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I was going to title this "Much Ado About Just A Little," but wanting at least one or two folks to take a look, I thought better of it.  But the title would be quite apt, I thought.  Until I finished writing it.  Turns out, there was a bit more here than I first thought, at least as a point of departure for further reflection.

I've looked at all the presidential electoral maps from 1896 to 2004, analyzed how many contiguous regions the states won by each party's candidates fall into, and come to the conclusion you'd expect, if you thought about it: the losers' states are more fragmented than the winners.

But I hope that putting so much work into it will at least yield a moment or two's reflection on the seemingly obvious to carry something of value away.  And if you'd like to see how that hope turns out, then join me over the flip.

Okay, the logic first, then the mechanics, then the results, then the reflection.

Got it?  Good. Let's go!

The Logic

I got to thinking about the whole "red state/blue state" thing, and my knowledge that the states were roughly reversed from their 1896 alignment--1896 being the big "realigning election" from just over a century ago.  And I started wondering about how the blocks of states had shifted around over time.

The logic of this was quite simple: I wanted a way to put our current situation into some kind of historical context, a way to back up a bit and look at our recent "red state/blue state" map through more objective eyes.  Without any preconceptions about what it would tell me, I just wanted a different perspective, to see if it might shake loose some ideas.

I decided to start with 1896, because (a) it was an historically significant election and (2) shortly after that all the territories went away, leaving 48 contiguous states.

The Mechanics

I started thinking in much too fragmented, needlessly sophisticated terms--treating the states like cellular automata.

After a moment or two's reflection, I said to myself, "Hey, why make it so hard, when there's no obvious reason to?  Why not just look at contiguous regions?"--Meaning, blocks of states that border one another.

In the simplest case--only looking at the lower 48 contiguous states--all the Democratic states are in one block, each bordered by at least one other Democratic state, and all the Republican states are in another block, each bordered by at least one other Republcan state.  For simplicity sake, I thought of this as the basic, or "zero state," so instead of counting 1 contiguous block for each side, I decided to subtract one from the total number of blocks.

Thus, in 1964, when Barry Goldwater won 5 Southern states plus Arizona, that counted as 1, and LBJ won everything else--with Florida isolated by the 5 Southern states Goldwater won--that counted as 1 as well, for a total of 2.

There were just two complicating factors: the Great Lakes and the territories before 1912.  I decided to treat blocks separated by territories as "semi-contiguous" for a value of 0.5.  And I decided--somewhat arbitrariy--to treat none of the states across the Great Lakes from each other as contiguous except for Michigan (in light of the Upper Penninsula) and Minnesota.

I then calculated the total blocks, as well as the number of blocks for all candidates who won one or more state, and the difference between the winner and loser of the major national parties. (In 1912, the Bull Moose Party took second place, otherwise it was always Democrat or Republican.)

The Results

       Tot   Win   Lose  3rd  1st-2nd
1896     1     1     0          1
1900     1.5   0.5   1         -0.5
1904     0     0     0          0
1908     0.5   0     0.5       -0.5
1912     4     0     3     1   -3
1916     4     1     3         -2
1920     0     0     0          0
1924     0     0     0          0
1928     1     0     1         -1
1932     2     0     2         -2
1936     1     0     1         -1
1940     3     0     3         -3
1944     3     0     3         -3
1948     5     1     3     1   -2
1952     1     0     1         -1
1956     0     0     0          0
1960     7     4     3         -1
1964     2     1     1          0
1968     7     3     4         -1
1972     0     0     0          0
1976     5     1     4         -3
1980     3     0     3         -3
1984     0     0     0          0
1988     5     2     3         -1
1992     6     3     3          0
1996     4     2     2          0
2000     5     1     4         -1
2004     2     0     2         -2
Avg:     2.6   0.7   1.8 1.0   -1.1

The Reflection

What we see is totally unsurprising: the winning party has just over 1 less contiguous block on average than the losing party.  There were only two election in which the winning party had more contiguous blocks than the losing party--1896 and 1960.  This is unsurprising for two reasons:

(A) The purely mathematical reason: The winning party usually will win more states.  The party winning the most states will be less likely to have them split up into smaller blocks.

(B) The cultural/political reason:  American national politics have always been regionally based to a large extent.  Both parties have tended to encompass both liberal and conservative tendencies--unlike most other industrial democracies--but with fairly stable geographic core areas, where they have been politically dominant for decades at a time--or, for the Democratic Party in the South, for a period of over 150 years.

Because of this, it makes sense that parties rise to power by expanding their appeal beyond their regional cores, and fragmenting their opposition into disparate blocks who have less in common that holds them together, but are primarily united in what they're against.

Of course, our recent history is anomalous in at least two ways: First, the rise of mass electronic media, from radio networks through broadcast tv, then cable, and now the internet, has reduced (though hardly elminated) the capacity to specifically regionalize campaigns.  Second, the parties are more ideologically homogeneous than they have been in a very long time.  Whether these factors will outweigh commonalities with the past is anyone’s guess.

But the contiguous states lens helps to remind us that we are not divided into coastal elites vs. the heartland: this account totally ignores the Democrat’s significant Great Lakes presence.  And this sort of division is not all that uncommon in our history.  Nor is it uncommon for maps to change significantly between periods of relative stability.  The relatively unified winning blocks that Bush II had contrast sharply with the fragmented blocks assmbled not just by Clinton in 1992 and 1996, but by Bush I in 1988 as well.  And this, in turn, followed 4 straight elections in which the winning blocks totalled just one excess contiguous block.

Indeed, the winners’ number of contiguous blocks is a very crude measure, varying only between 0 and 1 in every single election between 1896 and 1956—a period in which control of the presidency changed party hands four times.  Compared to that long run, our recent maps hardly seem set in stone.  Indeed (forgetting Florida entirely) if Gore had eeked out a win in New Hampsire in 2000 (as Kerry did 4 years later), Gore would have won with 3 excess contiguous blocks, while Bush lost with none—something entirely unprecedented.

My point is simple: This somewhat unorthodox, but hardly exotic way of looking at electoral maps both confirms conventional wisdom at one level:  the dominance of a geographically broad unified base is a strong indicator of electoral success, and undercuts conventional wisdom at another: the supposed stability of the GOP’s red state dominance is purely illusory.

What emerges as more stable, however, is the basic fact of contiguous state block voting.  The exact configuration of such blocks may vary greatly over time, but the blocks themselves persist. Winning isolated states is far less significant than expanding the size of existing blocks, which in turn can depend on developing regional thematic appeals.

A Parting Thought

I conclude with a final reflection that is purely speculative at this point: If the GOP has a lock on most of the South (which an Edwards candidacy could disturb somewhat) this is arguably not the case elsewhere.  As one indication, it’s quite conceivable that if Kerry had responded quickly and vigorously to the Swift Boat Liars attack, he could have won in 2004, not by winning Southern states, but by escaping the "effete New England liberal" label. The question for 2008 is how can a Democrat capitalize on the negative residue of the Bush years, not by simply running negatively against it, but by creating a contrasting positive.

One possible answer echoes a tact that Kerry himself should have taken to disarm the largely specious attacks on him as a flip-flopper: emphasizing flexibility as both a sign of strength and source of stability: like a tree with strong roots, outward flexibility is a key to longevity and perseverence.  Properly articularted, such a theme has great potential in the Great Plains, and the Mountain West as well as the Mississippi River-bordering states that Clinton won in 1996, but Kerry lost in 2004.  All these states have physical rural roots that resonate with such a message, as well as long-term state-level cultural and economic history that resonates as well.  This stands in sharp contrast with the relative inflexibility and intolerance of the GOP’s Southern base.

This is, of course, a purely speculative suggestion at this point.  But something of this sort is precisely what Democrats ought to be thinking about now: developing cultural images and associations that have regional resonance differing from that which the GOP’s Southern base demands—and that provide a foundation for the sorts of policy innovations that actually produce results.

Originally posted to Paul Rosenberg on Wed Jun 20, 2007 at 02:11 PM PDT.

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Comment Preferences

  •  Tip Jar (17+ / 0-)
    Here's a tip:

    Here's the map for 2004 at Wikipedia.  Scroll down a tad, and there's links to all the other maps.

    •  Red/Blue (0+ / 0-)

      Nice to see that the colors were not always blue for democrats and red for republicans. Also interesting to see the South supporting a liberal Stevenson, and a conservative Goldwater.

      Thanks for the analysis, Paul. See you on Dec 1st at TubaChristmas?

      Shhhhh, don't tell anyone Al Gore is running for President. It's a secret!

      by Tuba Les on Wed Jun 20, 2007 at 03:19:28 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

      •  You Should Think Of Branching Out! (0+ / 0-)
        Hey you know, Les, my sister asked me just a couple of weeks ago if there was anything like the Tuba Christmas concert coming up in the Harbor during the summer.

        Why not a "Four Seasons of Tubas"?

        •  OcTUBAfest (0+ / 0-)

          There is an Octubafest that I have heard of, but never seen. TubaChristmas is pretty much an accident that has managed to grow.

          I will be playing a number of band concerts this summer with the Riverside Concert Band including one at the Nixon Library in September. Since I now live in the mountains, it's hard to get down to San Pedro very often. But I will be back for the winter, for sure.

          Shhhhh, don't tell anyone Al Gore is running for President. It's a secret!

          by Tuba Les on Wed Jun 20, 2007 at 04:29:34 PM PDT

          [ Parent ]

  •  Too much for my brain today (4+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    jj32, Bouwerie Boy, plf515, Greasy Grant

    But I will say that the presidential campaign that tries to win by picking up one or two states in one region, a state in another etc etc, always loses.

  •  My Reasoning (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    pb, plf515

    Just basic probability theory. A state that votes for a winning candidate is more likely to have a state on it's border vote for the same candidate, too. Also, a big state with many states bordering it, is more likely to have a state vote in the same way it did. Thus, the winning side is more likely to have less blocks.

    Anyway, your diary is very interesting.

    •  Basically, That's Point A Above (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      pb, BlueTide
      I was a math guy in college eons ago. So I tried to put it as simply as possible.

      I'm sort of swamped and my math chops aren't what they were, or I would have worked out the probability-based baseline and subtracted it out.

      But, really, that would have been overkill for the point I'm trying to make.  We know that there's some effect from A, and some from B.

      How much of an effect is a secondary concern, since I'm not running this model up against any sort of rival.  It's just a hueristic guide to get folks thinking in a slightly different way.

  •  another map you might be interested in (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Greasy Grant

    that I saw a while back: 10 Regions of United States Politics

    •  I've Seen It Before (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      But I must admit I've never really looked at it seriously.  The idea that here in Long Beach, CA I should be lumped in with parts of Northern Colorado and Brownsville, Texas just doesn't make a whole lot of sense to me.

      Yes, we share a significant Latino population.  But I can't even begin to explain the ways in which this seems like a superficial and misleading foundation for placing us into the same poltiical region.

      And it's not just me.  I can't imagine any of the more astute Latinos I know giving this much credence either.

      •  the reasoning, such as it is, (1+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:

        appears to be more demographic and statistical than it is qualitative.  I think it has some value, but when you're dividing millions of square miles into large, mostly contiguous regions, it's never going to be a perfect fit, and certainly not on the level of individual towns.

        But I think the idea that certain demographic groups are more likely to vote a certain way has quite a bit of merit -- Pew's Political Typology Groups seem to bear this out as well.

        •  Political Typologies (1+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:
          Political typologies are certainly useful. They're derived by using factor analysis, which is superior methodological approach to what's used in most statistical approaches to political views.

          But relating such groups to georgraphic areas--and then requiring that those areas be contiguous... fuhgetaboudit!

          The point is, you have to be comfortable with the idea that precision is never going to be as exact as you'd like, and whatever you measure will always have to leave something out.  You have to be comfortable in using these constructs as tools, rather than clinging to the notion that you'll get one master map that will combine everything together.

          If there is a Swiss Army Knife of poltitics, one thing's for sure: it's so tightly packed that you can't open any of the blades.

  •  This is excellent (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    thanks for the hard work. This is the type of stuff that ought to be frontpaged. Recommended and tipped.

    Enjoy reading The Proxies, a free crime thriller in short story form.

    by maynard on Wed Jun 20, 2007 at 02:56:00 PM PDT

  •  Less abstractly (0+ / 0-)

    I hope I'm in line with the main theme. Everyone sees Virginia as trending Democratic. Will that turn out to be a one-state addition to the Northeastern region of the Democratic Party? Or could it be part of a larger turning of the Border States or Upper South where we lost competitiveness not so long ago -- West Virginia, Kentucky, North Carolina, Tennessee, Missouri, and maybe even Arkansas? Democrats seem stronger recently in WV, KY, and MO as well as in VA, so I hope to see them shift as a group.

    I also believe that the regional blocs come partly from a sort of contagion. When the Southern states started shifting from Democrat/Dixiecrat to Repub, it seemed to spread like a plague. It was as if when voters in each state learned from the media that voters in a sister state had switched from the party of their grandfathers, it made it easier for the others to switch.

    Now I'm sure that voters in NC and KY know that VA elected a Democratic Senator in '06, and I think that will make it easier to defeat Libby Dole in '08, and maybe Mitch McConnell too.

    Out West I'm hoping that Nevada will adhere to its Coastal neighbors, and help the Southwestern states of Arizona and Colorado finally join NM --and then eventually TX again (we can dream!) -- as a region where Democrats are at least competitive.

    •  It's Complicated, Obviously (0+ / 0-)
      I think there's probably at least three different levels of causality at work--with more than one factor at each level--when you're talking about things like changing voting patterns in the South.

      There's the deep socio-cultural stuff.  There's the migration and generational replacement stuff that changes the percentage mixes of the deep, barely-changing stuff.  And there's the relatively surface stuff that political actors--from big money politicians down to grassroots activists--can have a significant impact on.  I think the second two will work in our favor over time, though it's hard to say what the timing will be.  Obviously, if handled properly, an Edwards candidacy could help accelerate this process, especially paired with the right Senate candidates.

      In a place like Nevada, I think there's a lot more fluidity, obviously, and that means the third level potential is much greater.  In fact, Tom Shaller's argument in Whistling Past Dixie is essentially that the level two factors are much more favorable for us in the Mountain West and elsewhere than they are in the South.  He's not saying forget the South.  But he is saying don't play to it. Stay within your game.

      It's much more important, IMHO, to build up the infrastructure, and nurture local politicians, rather than try to win air wars right now.  By all means, take the Senate shots when we've got them.  But don't try to change our national message in hopes of picking off a Southern state or two.

      Also, I think that the Mississippi River states Clinton won--Missouri, Arkansas, Louisiana--should be regarded as quite different from the Deep South states that have been GOP-leaninig all the way back to Goldwater in 1964.  Anyone who's even just travelled through there--not even visiting--knows how different they are.

      •  Missouri a Border state or in the Midwest? (0+ / 0-)

        If Missouri acts like part of the Midwest state we should win it in 2008. But post-Katrina Louisiana seems lost on the new demographics alone. Louisiana will change again when Mississippi does.

        I say that having in mind that Kerry actually got a majority of young MS voters in '04! And I think the race card is not so easily played on younger Southern voters as it was on their elders. The most truly integrated schools in American are in the small towns of the South. With constant attrition in the Repubs' ageing Dixiecrat base, they have to point to other boogers in the darkness, and alas, terrorists seem to be filling that role for now.

        •  How can it be Midwest? It's past the Mississippi. (0+ / 0-)

          No returns for privilege; full returns for labor! Labor has a right to all that it creates.

          by Mike Erwin on Wed Jun 20, 2007 at 05:24:19 PM PDT

          [ Parent ]

          •  Gotta get me a geography book (0+ / 0-)

            I always count Minnesota and Iowa as part of the Midwest. To me at least, St. Louis and Kansas City seem as much Midwestern cities as Cincinnati or Indianapolis, or Minneapolis and Des Moines for that matter!

            Actually I found in my old dictionary this definition: "The region of the U.S. between the Rocky Mountains & the E border of Ohio, north of the Ohio River and the southern borders of Kans. & Mo." But I'll bet you don't like that definition and I don't either! Kansas is a Great Plains state, not in the Middle West.

        •  Both (0+ / 0-)
          These are terms from different frameworks. Both apply to Missouri.  The Midwest is a regional geographic term, while "Border State" is a term of political geography, with reference to the Civil War era.

          Look at the map for 1996 and you'll see that Clinton took the whole North-South column of states from Minnesota to Louisiana, whereas Kerry only carried Minnesota.  I'm not saying we can sweep them all--not with the Bush Administration refusing to rebuild New Orleans.  But we could get the rest of those states without bending over backwards to reach the Bubba vote in rural Georgia.

  •  Nice but it would be much (0+ / 0-)

    better, I think, to paint the states shades of purple.

    The Red/Blue divide is largely a myth.  There is lots of good stuff here

    This site has a map that tracks presidential elections from 1960 to 2004 in purple

    Republicans believe government is the enemy. When they're in charge, they're right.

    by plf515 on Wed Jun 20, 2007 at 04:02:16 PM PDT

    •  Yes. It's A Myth In Terms Of Stereotyping States (0+ / 0-)
      But this analysis is based on the reality of what we have, not what we'd like to have. And since most states are winner-take-all in allocating their electoral votes, all that matters is who wins the state.

      Of course I favor the movement to create an inter-state compact that would circumvent the electoral college.  If we had that, then this analysis would become nothing more than an historical relic.

      It's pretty clear that won't happen this time around, but it really could by 2012, and that would be excellent.

  •  DMfromCT had a diary with maps (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    Here are many maps and cartograms at the University of Michigan looking at the 2004 election.

    But, my favorite map and analysis to incorporate is from Robert David Sullivan. It's the "10 Region Model." The Boston Globe ran it back in 2004.

    Free Image Hosting at

    All results of a nationwide election in the US can usually be translated into a ‘binary’ map, divided into red states (Republican, mainly in the middle) and blue states (Democratic, mostly on the coasts). In January of 2004, the Boston Globe newspaper issued an original variation on the theme of political preferences in America: it divided the country into 10 distinct, but not necessarily contiguous areas.

    The regions were based on election results, demographic data and certain geographic features. Each one represents about 10% of the electorate (i.e. approximately 10,5 million votes in the 2000 presidential election).

    <div style="color: #a00000;"> Our... constitutional heritage rebels at the thought of giving government the power to control men's minds. Thurgood Marshal

    by bronte17 on Wed Jun 20, 2007 at 05:00:21 PM PDT

    •  This Is The Same Map Referred To Above (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      And I still don't know what it's supposed to prove.  As I said before, being part of "El Norte" in Long Beach, CA, along with parts of Northern Colorado and Brownsville, Texas just doesn't make a whole lot of sense to me.

      Let me elaborate a bit.  I live in a quadriracial part of downtown Long Beach: black, white, Hispanic and Cambodian.  Does that sound anything like  Northern Colorado to you?

      Of course, you can get all sorts of different mixes, depending where you move about to in the LA County area.  And if you aggregate the whole, then the Hispanic plurality is certainly undeniable.  But so many of those are not citizens, or if citizens, not voters.  And those who are voters are pretty damn sophisticated and accustomed to living, and operating in a deeply multicultural environment.  So by the time you're looking at a voting population--which is disproportionately Anglo to begin with--the upshot is that this electorate has precious little in common with Brownsville, El Paso or Northern Colorado.

      The fact that Hawaii is also part of "El Norte" only makes it that much loopier.

      Not that I think "Sagebrush," spanning central Texas up to all of Alaska, makes that much more sense.

      Bottom line: There are different levels of resolution that make good sense of things. But often the levels in between do not.  If you want to break folks up into something like 100 different precinct types, with no requirement that they be contiguous, then I'm sure you'd get a much more textured view that would be rather useful.  But this in-between map seems neither fish nor fowl to me.

      •  Paul, this isn't my background nor field (0+ / 0-)

        of expertise, though it is very interesting to examine and generate overlapping maps.

        This map is an electoral college map.

        If you examine Sullivan's definition of each region, it will tell you that El Norte is the the "youngest" and "the most Hispanic" region (Hawaii is the "youngest" state... not sure why this is "loopy" to you).  Sagebrush is "anti-bureaucratic."  Not sure why that doesn't make sense to you.  I can follow the outlines of this map to incorporate into other maps and methodologies perfectly well.

        If you read Sullivan's articles of this "10 region model," though I don't agree with everything, it has some points to consider.

        I did not post this as the "be all" to maps nor to disparage your excellent observations.  This map "caught my imagination" and I keep coming back to it.

        <div style="color: #a00000;"> Our... constitutional heritage rebels at the thought of giving government the power to control men's minds. Thurgood Marshal

        by bronte17 on Wed Jun 20, 2007 at 08:07:44 PM PDT

        [ Parent ]

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