, it can frequently "finesse" matters. It can slightly alter some positions, it can equivocate or obfuscate on others, and it can emphasize particular issues or personalities depending upon the audience. The goal is to string together an electoral majority among the diverse elements of our large Republic.

In these years, this process was disrupted to some degree. Issues of great salience dominated the political discourse and forced the parties to stake out relatively clear positions. There was little room for finessing. Thus, votes from those years can be seen as opinions on the critical issues more directly than votes from other years.

So, examining the parties and the issues they handled this cycle might help us understand how 2008 stacks up against these three elections. Did the parties behave similarly this year as they did then? Were the issues similar?

I think the answers to both questions are negative, which cuts against the hypothesis that this election was a "realignment." For starters, there was no central, defining issue that disrupted the normal party process. Instead, both candidates covered a variety of issues, few in any depth. There was also a scarcity of clear contrasts between Obama and McCain. Indeed, on the subject that might have emerged as a realigning issue - the financial bailout - they voted the same way.

Relatedly, both candidates made the search for common ground a defining feature of their candidacies. McCain would cite Hillary Clinton just as often as Obama would mention Richard Lugar. There was no House Divided, no Cross of Gold, no New Deal. There was the promise of pragmatic governance and a change in tone toward bipartisan conciliation.

This evidence disfavors the idea that 2008 was like these previous elections. Now, it might be that 2008 was a kind of realignment - perhaps a "partial" one. However, I would return to the above quotation from Robin Kolodny. Adding a qualifier like this strikes me as the sort of inelegance that is tolerated when a theory is losing its explanatory power - like adding epicycles while waiting for the Copernican revolution.

None of this is to claim that the GOP isn't in trouble. For the Republicans, much depends on how well Obama governs. If he governs to the public's satisfaction - the GOP could be in the minority for a while. If he does not - it's return may be speedier.

-Jay Cost

Murtha in a Tight Race

After making some unfortunate comments to the editorial board of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, calling voters in his region "racist" then "redneck," Western Pennsylvania congressman John Murtha finds himself in a tight race. The NRCC and the DCCC have both entered the fray, blanketing the Pittsburgh area with advertising, and Murtha is calling upon Bill and Hillary Clinton to help him carry his district tomorrow.

Murtha's district is Pennsylvania 12th. It covers a vast expanse of Western Pennsylvania, stretching 130 miles from Johnstown in the east to Waynesburg in the southwest corner of the state. His district is the one shaded blue in this picture, courtesy of Sean Oxendine.

Pennsylvania 2002.gif

As this Post-Gazette article notes, Murtha's district did not always look like this. When he was first elected in 1974, his district, then Pennsylvania's 22nd, looked like this (again courtesy of Sean Oxendine):

Pennsylvania 1972.gif

Centered in Johnstown, it stretched north instead of west. The shape of the district has changed because Pennsylvania has lost congressional districts over the years - from 27 in the 1970s to 19 in the 2000's.

According to the Post-Gazette, this has contributed to Murtha's problem. Around Johnstown, voters know him well. However, he is not known nearly as well to the voters in the west.

The farther west you go, the deeper the puzzlement at the congressman who called Western Pennsylvania "racist" in an interview with the Post-Gazette editorial board and then apologized by substituting "redneck" in a television interview.

Mr Murtha already had irked veterans and social conservatives in the area by calling for a U.S pullout from Iraq and accusing eight Marines of atrocities in the town of Haditha.

Back home, the "racist" remark is viewed as Mr. Murtha -- who is as famous for his plain speech as for his capacity for handing out federal moolah -- speaking more bluntly than clearly. Yet, in much of the new district, well to the west of Johnstown, there is puzzlement verging on anger.

Murtha's problem is similar to the kind of trouble that many long-serving members of Congress face. When they are first elected to Congress, and for the first few terms, they develop what political scientist Richard Fenno calls a "homestyle." This is a way of interacting with and understanding voters in the district - cultivating good relationships with important constituent groups, appearing at the right events, knowing when to vote with the district and when you can get away with voting against it, and so on.

However, members can face trouble as the district changes. In some instances, the change is induced by new types of voters moving in. In other instances, such as Murtha's, redistricting means new lines and new voters. These new voters do not have the same relationship with the member, which means he must cultivate a bond with them. If he fails to do that, those new voters might ultimately turn against him.

This Post-Gazette article indicates that Murtha has had trouble adapting to his changing district. Voters in Johnstown are more forgiving of Murtha's comments, but to the west his voters are less so because they don't know him as well. This makes intuitive sense. If you've known John Murtha as a man who has brought jobs and federal dollars to the district for 34 years, you have a context for those comments. But if he's new to you, and these comments are some of the first things you've heard from him, they could be very important in shaping your opinion.

So, Murtha's problem this cycle is an extreme example of a common kind of trouble. Congressional districts are not static. They change because of population movements, shifts in the economy, redistricting, and other factors. Members, even long-serving ones, need to adapt to these changes. If they don't, they can face the kind of trouble that Murtha has today.

Will this be enough to end Murtha's career? I don't know. Fortunately for him, he made his bone-headed remark in a year that favors the Democratic Party. That's a lucky break for him - and luck can sometimes count as much as anything in House races.

-Jay Cost