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The Polarised States of America?

November 20, 2008

Jay Cost has an interesting piece today in which he argues that even after the election of Obama the Uniter political polarisation in the US is alive and well.

To measure polarisation among the electorate with respect to presidential candidates he uses two reasonable metrics. First he takes the share of voters who voted for the winner of the election in each state and calculates the standard deviation from the national average for each state. Comparing those for each election within the period from 1948 to 2008 Cost finds that, by this measure, polarisation was the strongest during the 1960’s (after a low in 1960) and reaches a new high with President Bush in 2000. But in 2008, with President-elect Obama, the standard deviation reaches a record level since 1948.

(Accounting for each state’s share of the total national votes by weighting the standard deviations leads to basically the same results.)

Cost’s second approach is to count all the states which deviated from the total share of nationwide votes for the winner by more than ten points in either direction. Again, by this measure, the strongest polarisation was during the 60’s and in 2000, 2004, and 2008, with 2008 being the most polarised year.

(Changing the cutting point of ten to either eight or twelve increases or reduces respectively the number of polarised states for each year, but the relative numbers stay the same.)

You would like to have a look at Cost’s maps which show which states were polarised. About Arkansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Tennessee, Cost says:

Never before have we seen these states vote so heavily against a victorious Democrat. Ditto West Virginia, which went for Michael Dukakis in 1988.

It looks like in 2008 only Vermont and Rhode Island were ‘blue’ polarised states by this measure, with about 14 states (and maybe Alaska which is not on the map) being ‘red’ polarised states.

What is to be concluded from this? M Obama should keep in mind that, although he won the election with more than 50% of the votes, there are a number of states which have strongly voted against him.

This is, of course, not good news for a man who has won the presidency by promising to make big changes. To put it into a bleak perspective, he has the choice between turning many voters against him by delivering on his promises and turning many voters against him by breaking his promises. But remembering that there is merit in federalism might provide a middle way.

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