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.

  • 8
    "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, 2016 at 18:16
  • 3
    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, 2016 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. Nov 11, 2016 at 21:13
  • 4
    The first I saw of the severely divided country was the Robert Bork nomination.
    – RonJohn
    Mar 20, 2018 at 1:03
  • 3
    I accept your premise that the U.S. is becoming more partisan, but not your evidence. 1964 was the beginning of the Southern Realignment, when the social ideologies of the parties switched; during and for years after this switch, voters were still confused and hadn't fully adjusted to their new ideologically-aligned party. So your 1964 Texas example is useless. Your examples also overly rely on Texas and California. You should use evidence that better models the entire country's partisanship rather than a few data points.
    – John
    Nov 18, 2018 at 8:16

7 Answers 7


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 silos 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 nauseam on Politics.SE.

  • 8
    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, 2016 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, 2016 at 19:54
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    @user4012 it's true that media has always been polarized, but it's not true that only "one side" had a voice. It was extremely common for most major metropolitan areas to have 2 or more major newspapers, all espousing different political sides. AM Radio has long been a bastion of all sorts of viewpoints. What's different is that it's now a lot harder to make a buck being in news.
    – user1530
    Sep 11, 2016 at 19:56
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    @user4012 But even then, NYT has a political slant, Wall Street Journal has a political slant. They are not the same. As for conservative talk radio...that's hardly a "small tiny insignificant" voice. Radio is big business and talk radio is a part of that shift due to the "it's hard to make a buck just reciting the news" problem the news industry has had.
    – user1530
    Sep 12, 2016 at 2:38
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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, 2016 at 20:34

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 your 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.

  • The internet especially, causes politicial extremism, channels like Alex Jones. Ordinary people get a voice, and many of them are naturally zealous about racial militancy and conspiracy theories. In India the rise of the mobile phone as an information tool has also seen politicial extremism skyrocket. The education standards for presidents are also verging towards business magnates and demagogues, i.e. Bush and Trump are two of the least professionally experienced presidents that the US republicans have had this century. Apr 27, 2022 at 2:32
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    It's also the case that when the news media was more centralized, everyone going into that profession worked for the same agencies. This meant that there was always a moderating influence at any agency. Now that everyone can find work at a venue where their views are unchallenged--and that is the case for every point along the political spectrum--there is nobody to moderate the tone anywhere.
    – EvilSnack
    Jun 13, 2022 at 2:13
  • Corporate media still own a lot of the headspace, bbc/fox/cnn and their views are moderated by millionaires and the editors they use to run the news corporations. The only good news companies are run by original founders, and the ones we see are bought by millionaires, NYT, WP, ABC, YT, and perhaps soon Twitter will be billionaire taken over too. People are naturally tribes and www builds wartribes cos its human nature. Jun 13, 2022 at 6:32

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.

The Democrat has won a plurality in seven of the last eight presidential elections (1992-2020; only falling short in 2004) . However, Obama in both his runs and Biden in 2020 were the only ones win with majorities as well since Jimmy Carter in 1976. 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.

  • 3
    This answer could be updated. Political partisanship appears to have hardened even more in the post-Trump era, with the Republican Party lining up behind Trump moving to the right (despite significant opposition before Trump was elected), and the Democratic Party moving to the left with the success of politicians like Sanders, Warren, or Ocasio-Cortez.
    – gerrit
    Jan 17, 2020 at 14:18

All of the answers here touch on aspects of why political polarization has gotten so bad since the Clinton administration, but none are comprehensive. I'll combine them together, add some missing ones, and summarize them in chronological order.

After getting several points into this I noticed it begins to read like its all the GOP's fault. However, while the Democratic party has certainly moved further to the left since the 90s and left its fair share of old voters behind, you won't find any analogues to the polarization-inducing inflection points like REDMAP or the Contract with America, though perhaps a case could be made for the ACA.

Repeal of the Fairness Doctrine (1987) and the rise of Rush Limbaugh (1988)

In 1987 Reagan repealed the law that ordained that holders of broadcast licenses must present controversial issues of public importance in a manner that was honest, equitable, and balanced. This made it possible for Rush Limbaugh to take to the air with his incendiary content and loose grip on the truth that has formed the basis of conservative opinion news since that time. This began the era of conservatives and liberals living in different media spheres.

Newt Gingrich's Contract with America (1994)

If you're looking for a single inflection point where politics in the US went from "functional" to "polarized" this is it. Newt Gingrich turned national US politics into bloodsport. The Atlantic had a great interview with him and put out long-form article on the topic

Creation of Fox News (1996)

Its a common misconception that the repeal of the fairness doctrine contributed to the rise of Fox, but actually cable channels weren't subject to this. A large portion of the American populace didn't like what they were seeing or hearing from the major news stations, and whether they were justified in this or not does not affect the result that there was an opportunity to capitalize on this - and so Rupert Murdoch did. While the news hosts on Fox had a conservative tilt, it was the opinion hosts that really started the culture war. Bill O'Reilly took Rush Limbaugh's MO to TV sets across the nation, and since then hosts like Glenn Beck and Sean Hannity, among others on the network, have drawn massive viewing audiences peddling grievance politics with little factual backing. They escape being sued by claiming that "no reasonable viewer" would take them seriously.

Rural-Urban Divide (continuous, though 2008 appears to be an inflection point)

There has been a lot written on this topic (an example), and while it has been ongoing, from looking at the data, after 2008 appears to be where rural counties go from being roughly equal between the parties to having a strong GOP advantage. This contributes to polarization because people don't as often live near those of the other party, and thus don't get an opportunity to meet and understand them. Also, because while rural voters are widely spread out and hard to disenfranchise with strange shapes, its easier to "pack and crack" urban areas to dilute urban voting power. This segues well into the next point.

REDMAP (2010)

Every ten years the US has a census, taking inventory of its people and, among other things, redrawing voting districts accordingly. Going into 2010 the GOP poured money into governor and state legislature races in swing states, as generally state legislatures draw congressional maps and governors approve them. The national environment was favorable and the idea was successful, putting the GOP in control of 10 out of the 15 states that were redrawing their districts. They then used newly available and sophisticated mapping software to disenfranchise Democratic voters with what a panel of judges reviewing North Carolina's gerrymandered map dubbed "surgical precision". Gerrymandering increases political polarization on both sides by packing all of the opposing groups voters into as few districts as possible, making these reliably dominated by one party and thus their representatives will be accordingly more partisan.

Smartphones and Social Media (continuous)

I don't think much needs to be said on this topic, it's nigh impossible to avoid news of conspiracies snaking through Facebook or of Trump tweets. The public theater social media has given to culture wars have pitted people ever more against each other, and much further exacerbates the problem of liberals and conservatives living in their own media spheres.


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

  • 4
    Since when is MSNBC "far-left"? Nov 19, 2018 at 2:00
  • 6
    @MartinSchröder - that'd be since the day they started.
    – user4012
    Nov 19, 2018 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, 2018 at 20:25
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    I've downvoted this answer for the insinuation that either of them are extremes. Jul 2, 2019 at 13:44
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    "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." I think you're grossly mistaken, hence my downvote. If you wanted to describe "lean", then "leans heavily [direction]" would be both accurate and well understood by a broad audience. Sometimes a single term does matter.
    – user2578
    Mar 5, 2021 at 19:50

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.

  • 2
    Southern whites started to switch to the GOP platform in the 50s.
    – user11168
    Jan 11, 2017 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, 2017 at 18:41
  • 1
    Southern whites started switching to the GOP in 1968.
    – RonJohn
    Mar 20, 2018 at 0:56

In the 1960's and earlier the Democratic party held sway in the south by opposing civil rights and supporting segregation. After the civil rights victories in the 1960's the Democrats polices changed. They adopted an antiestablishment platform opposing government polices such as the Vietnam war.

It is interesting to see that in my lifetime the political parties have basically swap their positions. Today the Democrats portray themselves as the champions of the same civil rights that they once opposed. It can certainly be argued about how effective that support has been. They also have adopted policies of big government, something that they once opposed.

We have also seen a new divide with urban areas becoming Democratic strong holds while rural areas are universally Republican. You can actually predict which way a "state" will vote based on this split. New York and California are reliable Democratic states due to the large cites in them. However once you leave New York City, LA, and San Francisco, you mainly find Republicans.

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