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7 States Where Demographics Haven't Determined Their Political Destiny -- Yet

From weak state parties to regional differences, we look at why these states are defying demographics.

A woman is surrounded as she offers a difference of opinion during a rally in support of President Trump.
(AP/Susan Walsh)
It is an ongoing trend that has only accelerated since the 2016 presidential election: Americans are cleaved into two camps shaped not by ideology but demographic factors.

A person's race, educational attainment and the population density of the place where they live increasingly shapes whether they'll vote as a Republican or Democrat. "The stark demographic and educational divisions that have come to define American politics were clearly evident in voting preferences in the 2018 congressional elections," according to the Pew Research Center. "There were wide differences in voting preferences between men and women, whites and nonwhites, as well as people with more and less educational attainment.

In conclusion, Republican candidates perform strongest among white voters without a college degree who live in rural areas. And Democrats, conversely, perform best among minority voters with at least an undergraduate degree who live in or near urban areas.

To better understand how these factors are shaping each state's political leanings, we used federal data to rank the most rural states to the most urban states, the most white states to the least white and those with the lowest rate of undergraduate degrees to the highest.

Once we compiled these rankings, we averaged the three numerical ratings for each state and used that to create a list that orders them from those that most favor Republicans demographically to those states that most favor the Democrats:

1. West Virginia
2. Kentucky
3. Maine
4. Wyoming
5. Arkansas
6. Iowa
7. Montana
8. North Dakota
9. South Dakota
10. Idaho
11. Mississippi
12. Indiana
13. Alabama
14. Vermont
15. Missouri
16. Tennessee
17. Oklahoma
18. Wisconsin
19. New Hampshire
20. Ohio
21. South Carolina
22. Michigan
23. Louisiana
24. Nebraska
25. North Carolina
26. Alaska
27. Minnesota
28. Pennsylvania
29. Kansas
30. Oregon
31. New Mexico
32. Utah
33. Delaware
34. Georgia
35. Arizona
36. Washington
37. Nevada
38. Texas
39. Florida
40. Rhode Island
41. Virginia
42. Colorado
43. Illinois
44. Connecticut
45. New York
46. Massachusetts
47. Maryland
48. Hawaii
49. California
50. New Jersey

Broadly speaking, this list fits with recent voting patterns. States that have voted solidly Republican in recent years -- including Arkansas, Kentucky, West Virginia and Wyoming -- rank towards the top of the list. California, Hawaii and New Jersey, meanwhile, have voted Democratic and are near the bottom. Michigan, North Carolina and Pennsylvania, which fall at the midpoint, have voted for candidates of both parties.

The makeup of key presidential battleground states illustrates why some have moved away from one party and towards another in recent elections.

These states, ordered from the most demographically friendly to Republicans to the most demographically friendly to Democrats, are Maine, Iowa, Wisconsin, New Hampshire, Ohio, Michigan, North Carolina, Minnesota, Pennsylvania, Georgia, Arizona, Nevada, Texas, Florida, Virginia and Colorado.

Colorado and Virginia, which were competitive if not Republican-leaning just a few election cycles ago, have moved firmly towards the Democratic camp as race, education and population density factors have become a bigger influence on voting patterns.

At the same time, Iowa and Ohio, where the three demographic factors lean more towards the Republicans, are now harder for Democratic presidential candidates to compete in.

Perhaps the most interesting states on our list, however, are those where the state's underlying demographics are at odds with recent electoral results. That's the case in seven states.

The purple-to-blue states of Maine, New Hampshire and Minnesota are the three most obvious places where Republicans ought to be doing better than they are according to demographic factors. And the historically redder states of Arizona, Florida, Georgia and Texas should all be more friendly to Democrats based on demographics alone.

For Arizona, Georgia and Texas, Democrats did begin to see partial gains in the 2018 elections, as the three states' populous suburbs began moving towards Democratic candidates. In Arizona, the Democrats seized a Senate seat and other statewide offices in Arizona in 2018, and the party came closer to winning the Georgia gubernatorial race than in several election cycles. In Texas, the showing by U.S. Senate candidate Beto O'Rourke was the strongest by a statewide Democratic hopeful in three decades, and increasing diversification in the suburbs has prompted retirements by several Republican House incumbents.

Still, demographics have not yet become political destiny in these seven states. Here are some explanations given by political observers in these state as to why.


Weak State Parties

In Minnesota, the state GOP's accumulation of financial debt has made it "financially uncompetitive" with Democratic candidates, says Carleton College emeritus political scientist Steven Schier. This has hampered the GOP's ability to make gains in the state and contributed to the demise of the Independence Party, which had sometimes helped Republicans win three-way races in the state.

In Florida, the Democratic Party has been unable to reverse the sharp decline in its party registration edge, due in part to "a lack of a sustained voter registration effort," says Florida Democratic strategist Steve Schale.


Regional and Ideological Differences

Put simply, "a Maine Republican may not be identical to a Republican in Texas," says Northeastern University political scientist Costas Panagopoulos.

For instance, Maine and New Hampshire are part of historically moderate New England and have among the nation's lowest rates of religious attendance, a statistic correlated with Democratic leanings. Minnesota, meanwhile, has always had a streak of progressivism. These tendencies keep these states Democratic despite their heavily white and relatively high rural status.

In Florida, Cuban-Americans have historically voted for Republicans at much higher rates than other Hispanic groups, undercutting the Democrats' seeming demographic advantage in that state.


Low Turnout by Minority Voters

In Arizona and Texas, white voters have tended to turn out at higher rates than Hispanic voters, enabling Republicans in those states to punch above their demographic weight.


An Influx of Older Voters

White retirees have long flocked to Florida, but the recent inflows, especially from the Midwest, have tended to be disproportionately Republican, making areas like the Villages in west Central Florida some of the most reliably Republican precincts in the nation. "White retirees in Florida tend to be wealthier, more Republican and more likely to turn out to vote," says University of Central Florida political scientist Aubrey Jewett. "For at least a decade, demographers and political analysts have been predicting that Democrats would make a comeback in Florida as the state became less white, but to date, Republicans are holding their own."


Incentives from Low Tax Rates

In red states such as Florida, one attraction for newcomers is low taxation, and that has helped maintain a narrow but persistent GOP edge there. "The state GOP has always held the line on tax increases and has tried to push through tax cuts every year," Jewett says.

Still, economic factors can be unpredictable. A healthy economy may eventually tip the scales towards the Democrats in states where economic development attracts growing numbers of educated, diverse workers into the state, says Stuart Goodman, a former Republican official who is a principal at Goodman Schwartz Public Affairs in Phoenix.

As employees relocate to Arizona from bluer states such as California, "they are impacting the political environment, too," he adds. "Ironically, the Republican initiatives on economic policy are improving Democratic electoral chances in Arizona."

Indeed, experts emphasize that the only constant in a mobile electorate is change. "The electorate is dynamic, and every four years, young voters come of voting age and older voters pass along," says Texas Christian University political scientist James W. Riddlesperger.

Louis Jacobson is a GOVERNING contributor.
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