America is an increasingly conservative nation, by ideology and by political affiliation, according to polling results from the Gallup Organization. While conservatives have long outnumbered liberals and moderates across the U.S., the study sheds new light on state-by-state patterns. The map below shows the pattern for the 50 states and the District of Columbia.
Source: Map via Gallup.
Mississippi is the first state with more than 50% conservative identification, with Idaho, Alabama, Wyoming, and Utah approaching that level, and Arkansas, South Carolina, North Dakota, Louisiana, and South Dakota (the rest of the top-ten conservative states) 45% or higher. Conservatives outnumber liberals in even the most liberal-leaning states (excluding the District of Columbia): Vermont, (30.7% conservative to 30.5% liberal), Rhode Island (29.9% to 29.3%), and Massachusetts (29.9% to 28.0%).
Political commentators have long pointed to underlying social and economic sorting that underpins this growing conservative/ liberal divide. But what factors account for the growing conservatism of Americans and American states?
With the help of my colleague Charlotta Mellander, I decided to take a look. We ran a simple correlation analysis on the Gallup poll numbers, comparing conservative identification to a variety of key economic, demographic, and cultural factors by state. As always, our analysis only points to associations between variables; we do not make any claims about causation and note that other factors that we have not looked at might come into play. Still, a number of intriguing findings cropped up.
Not surprisingly, states with more conservatives are considerably more religious than liberal-leaning states. The correlation between conservative political affiliation and religion (the share of state population for which religion is an important part of daily life) is considerable (.63).
Conservative states are also less well-educated than liberal ones. The correlation between conservative affiliation and human capital (that is, the percent of adults who have graduated college) is substantially negative (-.53).
States with more conservatives are less diverse. Conservative political affiliation is highly negatively correlated with the percent of the population that are immigrants (-.59) or gay and lesbian (-.66).
Conservative states are more blue-collar. Conservative political affiliation is strongly positively correlated with the percentage of the workforce in blue-collar occupations (.73) and highly negatively correlated with the proportion of the workforce engaged in knowledge-based professional and creative work (-.61).
States with more conservatives are considerably poorer than those with more liberals. Conservative political affiliation is highly negatively correlated with income ( -.65) and even more so with hourly earnings (-.79). Columbia University's Andrew Gelman's influential book Red State, Blue State, Rich State, Poor State sheds light on this phenomenon. While rich voters trend Republican, Gelman and his colleagues found, rich states trend Democratic.
Conservatism, at least at the state level, appears to be growing stronger. Ironically, this trend is most pronounced in America's least well-off, least educated, most blue collar, most economically hard-hit states. Conservatism, more and more, is the ideology of the economically left behind. The current economic crisis only appears to have deepened conservatism's hold on America's states. This trend stands in sharp contrast to the Great Depression, when America embraced FDR and the New Deal.
Liberalism, which is stronger in richer, better-educated, more-diverse, and, especially, more prosperous places, is shrinking across the board and has fallen behind conservatism even in its biggest strongholds. This obviously poses big challenges for liberals, the Obama administration, and the Democratic Party moving forward.
But the much bigger, long-term danger is economic rather than political. This ideological state of affairs advantages the policy preferences of poorer, less innovative states over wealthier, more innovative, and productive ones. American politics is increasingly disconnected from its economic engine. And this deepening political divide has become perhaps the biggest bottleneck on the road to long-run prosperity.