Princeton Election Consortium

A first draft of electoral history. Since 2004

A long view of electoral history

September 5th, 2008, 11:22am by Sam Wang


As we wait for the eye of the polling hurricane to pass, here’s an interesting site: Voting America, created by the Digital Scholarship lab at the University of Richmond. It gives maps of Presidential election results at state, county, and population levels from 1840 to 2004. In addition there’s commentary on a variety of topics, including great political realignments. It’s fascinating – check it out.

A prime example of a realignment is the dominance of the Democratic Party in the South, which was more or less unbroken from 1840 to 1960. A shift occurred during Lyndon Johnson’s presidency, when he pushed the Civil Rights Act through Congress as part of Kennedy’s legacy. At the time he told an aide “we have lost the South for a generation.” This was an underestimate.

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4 Comments so far ↓

  • Michael D

    McCain fancies himself as another Theodore Roosevelt, but the states have almost completely reversed since 1908. Except Utah.

  • GaMeS

    Thanks for the link — as a PoliSci wonk, I love finding data that I don’t first have to import and sort as a CSV file. :-)

    The LBJ comment is spot on: While he was correct in knowing the long-term repercussions involved, it’s easy to underestimate how long these major political epochs really are — since they depend on major demographic realignments, they tend to move really slowly.

    One question I’ve increasingly asked myself, though, is whether these realignments are accelerating. For the sake of argument, let’s divide American political history into the Jefferson, Lincoln, FDR, and Reagan epochs. Each shift includes a major realignment, certainly, but it also includes the advent of new communications technology: Lincoln’s was the telegraph and the railroad (making rapid distribution of newspapers possible); FDR’s was broadcast media and film (making it possible for people coast-to-coast to share the same iconic memories, from the Fireside Chats to “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn”); Reagan’s was cable and satellite media (vastly expanding the volume of information and speeding up the news cycle).

    If Obama is the beginning of a new epoch — and I believe that this is the case — he fits the pattern, emerging due to the advent of the internet and wireless communications. Now, not only is information decentralized and cheap to acquire, but it is available all the time, right in your pocket.

    This is something that I think people are grossly underestimating: The political methods that worked wonders in the cable age (e.g. domination of a handful of 24-hour news channels) simply don’t work now (e.g. you can’t dominate every blog, and you can’t quickly suppress the release of video on YouTube).

    And that’s why I think the pundits are generally underestimating Obama. They’re relics of the cable epoch, and they don’t yet realize how out of sync they are. The whole “PUMA” thing was a great example of this; those of us who come from this age recognize “concern trolls” when we see them, and we could see that a substantial number of the voices on blogs were actually just “sock puppets.” The media pundits, however, bought it hook, line, and sinker: They genuinely believed that the Democratic Party was coming apart at the seams, and they came across a little flat-footed when their whole storyline failed to materialize. Don’t get me wrong — there were and still are Democratic holdouts and hurt feelings, but it’s literally an order of magnitude less than they were talking about. All the rest was just the echoing of trolls. :-)

  • Sam Wang

    Isn’t it too early to tell if there is a true realignment occurring? For example, Ford/Carter appeared to follow an East/West divide, but that was perhaps just a weird fluke having to do with the fact that Carter was himself from the South. The current configuration suggests, to my eye, only minor changes from Kerry v. Bush 2004. If there is a change along the lines you suggest, The Emerging Democratic Majority might be a source of useful information.

    I do think that traditional media people are increasingly out of touch. Online consumers of news seem savvier and more prone to calling out untruths. I wonder if it’s because there is a herding effect – after all, traditional journalists hang out with each other, compare notes about what’s interesting, and so on. To be fair, online commenters can be insular as well.

    Your description of sock puppets and concern trolls is very funny. When I attempt to use these phrases in conversation they sound so odd. The concepts are important ones to know about, though.

  • Michael D

    If we start seeing OR, NV, NM, CO, AZ, MT, AK?, ND, SD consistently sending their electors to the democrats then I’d be starting to talk realignment. And let’s hope it lasts 40 years or so. Many of these states are Californicating so they are changing.

    McCain seems to be trying to break out of the Confederacy by building a dixie rebel/Alaska separatist alliance.

    If I were president, I would push for representation and electoral votes from Puerto Rico, Virgin Islands, Guam, Samoa. That would help realign things. I’d also announce my two new supreme court justices. Nothing in the constitution says there can only be 9. Then it’s time to start the war crimes trials.