Political Turnover Rate in the US

Sorry, I’ve not been putting much on my blog recently. You know how it is… stuff. Plus, for a while now I’ve had a weird urge to re-read a particular book, and I simply cannot find the damn thing anywhere, so as a result I’ve not been reading much…. [plus, it’s TV season]

But I’m here now! With…. a post of probably no interest to anybody, but never mind.  It’s just something that intrigued me, and yes, this is the sort of thing I do to entertain myself…

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America is, like a lot of democracies, a two-party country, more or less. There’s one party, and then there’s the other party, and people tend to consistently vote for one or for the other and that’s just how it is and always has been. Nothing special there. As I say, it’s common. It reflects in part the simple plurality (or ‘first past the post’) electoral system, which privileges the two largest parties, but also to a large extent the social cleavages within the nation. That’s why most countries (not all, but most) with multi-party systems in practice tend most of the time have those parties line up in two blocs – one of the left, and one of the right, although in individual countries local issues may also play a role in defining how the blocs see themselves, and how they compete. [Long-term additional parties or blocs likewise tend to reflect additional cleavages – regional parties that reflect differences in national or ethnic identity, for example]

As a result of parties being based on underlying cleavages, parties tend to be static: the same people, and the same places, keep on voting for the same parties, or their successor parties. There are parts of the UK that have voted Conservative (or, before that, Tory) every election since the 1830s.

But parties aren’t fixed in stone, and the biggest example of that is the US (perhaps in part because historically both major parties were broadly ‘liberal’ middle-class parties, more flexible than the labour parties, agrarian parties or religious parties, or even conservative parties, found in most other democracies). It’s well known that the US has gone through several different ‘party systems’, in which its parties had different names, or drew from different bases of support, or competed on very different issues. What that means on the ground is that areas have gone from supporting one party to supporting another.

And that, excuse the longwindedness, is what I’ve just been intrigued by. How far do you have to go back before all the states in the US voted differently from how they do now? How often has such a complete turnover occurred? How quickly does it occur?

This isn’t an academic study, it’s just me looking at some historical election results. There are ambiguities around the edges, mostly around how you define which parties are the successors to which earlier parties – I’ve taken an inclusive, common sense line on succession, because I’m interested in real changes in voting, not just party rebrandings. And for my purposes here, I’m defining a “turnover” or “transition” as a period of time from Year X to Year Y, inclusive, when every state had been admitted to the union by Year X had voted for two different parties by Year Y – which means that during that time, no states (other than those that entered the union during that period) remained loyal to a single party. And the turnovers that have occurred are:

 

1: 1789 – 1820: the Connecticut / Delaware Transition

This one is nice and clear cut: in 1789, every single state voted for Washington’s Federalists; in 1820, every single state voted for Monroe’s Democratic-Republicans. I’ve called this the Connecticut/Delaware Transition, because those are the only two states that didn’t vote D-R in 1804 – the country was, as it were, kept waiting for those two states to switch allegiance. Because these transition periods are about both change and continuity: change in that across the period all states changed their votes, but continuity because they are defined by the end of a state’s loyalty – in this case, Connecticut and Delaware voted Federalist every election up to, but not including, 1820. This example turns out to be commonplace: often transitions revolve around a big wave election like 1804, with just a few loyal states that are then picked off more slowly later on.

 

2: 1796 – 1860: the Virginia Transition

The one-party state established during the C/D Transition eventually broke down. And by ‘eventually’, I mean the very next election, in 1824, when four different candidates ran, all nominally as Democratic-Republicans – the two new parties, the Democrats and the National Republicans, were only formalised for the 1828 cycle. I’ve chosen to consider the Democrats as the successor party to the D-Rs – the Democrat Jackson was the candidate with the most votes in 1828 (though he lost the election when the House settled on his rival, John Quincy Adams, instead), and the self-declared ‘Old Republicans’, who wanted to restore the perceived traditional values of the party, eventually sided with the Democrats, rather than with the National Republicans. This transition therefore represents the loss of dominance by the D-R/Democratic Party and the rise of a sequence of new parties – National Republicans, Whigs, and finally Republicans. Virginia was the final hold-out, voting the same way for 64 years, before finally voting for the Constitutional Union Party on the eve of the civil war – it would take until 1872 before they finally went the whole way and voted Republican.

 

3: 1820-1868: the Alabama Transition

This transition can be seen as an extension of the second: it exists because several states entered the union after 1796, including a couple that would prove faithfully Democratic for decades: Missouri and Alabama. Missouri finally voted Republican in 1864, when Alabama was in secession; Alabama joined it the next cycle. The period represents the transition to a Republican-dominant system after the civil war.

 

4: 1828 – 1912: the Massachusetts Transition

The third transition may have left the Republicans dominant, but the Democrats were able to recover, and even to pick off traditionally Republican states. The transition ended with the unusual election of 1912: with the Republicans split into two parties, the Democrats under Wilson were able to make sweeping gains, including finally grabbing the Republican stronghold of Massachusetts, which had voted Republican (and before that Whig, and before that National Republican, and before that for the Adams faction) since 1828.

 

5: 1836 – 1964: the Vermont Transition

In the middle of the 20th century, power swung dramatically backward and forward, with the Democrats scoring crushing victories in 1932 and 1936, and Republicans doing likewise in 1928, 1952, and 1956. But each wave broke against the shores of the same enemy strongholds: the Democrat south and the Republican northeast. The final breakthrough didn’t come until LBJ’s sweeping victory in 1964, which finally knocked out the Republicans everywhere except, ironically, the south, and Arizona. In the short term, the shift of the southern states to the Republicans looked more striking – but the southern states had already all voted Republican before, mostly in the aftermath of the civil war. The real hold-out was Vermont, which had been loyal to the Republicans (etc) since 1836. Remarkably, the only reason which this transition was so ‘short’ was that Vermont in 1832 had voted for the Anti-Masonic Party – the state had never actually voted Democrat before.

 

6: 1876 – 1968: the Arkansas Transition

Here’s the one that symbolises the loss of the Democrat south. After the initial post-civil-war confusion, the south went back to being soundly Democrat until the time of LBJ. Many southern states flipped in 1964, but Arkansas lasted until 1968, when it voted for Wallace’s American Independents. It went the whole way and voted Republican in 1972, not quite making it to the century mark…

 

7: 1952 – 1996: the Arizona Transition

While all that business with the south and the northeast was going on, something else had changed: Arizona, which had swung to the Democrats with FDR, swung back in the high-water Republican election of 1952. It wasn’t pried out of their hands again until Clinton’s re-election in 1996 (and that was a one-off). It’s actually a slightly bigger deal than it might seem: the most loyal of Eisenhower’s states in the far west (that is, the only one not to vote for Johnson in ’64), even its temporary loss is emblematic of the gradual transition of those Eisenhower states from Republican to Democrat: Washington and Oregon switched in ’88, California in ’92, and Nevada, Colorado and New Mexico have all become active states again. Montana and Arizona have both toyed with the Democrats, leaving only Utah and Idaho as loyal Eisenhower states (since ’64). And I guess Wyoming.

 

8: 1968 – ? : the Western Transition

We don’t know how long this transition will last, but I’m guessing it may take a while. The interesting thing is that the Republican stronghold this time (and this transition will be a matter of eroding Republican support – the current Democratic strongholds weren’t established until later) isn’t, in historical terms at least, the South at all, despite popular perception. The Southern states have already betrayed the Republicans: en masse to vote for Carter, and then piecemeal to vote for Clinton. Instead, the historical core of Republican support in this transition has been in the west: the Wilkie states (that emerged as a bloc voting for Wilkie and then Dewey against Roosevelt and Truman) of Kansas, Nebraska, and North and South Dakota, plus the remaining Eisenhower states of Utah, Idaho and Wyoming. Plus Oklahoma, which also swung with Eisenhower but doesn’t really fit. Plus Alaska, which didn’t vote until 1960, but can probably be considered an Eisenhower state. All nine states went Democrat for Johnson in ’64, but switched back in ’68 and have never looked back. Not until all nine have voted Democrat at least once will the current transition be complete.

 

Note: due to the way these transitions are calculated, for each starting year after one of the years listed above, there is a complete turnover by the end-point of the last-listed transition. Put plainly: the 1789 and 1792 situations were both completely turned over by 1820; the 1796, 1800, 1804, 1808, 1812 and 1816 situations were all turned over by 1860; 1820 and 1824 were both turned over by 1868; the elections from 1828 to 1836 were all turned over by 1912, and so on. And conversely, because the current unfinished cycle began in 1968, that means that 1964 is the most recent election outside this cycle – that is, since 1964 every state has voted both ways, but that is not the case since 1968.

From this we can calculate the slowest and quickest turnovers. The electoral map in 1836 was not completely overturned until 1964, a record 128 years of relative stability [other strongholds during this time included Alabama and Mississippi (minus some Reconstruction-era elections) and Georgia (minus a flirtation with the Whigs in the 1840s) for the Democrats, and Maine (again, minus some confusion in the 1840s) for the Whigs/Republicans]. At the other end of the spectrum, the quickest total turnover was between 1948 and 1968 – specifically, only 5 states didn’t vote the opposite way in 1956 and 1964, and two of those (West Virginia and Kentucky) flipped twice those eight years (the only three that stayed loyal through that crisis were North Carolina and Arkansas for the Democrats and Arizona for the Republicans). Three turnovers of less than 20 years were only narrowly avoided: only one state (Arizona) voted the same way for every election from 1956 to 1968, and only two states (Arizona and Massachusetts) voted the same way in 1964-1972.

 

Anyway, cut out some smaller overlapping transitions and this method gives you three grand cycles: 1789-1820; 1824-1872; 1872-1964; 1968-now. This takes us back to the beginning of this post, because those line up fairly decently with the 1st, 2nd, 3rd/4th/5th and 6th party systems (though this model has the 3rd starting a little later, once the system really gets fixed in place, rather than when the Republican Party is officially founded). Interestingly, the normal debate is about whether the 5th and 6th are really separate (and if so when the break occurred), whereas under these definitions that distinction is unavoidable, and the questions are really about the 3rd, 4th and 5th systems…

 

….well then, that’s it really. Not sure what anyone’s going to get out of this, but the question interested me. So there you go.

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4 thoughts on “Political Turnover Rate in the US

  1. jshupac says:

    Hey, I really liked this. Would you mind if I published it as a guest post it on my blog?

  2. No, feel free! Though I should make clear I’m not speaking from any position of authority beyond “guy with access to wikipedia and a spreadsheet program”…

  3. jshupac says:

    okay good, i always blame any mistakes i make on wikipedia anyway

  4. […] a guest post from VacuousWastrel, which I enjoyed. Hope you like it […]

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