Most Democratic and Most Republican States

In 2011, Robert David Sullivan used the expression ‘Most Republican State’ to refer to the state that had given the Republican presidential nominee his highest vote share after a given election:

While the title of Most Republican State was migrating from Vermont to Utah, it stopped in this Farm Belt state [Nebraska], which was Richard Nixon’s best in 1960 (62.1%) and in 1968 (59.8%).

The peregrinations of the titles of ‘Most Republican’ and ‘Most Democratic State’ are quite telling in terms of the changes in the parties’ coalitions.

The location of the title of ‘Most Republican State’ had a preternatural stability from 1856 through 1916, and to a lesser extent from 1856 through 1956. In every election from 1856 through 1916, with two exceptions, Vermont was the Most Republican State. One exception was the wartime election of 1864, when Kansas, the Jayhawker State, was Lincoln’s best state. The other, 1912, was less of an exception than it first seems. While Utah gave Taft his highest vote share, it was still a quite low 37.42% — low enough that, while Charles Evans Hughes improved on it slightly in 1916, he still lost the state by over 20%, failing to carry a single county. This suggests that Taft’s relatively high vote share in Utah may have been the function of greater partisan loyalty on the part of those of its residents who were Republican, even if they were a minority. Democrat Woodrow Wilson’s worst state was Vermont.

In 1920, North Dakota was the Most Republican State, inaugurating a period when Vermont would still be the Most Republican State a majority of the times (six out of ten elections from 1920 through 1956), but not with the same kind of consistency as previously. Periodically, the title of Most Republican State moved to a state in the Free-Soil Plains West: to North Dakota in 1920, Kansas in 1928, South Dakota in 1940, and Kansas again in 1944. Three of these elections were elections that were dominated by foreign policy, and in which the Democracy took a more internationalist stance than the GOP: 1920, 1940, and 1944. 1928 was the election in which a major party nominated a Catholic for the first time. This nominee, Al Smith, became the first Democrat ever to carry Chittenden County, then the state’s second-largest but growing (it would overtake Rutland County, which itself would not vote Democratic until 1964, in 1944).

Still, this meant that Vermont had been the best state for every Republican nominee from Frémont through Eisenhower at least once, save Harding and Willkie.

1956 was the last election in which Vermont would be the Most Republican State. (It also happens to be the last election to date in which the New York Times endorsed the Republican presidential nominee.) Vermont remained a comfortably Republican state for a further sixteen years, with the exception of the Goldwater election of 1964, when it not only voted for Johnson but was bluer than the country. In 1980, both Carter and Reagan did worse in Vermont than they did nationally, but Reagan’s margin over Carter was smaller than it was nationally. In 1984, Vermont voted about like the country, but the margin was again slightly smaller for Reagan in the state than it was nationally; and in 1988, Bush Sr won Vermont, which Dukakis had made part of his 18-state strategy, by only 3.52%.

The location of the Most Republican State went through a relatively brief period of instability from 1960–1972, migrating to Nebraska (the only Free-Soil Plains West state it hadn’t already visited) in 1960 and 1968, and Mississippi in 1964 and 1972. In 1976, it came to Utah, and stayed there for four straight elections, and seven of the next ten. (1976–1988 is the only stretch of more than three elections in a row in which a state has held the title of either Most Democratic or Most Republican State since 1936.) This meant that Utah was the best state for every Republican nominee from Ford through Romney at least once, save John McCain. It also meant that either Vermont or Utah has been every re-elected Republican president’s best state at least once, with one exception: Nixon.

The three elections between 1976 and 2012 in which Utah was not the Most Republican State were 1992, 2000, and 2008. In 1992, Utah gave a large vote to Ross Perot, and Mississippi, a state in which Perot did not do very well, was Bush Sr’s best state. (However, Utah was Bill Clinton’s worst state.) In 2000, Wyoming was George W. Bush’s best state, and in 2008, Oklahoma was John McCain’s — both firsts.

As a neighbour to Utah, it might not seem all that remarkable that Wyoming should have been the Most Republican State in 2000. However, Wyoming had never even been the second-most Republican State before 2000. Of the three mainland Mountain West states that have not voted Democratic since 1964 (Idaho, Utah, and Wyoming), Idaho had been more Republican than Wyoming in every election from 1976 through 1996, and had been the second-most Republican state in 1976, 1980, and 1984. In 1996, Bob Dole fell short of a majority in Wyoming (whilst winning a majority in six states, including Idaho). In more recent elections, Wyoming’s redness has become more conspicuous, as several states in the interior Mountain West, which not long ago was a dependably red bloc, have become either blue or purple, and even those that have remained red, are markedly less red than they used to be — with the exception of Wyoming.

Was there something in particular about George W. Bush that either appealed to Wyoming or dis-appealed to Utah? In 2019, Seth Moskowitz noted that

Since the turn of the century, when George Bush ran on support for mountaintop mining, the Republican Party has been seen as the party of coal. Meanwhile, Democratic efforts to reduce carbon emissions has been seen as an attack on coal and coal miners.

It seems likely that Wyoming is more bereft of ‘ideopoleis’ than other Mountain West states, perhaps due to its focus on energy. As Robert Wheel noted in 2016 of Ada County (the largest county in Idaho), ‘36% of Ada County has a college degree and the number in Boise proper is probably higher.’ He also noted that the Republican Party had ‘failed to crack 54% in the last two presidential elections’ (that is, 2008 and 2012). The Republican vote share has shown a long-term slippage in Ada County: from Ford’s 64.4% in 1976, to Bush’s 60.8% and 61.1% in his two close elections, to Romney’s 53.5%. Trump got a plurality in the county in 2020, and although he recovered to a majority in 2020, he currently stands at a mere 50.4%. In contrast, the GOP vote share in Wyoming’s largest county, Laramie, has remained fairly stable over the five close elections this century (61.7% in 2000, 65.1% in 2004, 60.5% in 2012, 60.7% in 2016, and, preliminarily, 62.0% in 2020 — it was a mere 53.5% in 1976). Its second- and third-largest counties, Natrona and fast-growing Campbell, have given the Republican Party a higher vote share in every election this century save 2008 (and a higher one in 2012 than in 2004).

In 2008, in what seems like it will remain a one-off, Oklahoma became the Most Republican State. After one last return to Utah in 2012, it migrated to another new state, West Virginia, in 2016. (This is according to the official FEC report, which appears to be the source used by Cook Rhodes in his America Votes 32. Trump’s vote shares in Wyoming and West Virginia were very close, and other sources have his vote share in Wyoming ahead of that in West Virginia in 2016.)

However, it does not appear that the title of Most Republican State has found a permanent new home in West Virginia. Currently, Trump’s vote share in Wyoming stands at 69.9%, and in West Virginia, at 68.7%.

In the years between Jackson and the Civil War, the title of Most Democratic State was most often in what was then the Southwest: Texas in 1848 and 1852 (and 1860, if one counts Breckenridge as the Democratic nominee that year); Arkansas in 1844 and 1856. As Michael Barone wrote in May 2012,

The Scots-Irish zone represents parts of America settled by the Scots-Irish who came across the Atlantic in huge numbers in the years 1763–75, just before the Revolution, and settled in the Appalachian ridges from southwest Pennsylvania to Upcountry South Carolina and then for three generations in a sort of drang nach southwest settled country going southwest and west to Texas and Oklahoma.

(Barone defined the ‘Scots-Irish zone’ as of 2012 as West Virginia, Kentucky, Tennessee, Arkansas, and Oklahoma, excluding Texas.)

The title of Most Democratic State visited a confused array of states from 1864 through 1876 (or from 1860 through 1876, if one counts Douglas as the Democratic nominee), but in 1880, the first election after the end of Reconstruction, settled in South Carolina, where it stayed until 1936 with almost the same kind of stability wherewith the title of Most Republican State stayed in Vermont. There were two exceptions: in 1892, Cleveland’s best state was Florida, but Florida also happened to be the only state where his major-party opponent, Benjamin Harrison, was not on the ballot. (Cleveland’s second-best state was South Carolina.) And in 1896, Bryan’s best state was Mississippi. This meant that South Carolina was the best state for every Democratic nominee from Winfield Scott Hancock through Franklin Roosevelt at least once, including for all its two-term presidents in that timeframe (Cleveland, Wilson, and FDR).

In 1940, the title of Most Democratic State left South Carolina for good, migrating to Mississippi in 1940 and 1944, and then, amid the Dixiecrat revolt in 1948, to Texas for Harry Truman. In 1952 and 1956 (and again for favourite son Jimmy Carter in 1976 and 1980), it would migrate to Georgia, where the Democracy appears to have remained stronger than in the rest of the Deep South for longer. South Carolina would not vote Republican (since Reconstruction) until Goldwater in 1964, but it came within less than 2% of voting for Eisenhower in 1952 (whereas Georgia gave over 2/3 of its vote to Stevenson). Georgia was easily Kennedy’s best Southern state in 1960, giving him 62.54% (and coming close to being his best state full stop); his next-best Southern state, Alabama, gave him 56.39%, and although South Carolina voted for him, it was with only 51.24%.

However, in 1960, Kennedy’s best state was Rhode Island — the first time the Most Democratic State was a free-soil state since 1860 (if one counts Douglas as the Democratic nominee that year) or 1836 (if not). It stayed in Rhode Island for three elections in a row.* In some sense, one could say that the period 1960–2000 was the ‘Rhode Island’ period for the Democracy: Rhode Island was the Most Democratic State in a plurality of the elections of that period (five of eleven), and was the most Democratic state for a majority (five of nine) of the nominees of that period (although never for either of the two Democrats elected president between Johnson and Obama, Carter and Clinton).

And in fact, a similar phenomenon seems to be happening in Rhode Island as in Utah, albeit more subtly. Robert David Sullivan, in 2011, speculated that

In the Democrats’ wildest dreams, the GOP will nominate someone so far to the right that it will finally alienate this loyally Republican state [Nebraska] (much as it did, over time, with Vermont).

This hasn’t really happened with Nebraska, but then, Nebraska never really played the kind of role as an enduring home to the title of Most Republican State that Vermont did (having been the Most Republican State in only two elections and for one nominee). It has, arguably, however, begun happening with Utah. In March 2017, Nate Silver envisioned Utah possibly becoming a purple or blue state in a few elections:

In some ways, it increasingly has the markers of a blue state, meaning high education levels, big tech sector, young population. So you can kind of envision a world in eight years, 12 years, 16 years in which Utah behaves more like Colorado or something, right?

And 2020 appears to have confirmed that, while Utah is still safely red (Trump currently stands at a landslide 58.3% there), it will never be nearly as deep-red as it had been before 2016 — nor will it ever be the Most Republican State again (or at least, not until some realignment has occurred which will have rendered the current map completely unfamiliar).

Less noted was the fact that in 2016, Hillary Clinton did over 5% worse in Rhode Island (54.41%) than in Massachusetts (60.01%), the first time since 1980 that the Democratic vote shares in the two states had differed by more than 3%. Or that Trump got the highest Republican vote share in Rhode Island since 1988 (making it one of twelve states where he outpolled Bush in 2004 — the only Republican this century to win the national popular vote). In 2019, Kyle Kondik did note that

One state to watch in the long term, though, may be Rhode Island…Hillary Clinton’s showing in Rhode Island was one of the weaker ones for a Democrat there in recent history. The Democratic presidential margin there fell from 27.5 points in 2012 to 15.5 in 2016. That doesn’t mean much, if anything, in the short term, although if Rhode Island ever becomes more of a swing state, we may look back at 2016 as a very early sign.

Preliminarily, 2020 appears to be bearing out the fact that Rhode Island will likely never be the Most Democratic State again (at least, again, as long as the current map remains at all familiar). 2016 had been the first time since 1980 that the Democratic vote shares in Massachusetts and Rhode Island had differed by more than 3%; 2020 looks on track to be the second, with Biden currently polling 65.2% in the former and 59.6% in the latter. Furthermore, if the current figures hold, it will be a very close call as to whether Trump gets the highest GOP vote share in Rhode Island this century this year (CNN is currently showing him at 38.9% in the state; he got 38.90% in 2016, and Bush got 38.67% in 2004).

That said, Rhode Island was much less consistently the Most Democratic State, than Utah was the Most Republican State. After 1968, the title of Most Democratic State wouldn’t return to Rhode Island for another 20 years. As mentioned above, it was never either Carter’s or Clinton’s best state.

Not only this, but the title of Most Democratic State showed a high degree of wanderiness in this period, bouncing to Massachusetts in 1972, and thence to Georgia in the Deep South in 1976 and 1980, to Minnesota in the Upper Midwest in 1984, and one last time to the ‘Scots-Irish zone’, in Arkansas, in 1992 (although Rhode Island was Bush Sr’s worst state in 1992). In 1976, 1980, 1984, 1992, and 2004, the Most Democratic State was the nominee’s home state. In one case (Minnesota in 1984), it was the nominee’s home state for the first and, probably, the last time. (In another — Arkansas in 1992 — it was the nominee’s home state for the first time in over a century.) Not only Mondale, but Carter and Bill Clinton look likely to be the last nominees for whom their home states was the Most Democratic State. After 1968, no state held the title of Most Democratic State for as many as three elections in a row (until 2008–2016). Even now, it is impossible to meaningfully say that every re-elected Democratic president (with perhaps one exception) has had one of two states as his best state at least once. (Excluding Jackson — whose opponents got bizarrely small numbers of votes in a number of states [Adams, 642 in Georgia in 1828, and Clay, five in Alabama in 1832], and who was the only nominee on the ballot in some other states in 1832 — one could say that every re-elected Democratic president, with one exception, has had either South Carolina or Hawaii as his best state at least once. But, thus far, this is relatively trivial, since only one Democratic president has had Hawaii as his best state. [One could also say South Carolina and Massachusetts, or even South Carolina and Arkansas, with Obama being the exception in these cases.])

This wandery period largely coincided with many observations of the Democracy’s lacking a reliable national base. As the CQ Almanac wrote in its analysis of the 1984 election,

The result is a party still struggling to find a reliable base. While Republican candidates have been able to count on rolling up huge majorities in most states in the western half of the country, Democratic strength often varies with their candidates. Carter tended to be strongest in the South; McGovern ran well in states with large numbers of young voters and high-tech industries, such as Massachusetts, Wisconsin, California and Oregon; Hubert H. Humphrey was particularly strong in the Northeastern industrial states.

And in July 1988, Bill Schneider paraphrased Pat Caddell as observing that

[T]he national Democratic Party has no base. Only the District of Columbia, with three electoral votes, has voted for the Democratic ticket every time [in the previous five elections]…Only one state, Minnesota, has voted Democratic four out of the past five times. A Minnesotan was on the Democratic ticket each of those times.

Even in victory in the 1990s, Ron Brownstein observed after the 2012 election that Obama had assembled ‘a much more ideologically unified coalition than Democrats usually assemble’: ‘compared to even President Clinton’s era’, Brownstein continued, ‘the Democrats are now operating with a largely coherent Coalition of Transformation…’.

Now, if one counts Massachusetts and Rhode Island together, it is true that between 1960 and 2004, one of those two states was the Most Democratic State in eight of twelve elections (although this title still stayed out of New England altogether for three straight elections from 1976 through 1984). But, as with Utah and Wyoming, these states might be less alike than they first seem, as shown by their divergent voting in the last two elections. And in 1972, Massachusetts voted comfortably for McGovern despite, at that time, never having been the Most Democratic State, and even as the state that had held this title in the previous three elections, Rhode Island, voted comfortably for Nixon.

Thomas Frank has often identified Massachusetts as the epicentre of the new Democratic Party. For example, in 2016, he wrote,

It [Martha’s Vineyard] is also a place of moral worthiness, as we understand it circa 2016. The people relaxing on the Vineyard’s rarefied sand are not lazy toffs like the billionaires of old; in fact, according to the Washington Post, they have “far higher IQs than the average beachgoer.” It is an island that deserves what it has. Some of its well-scrubbed little towns are decorated in Puritan severity, some in fanciful Victorian curlicues, but always and everywhere they are clad in the unmistakable livery of righteous success.

It is ever so liberal. This is Massachusetts, after all, and the markers of lifestyle enlightenment are all around you: Foods that are organic. Clothing that is tasteful. A conspicuous absence of cigarette butts.

It is ever so privileged, ever so private. This is not Newport or Fifth Avenue, where the rich used to display their good taste to the world; the Martha’s Vineyard mansions that you read about in the newspapers are for the most part hidden away behind massive hedges and long, winding driveways. Even the beaches of the rich are kept separate from the general public — they are private right down to the low-tide line and often accessible only through locked gates, a gracious peculiarity of Massachusetts law that is found almost nowhere else in America.

Of course, Martha’s Vineyard is not Massachusetts — Dukes County cast 0.36% of the state’s vote in 2016; and Hampden and Bristol Counties (the former famously south of the ‘tofu curtain’) even gave Trump a higher vote share in 2016 than they had given any other Republican this century, in line with much of the rest of the Northeast. But, as you can see, Frank often identifies Martha’s Vineyard as exemplary of Massachusetts, or at least as a phenomenon that could happen only in Massachusetts (and not in Rhode Island or New York State). And in a January 2017 interview by Jimmy Dore, Frank identified the state’s primate city as likewise exemplary of the new Democratic Party:

You can see this to this day in places like Boston, Massachusetts, which is this sort of ground zero of the professional class; this is where big pharma is based there and there’s all of this kind of you know knowledge industry ferment and computer industry, all this innovation stuff going on and this place is intensely, deeply Democratic, very very satisfied by a candidate like Hillary Clinton; she’s exactly what they want in a politician.

What Frank describes as the liberalism of Martha’s Vineyard (or of Massachusetts writ large) is not liberalism that seeks substantive policy change: as he writes, ‘Our Martha’s Vineyard Democrats like to talk about inequality. It makes them sad, but it’s also a problem they have almost no desire to tackle. Not only does it not touch them personally, but their instincts, their inclinations, and their deepest unspoken convictions tell them it isn’t a real problem to begin with.’ It is, instead, about ‘moral worthiness’, of ‘lifestyle enlightenment’.

It is this ‘morally worthy’ vein that runs through contemporary liberalism that Michael Tracey arguably touched on in his April 2020 article dissecting why Sanders’ second presidential bid had failed:

Ultimately the Sanders 2020 campaign existed within the broader firmament of the modern-day “professional left” — a loosely interlocking but culturally homogenous network of advocacy organizations, nonprofit groups and media outlets — and its sentiments infused “Bernie World” with certain ill-advised priorities. Or, one might argue, pathologies.

Within this network are a growing consortium of activists, operatives and journalists who harbor a fundamental disdain not just for the current American government or various unseemly aspects of American political and cultural life, but for America per se. And for whom even contemplating something so simple as wearing a flag pin would’ve been an unthinkable capitulation to fascism, racism, predatory extractive capitalism, or some vague combination thereof.

Under the influence of these ‘professional leftists’, Tracey continued,

This time around, Sanders instead placed his emphasis on participating in the obligatory “anti-Trump” sweepstakes, whereby the Democratic candidates all competed amongst themselves for who could rattle off the most sweepingly inflammatory Trump-related tirades.

In almost every stump speech, Sanders lambasted Trump as the most “dangerous president in American history” — a rather incongruous statement from a candidate who boasted of helping lead the opposition to the Iraq War, which had been launched by the previous Republican president. For all his faults, Trump has not yet initiated any full-scale preemptive ground invasions on false pretenses.

In other words, it could be said, Sanders made Trump’s unique moral unworthiness his focus in 2020. It wasn’t, after all, substance that made Trump worse than Bush, at least at the time.

It is noteworthy that Massachusetts has been the Most Democratic State only a few times — 1972, 1996, 2004. In two of those elections, a Republican president who struck many as particularly ‘morally unworthy’ was seeking re-election. David Martin, for example, chronicling the history of his ‘presidential animosity’, wrote of Nixon,

A man who promised to end the Vietnam War deliberately dragged it out for years resulting in thousands more unnecessary deaths.

But that wasn’t the key to my dislike of the man. It was Watergate that revealed the vindictive, paranoid, power-hungry man who qualified for my new level of post-Johnson contempt. I truly hated Richard Nixon even more than Lyndon Johnson but once again hoped that Tricky Dick marked the end of my presidential animosity.

Notice how, oddly, Martin gives a strong substantive reason for disliking or even contemning Nixon — but then says this was not ‘key to [his] dislike of the man’. Not thousands of unnecessary deaths, but rather the man’s vindictiveness, paranoia, and hunger for power.

He also has an entry for George W. Bush, for whose ouster Massachusetts once again voted more strongly than any other state (despite not regularly being the Most Democratic State):

Here was a man who was handed the White House by a right-leaning Supreme Court and then governed recklessly as if he had won a landslide. Worse than that, he was asleep at the switch prior to 9–11, implemented huge tax giveaways for the rich, entered into a senseless war in Iraq and brought the United States to the brink of financial ruin.

There is more substance here, although it feels as if Martin’s dislike of Bush largely stems from Bush’s recklessness and senselessness, especially given the manner in which he minimised the role of Nixon’s war-making in his dislike of that president, and the manner in which he describes why he didn’t dislike Reagan at all:

For decades, my hope was realized. Although I wasn’t always a fan of the five succeeding presidents, I can’t say that I hated any of them. Even Ronald Reagan with his debt-defying economic nonsense was hard to dislike given his avuncular character.

Notice that this is somewhat the reverse of what he says about Nixon: he gives an actual substantive reason to dislike Reagan (‘debt-defying economic nonsense’ — which, presumably, was not all that different to the supply-side tax cuts that he references for Bush), but then nonchalantly brushes it off by referring to his ‘avuncular’ (and presumably, void of vindictiveness, paranoia, etc.) ‘character’. One might say, a ‘morally worthy character’.

In 2008, Hawaii became the Most Democratic State for the first time, and stayed that way for the next two elections in a row. This newfound constancy could have been taken as a sign of what Brownstein referred to as the newfound cohesion of the Democratic base, compared to the prior decades.

However, it appears that the title has not stayed in Hawaii this year. This is not altogether unexpected, given Hawaii’s penchant for trending towards incumbents. It looks close, but it looks like Biden’s best state will be Vermont. Like Hawaii, Vermont is one of a handful of states that had already been blue before 2008, but which Obama made much bluer (others being California and Maryland). Vermont had been Obama’s second-best state in 2008 and 2012.

However, it is interesting that Massachusetts has remained amongst the top Democratic states and looks like it will come out #2, with Biden currently at 65.2% (vs. at 66.0% in Vermont and 64.3% in California and Maryland). Massachusetts was not amongst the states that Obama made even bluer; in fact, in 2008, it dropped to eighth-most Democratic state, lower than it had been on the list since 1980 (in 2012, it rose to sixth place, lower than it had been since 1992). In 2012, Obama did 7.42% better in Massachusetts than Dukakis, and 1.29% worse than Kerry. (In contrast, in Vermont, he did 18.99% better than Dukakis and 7.63% better than Kerry; in California, 12.68% better than Dukakis and 5.93% better than Kerry; in Maryland, 13.77% better than Dukakis and 6.06% better than Kerry; and in Hawaii, 16.28% better than Dukakis and 16.54% better than Kerry.)

The fact that Hawaii was (probably) displaced by Vermont, another state that Obama had turned much more deeply blue, may bear out the enduring coherency of his coalition. (It would also make Vermont only the second state, after Mississippi, to have been both the Most Democratic and the Most Republican State.) But the rise of Massachusetts back to second place, a higher spot than it has held since 2004, may also bear out the even more enduring character of the contemporary Democracy as the party first and foremost of ‘moral worthiness’.

* I am not counting the District of Columbia as ‘a state’, which Leip does here, writing that Gore carried ‘21 states’ in 2000. Of course, if DC were counted as a state, the Most Democratic State from 1964 — DC’s first participating election — through 2020 would easily have been DC every time. As Akhil Rajasekar wrote in March 2019, DC ‘was never supposed to resemble a state in any way — not in government, not in jurisdiction, and certainly not in electoral behavior’; and as Jeff Jacoby wrote in August 2019, ‘Washington doesn’t resemble a state in any way, and was never supposed to’ — something that would be hard to deny even if one supports DC statehood.

Written by

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store