Wednesday, May 6, 2009

The Weird Politics of the Underdeveloped South

That map of states by human development index score reminded me of something. Remember this New York Times map of voting shifts from 2004 to 2008?

The bluer counties shifted more towards the Democrats in the presidential elections from 2004 to 2008, and red counties shifted more towards the Republicans. The country as a whole shifted about 9.7% more Democratic; but one region stands out for having a lot of counties that actually went more Republican in 2008 - and it sure looks like it correlates pretty strongly with what I described yesterday as the underdeveloped core: the eight states with human development index scores well outside the mainstream for other developed economies. Those states all went for John McCain in 2008, just like they all went for Bush in 2004 and 2000 (though Bill Clinton did pretty well in the region in his two elections). They're not the most Republican states (though Oklahoma's close to the top of that list), but they all seem to be moving towards the Republicans, even as most of the rest of the country moves toward the Democrats.

If anything, this correlation is even more striking when you make the apples-to-apples comparison of state HDI vs. state voting shift from 2004 to 2008.

This shows the voting shift towards the Democrats from 2004 to 2008. The scale is set so that red states shifted less toward the Democrats than the nation as a whole (even though most of them shifted somewhat toward the Democrats) and blue states shifted more toward the Democrats than the nation as a whole. Again, the vote shift in the underdeveloped core was less toward the Democrats than in any other region; five of the 8 states actually shifted toward the Republicans - the only states to do so. Based on Dave Leip's US Election Atlas, here are the states that moved the least toward the Democrats, with their percentage change in the Democratic margin:

1. Arkansas, -10.09
2. Louisiana, -4.12
3. Tennessee, -0.79
4. West Virginia, -0.25
5. Oklahoma, -0.15
6. Massachusetts, +0.65
7. Arizona, +1.99
8. Kentucky, +3.64
9. Alaska, +4.01
10. Alabama, +4.04
11. Mississippi, +6.52

Massachusetts was the home state of the Democrat in 2004, and Arizona and Alaska were the home states of the Republican presidential and vice-presidential candidates in 2008. If you take out those three states, the top 8 states that shifted the least toward the Democrats were precisely those eight states that constitute the underdeveloped core. Does that seem like an odd correlation to you? The states that seem to be moving towards the Republicans are exactly those that have the lowest human development index scores.

One possible explanation for this would hold if Republicans were generally increasing their vote share among poorer people: if that were so, it would be most evident in the poorest states. But according to this compilation of exit poll data, that's not the case; lower income voters moved about as much toward the Democrats as the country as a whole.

Other people have explained the relatively strong Republican showing in this region as a phenomenon of Appalachia or the Upland South. But that doesn't account for the pattern of voting shifts in the Deep South. Some moron also argued that the areas of Republican improvement in 2008 should best be conceptualized as those parts of the South where there are few blacks. But that wouldn't account for the fact that Republicans did well relative to 2004 in some states with lots of blacks, like Louisiana and Mississippi, and not as well in some other states with large black populations, like Georgia and North Carolina. The pattern of areas of relative Republican improvement and the states with very low HDI scores makes for a much tidier correlation.

This is a bit hard to figure out. I mean, it's not like the Republicans are avowedly interested in addressing poverty or issues of human development in any direct way. And it's not as if they're popular among lower income people. Yet here they are making inroads in the one region of the country where levels of human development diverge widely from the norms of the developed world. The only explanation I can think of is that, in areas with lower levels of human development, traditionalist values have a firmer hold, and Republican appeals to those values have been paying off in the underdeveloped South. But it still seems odd that such values would swamp material concerns for voters in the one region of the country where the material standard of living really isn't up to snuff.


K H D and sometimes T said...

My approach isn't very scientific, but it makes quite a bit of sense to me. Voting often isn't a rational experience and in a region where progress has long been absent - one largely left out of America's rise in HDI-type indicators - you hold on to what you have. Tradition, family values, religion, etc. Better everything stays the same than gets worse, and history tells you there's not much expectation of things getting better. "Change you can believe in" is exactly the kind of thing I'd expect a region like that to disavow. They can't believe in it. In some ways a life of hardship and impoverishment makes you devout - or at least resigned - to the status quo (and thus, in an ironic twist, puts you in bed with the major corporations and tax-the-poor elephants who benefit from said status quo. But i digress)

Chachy said...

Yeah, I agree with all that to a point. But there are other poor regions and communities in the country, and they didn't have a problem supporting "change." And then there's the paradox that poor people generally are not moving toward the Republicans, but these 8 poorest states are. And furthermore, the underdeveloped south didn't have a problem supporting change in 1992, or 1932, or 1980, for that matter... So I think what you say is right, but it's not the whole story.

Could emigration be part of it? Maybe all the aspirational people have already left the region, thanks to its lack of opportunity, leaving behind a remnant population disproportionately comfortable with traditionalist values - geographic sorting by values orientation. Just thinking out loud...

Ben said...

I think you're right about the emigration point. I'm from Kentucky, also lived for 5 years in WV, and am really familiar with what you identify as the under-developed core.
The region loses lots of educated people to jobs/opportunities in other states, including nearby ones like GA and NC.

In my opinion the politics are all about "values" and not related to the economy. The Bush years were particularly brutal because the doctrine preyed upon exciting people through hot-button value issues.

In terms of state politics, both KY and WV are solidly Democratic, but Obama and Gore don't resonate there. Traditional thinking is certainly a part of that.

One thing to point out, and I'm sure you've already considered this, is the scale of analysis. There are sizable pockets of progressivism in all of these states, they're just not the majority.

Maitri said...

Mississippi is the paradox. Low HDI, most significant blue shift in past election. What education-vote trend did Mississippi break?

Cartophiliac said...

No one else has said it, so I'll throw it out there. What makes this region different? Race? Would we have seen such a strong shift to Repubicans in that area if it wasn't a black man running for President?

Not saying that is the only factor, but it must be included in the discussion.

Chachy said...

B - yes, plenty of progressives in this region, notably most African-Americans, like 95% of whom voted for Obama. But of course the point isn't that this is the most conservative region of the country; it's that it's trending towards the Republicans most strongly - in fact it's pretty much the only region in the country that's trending towards the Republicans at the moment.

As for levels of analysis, you could definitely look at things at a more local level and get a more fine-grained picture. But I think there are good reasons for looking at the state level, which is the second most important one (after the federal level) at which policies are made and implemented. And individual states each have their own history, their own tax bases, etc. And you can really tell this sometimes, too: driving across the Arkansas border from Texas is like going back in time 20 years - the difference is amazing.

M - well, Mississippi has the largest black % population in the US, and they came out in record numbers for Obama; but note that despite that, Mississippi still was among the least Dem-trending states.

C - yeah, I mean, racism is a "traditional value" after all, and is probably involved in some way. But I don't think it's sufficient to explain the trend. As I linked in the post, Obama's underperformance was largely a phenomenon of white Southerners. But that can't account for why he ran relatively strongly in North Carolina and Georgia (relative to Kerry in 2004), but relatively poorly in Mississippi and Louisiana.

NFL said...

Note that there is actually a difference between Virginia/Georgia/North Carolina and the more underdeveloped parts of the South. VA, GA, and NC are among the states with the highest growth rates in population, and most of that growth is coming from other parts of the country. Places like NoVa, Atlanta, Charlotte, and the Research Triangle have boomed over the last 20 years - and even within the last 4 years since 2004, there's probably been a noticeable increase in population.

This also has an effect on voting - presumably, these are mostly Northerners who are moving down South who don't change their voting patterns much. Coupled with the African-Americans' surge in enthusiasm for Obama, is it that surprising that GA/VA/NC vote differently from places like KY/AR/MS/TN/WV?

One other thing - I'd be a little clearer with the wording.

"...the top 8 states that shifted the least toward the Democrats were precisely those eight states that constitute the underdeveloped core. ...The states that seem to be moving towards the Republicans are exactly those that have the lowest human development index scores."

The second quoted sentence actually only refers to a 5 states: Arkansas, Louisiana, Tennessee, WV, and Oklahoma. These are the only states that saw a positive percentage change towards the Republicans. Even among these 5, OK, WV, and TN retained basically the same split between the Democrats and the GOP, as their changes were less than 1%.

Your overall message makes it seem like that entire region is trending more Republican. With the exception of AR and LA, I'd say that this region is probably better characterized as moving more slowly into the (D) column than trending R in the 2008 landslide. And even so, it's noteworthy to remember that between the 2004 and 2008 elections, the exception of Louisiana has seen so many (mostly from the African-American parts of the state such as New Orleans) move out of the state due to the effects of Hurricane Katrina that Census projections forecast the state losing a representative.

Another explanation to the region remaining more Republican than the rest of the nation might not necessarily anti-Obama, but perhaps as KHD mentioned - the political characteristics of McCain matched these states much better. Maybe even better than Bush, as Bush is a wealthy man - McCain is probably more in touch with the more populist "common man".

That's it for brain is no longer functioning.

Hadgoux said...

We need to look at the ethnic issue, these areas are mostly of Scot-Irish (Appalachian,Ozarks)Cajun (southern Louisiana) and Indian (eastearn Oklahoma) populations. They are more isolated, clanish, suspicious of change coming from the outside.
Obama was alien to them. In Louisiana, the black population dropped after Katrina. In arkansas, the Clinton democracts went Republican. While in West Virginia, union influence has declined.

Richard said...

I think immigration and emigration both have something to do with it. Obama's main message was "Change". People who move are more likely to embrace "change".

The other big factor is yes, the North British clannishness, where "The Other" is invariably considered bad (as it would be in a lawless, herding culture where your main possessions can easily be rustled away if you and your clan is not vigilent). There are other ethnic groups that came from poor soil, relatively lawless, herding regions (the Sicilians, Arabs + numerous African ethnic groups come to mind), but in the US, they tend to be in areas where they are swamped by the Puritan/WASP political tradition.

Unknown said...

This is old news to political scientists. The best treatment is Andrew Gelman's book "Red State, Blue State." Highly abbreviated answer: Class matters generally for voting (richer voters vote more Republican on average), but matters more in places where income disparity is highest (what you call the underdeveloped South, where the rich are much more Republican than in, say, New England). In those states especially, voter turnout among the poor is also disproportionately low. Put these factors together and what looks like a paradox from afar makes more sense locally. There is more to the story, but that is the gist.

Kenji Matsuoka said...

I'd like to see the same analysis done for Afghanistan/Pakistan and the Taliban.

Chachy said...

Boffo - but the issue isn't that these places are the most Republican in absolute terms; they're not. It's that they're trending Republican, while the rest of the country is trending Democratic, including other parts of the South. Besides, West Virginia isn't all that unequal, income-wise.

bruce said...

Yes, because voters in the very educated parts of the country are SO rational. They have a quasi-religious fear of nuclear power and a faith in renewable power. Very impressive rationality. Say what you want about the south, at least people like Sessions have a coherent energy policy (instead of HOPE the wind blows). California voted overwhemingly for Obama, and they are the same numbnuts who shut down fully functional nuclear power plants (multi-billion dollar investments) and instead imported natural gas - is that rational?

And yes, I did vote for Obama. But this tripe you threw in there about certain groups of people being "more rational" is a blatent absurdity. No region in the US can claim a dedication to rationality.

bruce said...

Ontop of that, why are people moving to the south? Because they have sensible (rational) policies which are pro-growth and pro-business. Yet the people moving there vote for Democrats who favor higher taxes on corporations than even Germany has. Very rational.

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