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Confusion about the changing positions of political parties in the U.S.

The states won by the Democrats and Republicans in recent elections are almost the opposite of the result of the election of 1896:


In their article, “Activists and partisan realignment in the United States,” published in 2003 in the American Political Science Review, Gary Miller and Norman Schofield describe this as a complete reversal of the parties’ positions. In their story, in 1896 the parties competed on social (racial) issues, with the Republicans on the left and the Democrats on the right. Then the parties gradually moved around in the two dimensional social/economic issue space, until from the 1930s through the 1960s, the parties primarily competed on economic issues. Since then, in the Miller/Schofield story, the parties continued to move until now they compete primarily on social issues, but now with the Democrats on the left and the Republicans on the right.

It’s an interesting argument but I have some problems with it. First off, it was my impression that the 1896 election was all about economic issues, with the Democrats supporting cheap money and easy credit (W. J. Bryan’s “cross of gold” speech) and the Republicans representing big business. At least in that election, it was the Democrats on the left on economic issues and the Republicans on the right.

Getting to recent elections, the evidence from surveys and from roll call votes is that the Democrats and Republicans are pretty far apart on economic issues, again with the D’s on the left and the R’s on the right. So, from that perspective, it’s not the parties that have changed positions, it’s the states that have moved. The industrial northeastern and midwestern states have moved from supporting conservative economic policies to a more redistributionist stance. Which indeed is something of a mystery, and it’s related to attitudes on social issues, but I certainly wouldn’t say that economic issues don’t matter anymore. According to Ansolabehere, Rodden, and Snyder, social issues are more important now in voting than they were 20 years ago, but economic issues are still voters’ dominant concern.

1896 vs. 2000 by counties within each state

Here are some more pretty pictures. First, within 6 selected states, a scatterplot of Bush vote share in 2000 vs. McKinley vote share in 1896. There are completely different patterns in different states! Nothing like as clean a pattern as the statewide plot above.


And here’s another plot, this time showing each county as an ellipse, with the size of the ellipse proportional to the population of the county (more precisely, the voter turnout) in the two elections.


Nowadays the Democrats clearly do better in the big cities (in these graphs, the large-population counties). In 1896 the pattern wasn’t so clear.

The recent role of population density

I asked Jonathan Rodden what he thought of the above graphs, and he replied, “I would like to see when this relationship developed, in which states, etc. My hunch is that suburbanization, especially after the race riots, significantly reduced the heterogeneity of cities. The era of Democrats winning 80 percent of the presidential vote in big cities seems fairly recent.” He also sent along these graphs of voting by population density:


As Jonathan noted, the pattern of high-density areas voting strongly Democratic is relatively new. (But I don’t buy the way his lines curve up on the left; I suspect that’s an unfortunate artifact of using quadratic fits rather than something like lowess or spline.) Also there seems to be some weird discretization going on in the population densities for the early years in his data. But the main trends in the graphs are clear.

Jonathan added the following comment: “The relatively high values on the left side of graphs in early years is due to Southern Democrats and some mining districts. Graphs of the UK, Australia, and Canada look very similar during the same period, with left voting concentrated in urban and mining districts.”


  1. Bensel’s work on sectionalism sheds light on the changing position of the states. As the north-east lost market advantage it shifted to the economic left. We can see signs of this with the Democrats southern Congressional advances recently.

  2. […] anti-wack on these sorts of issues is Andrew Gelman. Here is an interesting one from him on American political geography (contrast that with the Neuro guys […]