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I recently saw this article by the New York Times' Upshot showing that last 50 years of electoral college results from the presidential elections. Something that stand out is how drastically voting patterns changed since Bill Clinton's first successful campaign in 1992. It seems as if from that election on, most states settled into a part and consistently voted that way in the following elections, but that doesn't seem to be the case for the elections before it.

Here are some examples of what I mean:

Example One:

1988 election between Bush and Dukakis California voted for the Republican candidate.

Example Two:

1976 election between Carter and Ford Texas voted for the Democratic candidate and California voted for the Republican candidate.

Example Three:

1964 election between Johnson and Goldwater Texas, Utah, Idaho all voted for the Democratic candidate.

Can you imagine any of these states voting for those parties any time soon? It seems unimaginable to me. So many states seem to have picked a party and consistently vote that way. But why? What caused the country to be so divided? Why did people stop considering candidates objectively and just started voting party lines?

There are a number of possible reasons why this could have happened. California voted pretty consistently Republican before Clinton, but could have switched because much of what began to drive their economy was new technology companies such as Google and Apple which tend to be fairly liberal and set a trend for their employees and other new companies that followed. It could just be technology in general. The creation of Facebook, Twitter, and other social media outlets has created echo chambers for all of us, limiting our political knowledge and evidence to support our opinions to the information provided by those that live near us.

Essentially I'm wondering if there are any well documented reasons (probably of number of which contributed to this change) why this happened.

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    "Can you imagine any of these states voting for those parties any time soon?" I'm sure many people felt the same way before the states "switched sides" the last time. – Geobits Sep 9 '16 at 18:16
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    Since when was the US not divided? I can't understand the purpose of your question. If California voted for Democrat candidates since 1992, how could have Arnold Schwargenegger been elected as Governor in California in 2003? Dukakis was one of the worst candidates in the history of the US politics and how can you compare him with Clinton? Democrat candidates won California from 1932 to 1964. Obviously there is a cycle and your question seems to be too broad. – Rathony Sep 10 '16 at 4:58
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    It's not surprising Texas voted Democratic in 1964 and 1976. Texas tended to vote Democratic in presidential elections until 1980 when it voted for Reagan. The one exception to this rule was 1972, which doesn't really count. That was a massive landslide election. – David Hammen Nov 11 '16 at 21:13
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    See also this great animation: businessinsider.com/… – JeopardyTempest Jan 11 '17 at 5:07
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    The first I saw of the severely divided country was the Robert Bork nomination. – RonJohn Mar 20 '18 at 1:03
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There are a couple of different factors in play here:

  1. People tend to settle in areas where other people who are similar ideologically to them live. This siloes people of similar ideological persuasion geographically.

    This has been extensively covered, e.g. in Washington Post "People move to places that fit their politics", citing data from 2014 Pew research (or this).

    Or, to quote NPR's "How Republicans And Democrats Ended Up Living Apart":

    Back in 1976 — the year of a close presidential election — just over a quarter of the population lived in "landslide counties," where the winning margin was greater than 20 percentage points, says journalist Bill Bishop, author of The Big Sort: Why the Clustering of Like-Minded America Is Tearing Us Apart.

    Last year, more than half the country lived in landslide counties. And, while Barack Obama's margin of victory was less in 2012 than it was in 2008, the number of states decided by fewer than 5 points actually went down.

    Of course, 538 covered this as well, in "http://fivethirtyeight.com/features/urban-resurgence-is-a-double-edged-sword-for-democrats/":

    The harsh reality for Democrats is that two-thirds of all congressional and legislative districts are in suburban and rural America. Bill Clinton carried both in 1992 and 1996, but Obama lost both in 2012. This is a big reason that Democrats have lost about 70 House seats and 910 state legislative seats, on net, since Obama took office.

    Back in 1988, the suburbs voted 4.5 percentage points more Republican than the nation as a whole. In the 1990s, migration of city dwellers to the suburbs made them much more diverse and helped Democrats narrow the gap to just 2 points by 2000. But millennials’ recent pattern of delaying outward moves and the resulting suburban slowdown have stifled Democratic advancement, and in 2012, the suburbs voted 3.1 percentage points more Republican than the nation.

  2. "First past the post" electoral system. This has been discussed ad nauseum on Politics.SE.

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    It would be good to add something about the polarization of media - with the deregulation of cable, the success of talk radio, and the availability of the internet, people can get only the news that reflects their viewpoints. This tends to polarize people. Gerrymandering has become more sophisticated with the use of computers. Demographics have changed. We are becoming less homogeneous and Democrats in particular have spent a lot of time on identity politics (Trump is trying to play catch-up). When your politics are defined by your identity they won't change from year to year. – Readin Sep 10 '16 at 20:18
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    Media has always been polarized, but that's a lesser issue than the fact that the news media has suffered giant blows since the advent of the internet. The race for eyeballs is much more intense than when it was simply 3 broadcast networks. And the best way to attract eyeballs is to manufacture drama. – user1530 Sep 11 '16 at 19:54
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    @blip I guess I'm old enough that I still think of Rush Limbaugh as a more recent development. Before Limbaugh the TV news where most people go there news was very one sided. While many cities did have 2 or more newspapers, the major newspapers were generally pretty liberal (the WSJ is an important exception). People don't change overnight. In fact it is often the case that people don't change - they get replaced by a new generation.30 years of Rush providing an alternative, 20 years of the internet and Fox News providing alternatives - we have big divisions now. – Readin Sep 16 '16 at 4:44
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    @Blip The orginal question referenced a study of the past 50 years, which takes us back to around 1965 when TV was becoming the largest source of news for most people. I can't speak for all the news papers, but certainly the major ones like the NYT and Washington Post were and are liberal. The major newspaper where I grew up was liberal (there was a smaller conservative paper that went out of business). But still most people got their news from the TV. Radio existed but didn't offer much choice. It wasn't until the 80s and 90s that conservative alternatives could gain large audiences. – Readin Sep 17 '16 at 20:34
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    @blip The point is that neither conservatives nor liberals were doing much reading. Once television sets became common the TV news quickly replaced newspapers as the common man's major source of information. – Readin Sep 18 '16 at 5:01
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Example One:

1988 election between Bush and Dukakis California voted for the Republican candidate.

In 1988, California usually voted for the Republican candidate. In fact, except for 1964, California voted Republican in every presidential election from 1952 to 1988. However, with the end of the Cold War, many of the conservative defense industry companies became much smaller or closed. Environmentalism became a much bigger issue. Also, the demographics have shifted.

Example Two:

1976 election between Carter and Ford Texas voted for the Democratic candidate and California voted for the Republican candidate.

As I said, that was as expected for California. Similarly, Texas had been a reliably Democratic state since the Republican party had been in existence. It was more odd to see it voting Republican for President in 1952, 1956, and 1972. Reagan turned it permanently Republican at the presidential level, but prior to 1980, it was usually a Democratic state.

Even after 1980 Texas continued to vote for conservative Democrats for governor, Senator, and Representative. For example, conservative stalwart Rick Perry was a Democrat when he first entered politics.

Example Three:

1964 election between Johnson and Goldwater Texas, Utah, Idaho all voted for the Democratic candidate.

And in 1972 every state except Massachusetts and the District of Columbia (DC) voted for Nixon. In 1984, every state except Minnesota and DC voted for Reagan. From 1932 to 1944, landslides for the Democrat were routine.

Of course, in 1932, Franklin Delano Roosevelt ran as the conservative alternative to Herbert Hoover. That seems unlikely today.

Richard Nixon would describe himself as a liberal when he ran, much as Bill Clinton ran as a conservative.

Policy partisanship

Recent years have seen a strong increase in partisanship of policies. That used to be less common. New England Republicans were liberal in policy. Southern Democrats were conservative. Modernly, every Democrat is more liberal than every Republican. Even Heidi Heitkamp and Joe Manchin are on average to the left of Susan Collins, although they are on the Republican side of her on some issues.

There are no remaining New England Republicans. Susan Collins is the only Republican New England Senator, and she is not as liberal as her predecessors.

There are no remaining Southern Democrats. The deep South states all have two Republican Senators. There are some Representatives, but they tend to be in majority minority districts.

Only eleven states have split Senators (one Republican; one Democrat). Two more states have one Democrat and one independent, but both independents caucus with the Democrats. Nine of the Democrats who serve a state with a Republican Senator are up for reelection in 2018. One was elected in 2016 and the Republican is up in 2018 (in Nevada). Colorado is the only split state where neither is up in 2018.

On policy, opinions have hardened.

Of course, that could change in a single election. The two Georges Bush have been the only Republican presidents since Reagan. Neither was that popular at reelection time. Perhaps Donald Trump reassures his critics with his actual governing and wins reelection in a landslide. Or not. Note that he almost won Minnesota, which apart from the District of Columbia has the longest streak of voting for the Democratic presidential candidate.

At one point, people thought that Hillary Clinton might have had a bigger landslide victory than Obama, winning Arizona, Texas, and Georgia. Those three states consistently voted against Obama.

It's easy to perceive a streak where actually there is only coincidence. Three Republican presidents were reelected in landslides. Then two weren't. A coin has a one in eight chance of coming up tails three times in a row. That's not nearly rare enough to prove that that was a meaningful streak.

Obama is the only Democrat to win a majority of the popular vote since 1976, although the Democrat has won at least a plurality in six of the last seven elections (1992-2016; only falling short in 2004). Republicans won five of six elections from 1968 through 1988. From 1896 through 1928, Republicans won seven of nine elections. And then lost five in a row from 1932 through 1948. Long streaks are normal.

Starting in 1952, the presidency has switched every eight years, except it switched early in 1980 and and stayed with the Republicans through 1992. Other than that, Democrats and Republicans have alternated the presidency. Maybe that's luck. Maybe that's a result of an electorate that wearies of parties every eight years.

1

Another potential factor is the decentralization of political media.

The decentralization (beginning with talk radio, and moving into the Internet), really began to take off during Clinton's administration and has become more prominent since.

Up until that point, the only voices you heard were from news agencies that were fairly uniform, and also from your local newspaper. If you city has two or more major daily papers, you might have been able to read different viewpoints, otherwise you only got one.

Consequently, people who agreed with what these agencies had to say had plenty of voices confirming their beliefs, but people who disagreed with them were much more isolated.

This is all different now. No matter what you think, there's someone else out there with a web site or a Youtube channel who will confirm your beliefs.

Additionally, the establishment media was not very keen on airing its dirty laundry, specifically, about instances where they misled the public. Alternative media has been able to make these instances known, with the result that public trust in the establishment media has taken a hit.

The upshot of all this is now everyone has a media source that reports what they are already inclined to believe, and they also have perfectly valid reasons to mistrust the media sources that disagree.

0

One very obvious difference: Newt Gingrich successfully created a Republican majority in the U.S. House of Representatives in 1994. This makes the national Republican Party platform more viable. It also reinforced Southern whites' switch from the Democratic Party to the Republican party.

A more gradual change has been the increasing contrast between the "Red State model" and the "Blue State model" of governance. Non-southern states where Democrats have enough power to either enact state budgets (or at least prevent the enacting of state budgets) have tended to move toward higher state and local tax rates, and more restrictions on housing construction. (Ironically, a late-1970s anti-tax measure in California gave Democrats enough power to ratchet up the state's spending and taxation; this is part of why California became a solidly Democratic state.) By the year 2000, the difference between the "Red State model" and the "Blue State model" was big enough that measures of "Affordable Family Formation" became very good predictors of how states would vote in presidential elections.

  • Southern whites started to switch to the GOP platform in the 50s. – user11168 Jan 11 '17 at 18:39
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    @Konstantine -- Yes. And notable Democratic senators switched parties in the 1980s. That is why I said this change "reinforced" the already existing trend. – Jasper Jan 11 '17 at 18:41
  • Southern whites started switching to the GOP in 1968. – RonJohn Mar 20 '18 at 0:56
-1

Partisan shift in cable news
One big factor that changed the political landscape was Fox News and MSNBC going national in 1996. Fox News is a far-right national news network and MSNBC is a far-left or left-leaning national news network. Prior to this time, there were no national news networks on television that had extreme biases in their reporting. They are also 24-hour news networks with a heavy editorial (opinion) component. At this point (from 1996 forward), Americans could choose the news that fits their existing views, and then consume a steady stream of partisan ideas that pull them further into the direction that they are already leaning. This Washington Post article makes the same argument.

Not only would they have the major network news programs, but they would have many choices on cable, most notably the partisan outlets of Fox News and MSNBC (not to mention even more choices online). This choice of explicitly partisan outlets means that individuals can choose to hear messages that reinforce their beliefs, while avoiding those from alternative points of view, which some claim leads to polarization. Does this high-choice media environment, especially with its partisan outlets, polarize the public?

This Vox article cites Fox News and MSNBC as the top 2 most viewed television news networks, and also contends that Fox News exerts substantial influence in affecting elections.

Emory University political scientist Gregory Martin and Stanford economist Ali Yurukoglu estimate that watching Fox News directly causes a substantial rightward shift in viewers’ attitudes, which translates into a significantly greater willingness to vote for Republican candidates.

They estimate that if Fox News hadn't existed, the Republican presidential candidate’s share of the two-party vote would have been 3.59 points lower in 2004 and 6.34 points lower in 2008.

Fox is substantially better at influencing Democrats than MSNBC is at influencing Republicans," the authors find. While most Fox viewers are Republican, a sizable minority aren't, and they're particularly suggestible to the channel's influence. In 2000, they estimate that 58 percent of Fox viewers who were initially Democrats changed to supporting the Republican candidate by the end of the election cycle; in 2004, the persuasion rate was 27 percent, and 28 percent in 2008. MSNBC, by contrast, only persuaded 8 percent of initial Republicans to vote Democratic in the 2008 cycle.

This study from pewresearch shows more Democrats migrating to MSNBC over time and more Republicans migrating to Fox News over time. enter image description here

  • Since when is MSNBC "far-left"? – Martin Schröder Nov 19 '18 at 2:00
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    @MartinSchröder - that'd be since the day they started. – user4012 Nov 19 '18 at 20:22
  • I get that Martin is suggesting that far-left is a misuse of the term, based on the technical definition that he subscribes to. I think if he downvoted my answer for this reason alone, then that's going way too far and not justified (should an entire answer really be downvoted because of a small semantic disagreement about a very tiny part of the answer?). I think the average reader would take "far-left" to mean the extent of their lean, and I don't think this is realistically misleading. – John Nov 19 '18 at 20:25
  • I've downvoted this answer for the insinuation that either of them are extremes. – Drunk Cynic Jul 2 at 13:44

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