UWM’s Thomas Holbrook on the transformation of the American political landscape


I wanna talk to you today
about a rather profound change that has taken place in the
American political landscape over the last four decades, a change that we can
observe at the state level as well as at the national level. And I want to offer two different but I think complementary explanations that account for this change. We can observe these changes both by looking at the
national level, who wins, and by how much, who loses, by how much? But we can also look under
the hood at the state level and look at the changing
dynamics of party support among the states. If we turn first to the national level, we can look at the Electoral College which is really where
it all matters, okay? This is where the winner is determined and even though the Electoral
College, as we know, is no popularity contest, we can also look at changes
in the popular vote over time to get a sense of what has been happening. Looking at the Electoral
College vote over time you see really kind of
a reversal of fortunes. You see Republican
dominance in the 70s and 80s then beginning about 1992,
kind of a competitive period, maybe a bit of a Democratic advantage. If we turn to the popular vote we see much the same pattern,
a bit more dramatic though. What’s interesting if you
look at the popular vote is that only once since the 1992 election has the Republican Presidential candidate won the popular vote. Prior to that the Republican candidates got a substantial majority
in the popular vote. If you look at the states,
looking under the hood as I said, you see this red blue pattern, red states, Democratic states… Or, Republican states,
blue states, Democrat, you see some pretty
distinct regional patterns. Republican strength in the
plains and in the southeast, Democratic strength in the
northeast and the upper Midwest, a little bit on the west coast. Fast forward to the last
four Presidential elections and you see a different pattern. Republicans have
consolidated their strength in the plains states, and mountain west, and in most of the southern states. Democrats have made inroads in the southeastern states,
southwestern states, west coast, and strengthened
their position in the northeast, while the upper Midwest has
become more competitive. So some types of change are more important than others, okay? It might be interesting that some Republican states
became more Republican or that some Democratic
states became more Democratic but that’s not likely to change
the national outcome, okay? What’s more important is to look at where change has taken
place in pivotal states states whose competitive
status has changed. If you look at those states you’ll see there were
important Republican inroads during this time period,
mostly in the Midwest and border south states. Democratic inroads in many more states spread out throughout the country and accounting for many
more Electoral votes. So these shifts in the state patterns have helped account for the shift in the national Electoral
vote pattern as well. So what accounts for these changes? I look at a couple of
different approaches. One is changing populations and the other is changing parties. Changing populations focuses
more on demographics. Changing parties focuses more on changes in the party message. Turning first to changing populations… So the idea here is that there are changes in
population characteristics, demographics if you will, in the states, that lead to changes in the
state’s political orientation that then influence who the states support in Presidential elections. So for instance, if you
think about Colorado, which has been trending Democratic, the change in populations
explanation would be Colorado has become more Democratic because of the increased size
of its Latino population. As this population grows, the
state becomes more Democratic. Now, turning to the
changing parties definition or explanation. Okay, the idea here is a
little more complicated. The idea is that party elites
polarize on policy areas that are connected to
different groups in society. This leads to changes in party
alignment of these groups, and then that produces
changes in votes in the states depending upon the composition
of that population. Thinking again about Colorado, the changing parties explanation would go something like this, Colorado has grown more Democratic because Latinos have
become increasingly aligned with the Democratic Party in response to changes in the party
positions on immigration. So, I’m gonna provide you
with a few empirics from two different periods of time, and between these two periods of time we’ve got significant change both in population characteristics and changes in the nature
of the political parties. And I’m gonna start by looking at the changing population characteristics in this time period, focusing primarily or initially on educational attainment. So, this figure shows you
the relationship between changes in educational
attainment in the states and changes in support
for the Democratic Party. Democrats gain the most
over this 40, 45 year period in states with… In states that saw the greatest increases in educational attainment. Okay, turning now, shifting
gears to changing parties, here we see the relationship between religiosity in the states
and vote for President. No real relationship. This is during the 70s and early 80s when the parties hadn’t really diverged on so-called morality and cultural issues. However, fast-forwarding to the last four Presidential elections, when the parties hold
clearly distinct positions on issues of morality or what we call cultural issues we see a strong negative
relationship between religiosity in the states and support for the Democratic Party, and this is exactly what’s expected under the party change model. So if you look at both
explanations together, the population change model does a better job of
explaining change over time. Both models have something to contribute but overall it’s more down
to changes in population than changes in parties, although both of course
explain what’s been happening. Recent population trends favor Republicans in a
couple of pivotal states. New Hampshire and Maine favor Democrats in twice as many states,
including Colorado, Georgia, Virginia, and North Carolina. Not a prediction, okay? Just, where things seem to be going. (applause)




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