Richard Florida
by Richard Florida
Wed Mar 30th 2011 at 10:30am UTC

The Conservative States of America

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 .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 -.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. Conservativism, 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 admiration 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, open 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.

6 Responses to “The Conservative States of America”

  1. Michael Wells Says:

    Yes but…
    • The liberal brand has certainly been sullied ever since Reagan. However if you drill down, a fairly large number of people who say they’re conservative or “moderate” support liberal programs like Social Security, unemployment insurance, product safety and equality.

    There’s also the division between urban & rural. Rural takes up a lot more space, but has fewer people.
    • On a map it looks like a big dark swath, but if you add the populations of the top 10 conservative states it’s about 23 million, about the size of metro NYC and Boston. Or of Texas. About 2/3 the size of California.

    • Alaska, Idaho, Wyoming and N & S Dakota together are about 4.4 million, the size of metro Boston. Add Nebraska, Arkansas, Kansas and Miss to them and it’s 10.4 million, about the size of Chicago.

  2. Troy Camplin Says:

    Michael makes a good point. If you plotted population density to income (or human capital or diversity), I bet you would get almost identical graphs as you have above.

    A more interesting study would disaggregate economic from social positions.

  3. Conservative States / Liberal States « Mediated Says:

    [...] posting over at Richard Florida’s Creative Class blog caught my eye: The Conservative States of America.  There he shows a number of statistical view of the 50 states, and some of the general trends [...]

  4. Rama Says:

    For a good map of the red state versus blue state in terms of a population cartogram, visit http://www-personal.umich.edu/~mejn/election/2008/

  5. Nick Says:

    It’s a moment in time. Whatever party controls the White House, the other side picks up the momentum.

  6. Mike Linacre Says:

    RF writes “this deepening political divide has become perhaps the biggest bottleneck on the road to long-run prosperity.”
    By which I understand RF to mean that poorly-educated conservatives are the drag on long-run prosperity. But surely those conservatives would say that it is the spend-thrift policies of the liberal elite that are the drag on long-run prosperity. Who is it that is slowing domestic oil production and running up the national debt? Who is it that is outsourcing jobs to China? Not the midwesterners!