Monday, June 28, 2010

West Virginia

I find that I don't really have much to say this morning about Senator Robert Byrd, who died today, so instead I'll just talk a bit about West Virginia and presidential elections.  I've never seen a really good explanation for it, but West Virginia's recent shift from blue to red has to be one of the most significant movements of any state over the last forty or so years.

Nate Silver has this well-organized in a post way back in April, 2008, showing how each state compares to the national results.  What he shows is that West Virginia was more Democratic than the nation as a whole in every election but one from 1948 through 1996, deviating only in the Nixon reelection landslide in 1972.  Silver groups 15 southern and border states together, so it's easy to compare where WV lies within that group (the 11 confederate states and WV, OK, KY, and MO).  At the beginning of the period, West Virginia is in the middle of that region.  In 1952, it's the 7th-most Democratic of the 15 states, trailing Solid South states such as Georgia, Arkansas, and Alabama.  By 1964, however, West Virginia has stayed solidly Democratic, while the rest of the region has flipped -- Johnson does better in West Virginia than in any other southern or border state.  That continues right up through the 1970s, 1980s, and even into the 1990s; in Bill Clinton's reelection, West Virginia is second only to Arkansas in pro-Democratic tilt.

And then, suddenly, it's a Republican state.  In the two Clinton elections, West Virginia was seven and then six points more Democratic than the nation as a whole; in the two George W. Bush elections, it was seven and then ten points more Republican than the nation, and McCain carried West Virginia by 13 points in 2008.  That kind of shift is fact, it's possible to construct a rule that fits WV but no other state over the elections covered in Silver's chart (at least three elections with at least a +5 tilt to one party compared to the nation, followed by at least three with at least a +5 tilt to the other party).  I really don't know the reasons for the shift -- the emergence of climate as an issue in national elections?  But whatever the reason, it's pretty dramatic.

Of course, West Virginia has still elected Democratic Senators, and they've elected Democratic governors more often than not; current incumbent Joe Manchin won easily in 2004 and 2008, while West Virginians were supporting Republicans for president.   So I'm not sure that the presidential vote predicts anything about Byrd's replacement.

Beyond that, I think Adam Serwer had some useful words on Byrd in his new blog that everyone should be reading, and Nate Silver seems to be the go-to guy for updates on the procedure for replacing Byrd, which appears to be up in the air at the moment.


  1. I'm not sure the best way to measure these, but wouldn't you say that New Jersey is at least as interesting a leftward-movement story as West Virginia is a rightward-movement one? Its profile on the 538 chart seems actually more stark that WV's.

  2. I'm going to make a couple of guesses. First--social issues became more important in national elections. WV is very very socially conservative, but not really that economically conservative. I think Nate Silver has a chart for that, too. I remember seeing it.

    Two--collapse of the unions. I might be talking out my a** a little here (I hope not); I'm trying to remember from West Virginia history class, which I had in 8th grade (just like every WV kid), and it was a while back.

    But most of the southern states became Democratic because of reconstruction, right? And in opposition to the anti-slavery Republicans. But WV was a Union state (albeit at least partly by force), and never had a large black population--poor Appalachian farmers and miners being too poor to own slaves, although they probably would have had them if they could.

    WV came to the Democratic party mostly for a completely different reason: coal miner's unions. Life for a miner before unionization was about as bad as you can get outside of actual slavery. That was remembered for a long time. Time was, WV elections were called by the unions, and they called them Democratic.

    But most of the mines are non-union now, and anyway with automation there aren't nearly as many mining jobs anyway. So yeah.

    So anyway, that's my guess. All politics is local? Sort of?

  3. Yup, I noticed NJ too. It's weird how consistent it was from 1968 through 1992 (7 elections), always just a bit more Republican than the nation, and then in 1996 it breaks strongly for the Dems.

    Hmmm...looking at it more closely, I wonder if there isn't a regional effect having something to do with what once were the mountain Republicans -- KY also swung to the GOP in 2000 with WV, and Tennessee did in 2004, after Gore was off the ballot. KY and TN were more or less swing states in the 1980s, but not any more.

  4. Jonathan Bernstein:

    Tennessee did in 2004, after Gore was off the ballot.

    Did you forget that Gore lost his home state in 2000?


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