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By Jay Cost

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A Note on Gallup's Party Identification Map

Today, Gallup released its results of partisan identification in the 50 states. The results are, as usual, interesting.

Gallup Party Identification July 2010.jpg

This map does not correspond with the national presidential map terribly well, in that it underestimates Republican electoral strength. Why is this?

Part of the issue probably has to do with the evolution of American partisanship. You'll note that most of the "Republican" states are in the Great Plains: Kansas, Nebraska, South Dakota, Wyoming, Montana, Idaho, and Utah. These states have historically been Republican since they were brought into the Union. Actually, many of them were brought into the Union in 1889. The Republicans had control of the presidency and both chambers of Congress, and quickly added these states, which they believed would vote staunchly Republican.

They voted for Bryan in 1896 and Wilson in 1912 and 1916, but otherwise they were staunchly Republican up through the Great Depression. Kansas, Nebraska, and the Dakotas were the first Roosevelt states to peel away from FDR's coalition, voting Republican as early as 1940. And while Harry Truman did well in this part of the country in 1948, they have been pretty reliably Republican since 1952.

These states are thus but a handful that have moved very little in over 100 years in terms of party alignment. Most other states have moved from one side to the other - Vermont used to be the most Republican state and South Carolina used to be the most Democratic. Now, as Gallup finds, it is basically reversed. Even within states we often find major changes: Democrats used to do well in Western Pennsylvania and Southern Illinois while Republicans were strong in Eastern Pennsylvania and Northern Illinois, but now both intra-state trends are reversed.

Party loyalties can survive for many years on a state and local level even if voters have moved on the congressional and presidential level. So, it's fairly common for districts to be reliably Republican for national offices, but more amenable to the Democrats at lower levels. And vice-versa. For instance, Kentucky has been voting staunchly Republican on the presidential level since 2000, but Democrats outnumber Republicans in the lower state house by almost 2-to-1. New York is now a highly Democratic state on the presidential level, but it has a long history of Republicanism, which shows up in the Democrats' very narrow control of the state senate.

If you look carefully, you can find such vestiges of the old party alignments all over the country. They also show up in the Gallup map. States like Georgia, Louisiana, and Texas have become increasingly Republican on the presidential and congressional level in the last 30 years, but Gallup has them listed as "competitive" in no small part, I'm sure, because many functional Republicans called themselves Democrats when Gallup inquired about their preferences.

Interestingly, the reverse does not seem to hold true on the Gallup map. Old Republican states like California or Vermont show up as solidly Democratic. Why might that be? It might have to do with the divisiveness of the Bush presidency, which might have pushed a lot of "liberal Republicans" into the Democratic fold.

It might have to do with the depth of commitment that the South once had to the Democratic party, which vastly outstripped any region's Republicanism. Franklin Roosevelt won every state except Maine and Vermont in 1936. Yet if he had been a Republican, he would surely have lost the old Confederacy, whose loyalty to the Democratic party was put in jeopardy only when the Democrats ran Al Smith, a Catholic, for President in 1928. That's how committed the South once was to the Democratic party. Republicanism in the South is still a fairly new development, just 50 years old or thereabouts, and so perhaps a lot of nationally Republican states still have commitments to the Democratic party that manifest themselves on the Gallup map.

It might also have to do with the fact that the Gallup poll is of "national adults," which can favor the Democratic party. We see indications of this in polls of national adults on Obama's job approval, which tend to be friendlier to the President than polls of registered voters or especially of likely voters; ditto generic ballot tests. The Gallup poll's numbers on un-leaned partisanship tend to track the exit poll results on base party preference fairly well, but Democratic advantages can show up when Gallup asks Independents to which party they "lean." For all of 2004, for instance, Gallup found that, when leaners were counted, the Democrats had a 3 point advantage in party identification. But on Election Day, Republicans outnumbered Democrats and un-leaned Independents basically split between Kerry and Bush. In 2006, Gallup found an average Democratic advantage of 10 points when Independent leaners were included, while the Democrats won the House by 8 points. In 2008, the Democratic advantage when leaned Independents were included was 10 points (again) while Obama defeated McCain by 7.

These factors - the stickiness of old party alignments, the effect of the Bush presidency on the Republican brand in Democratic areas, the deep loyalty of the South to the Democratic party, and the Democratic tilt of a "national adults" sample - probably explain why the Gallup map bears very little resemblance to the red-blue divide we take for granted today. So, Gallup's results are interesting from a sociological/political science perspective, but I think they bear only little relevance to voting preferences in presidential elections or the "nationalized" congressional election we're set to hold in November.

-Jay Cost