Regional and State Variations of the Democratic and Republican Parties

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Source: Jimmy Stamp. Smithsonian Magazine. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/political-animals-republican-elephants-and-democratic-donkeys-89241754/

Party unity — the basic definition being how much a party is unified is how it thinks about an issue — is arguably at one of the highest levels it has ever been at. Yet there are still noticeable divides on certain policies and how far to the left or the right members of each party are. There may be a good chance you know where a “normal” Democrat or Republican is going to stand on a given issue, but they are not going to be the exact same in every respect.

More than that, not every state affiliate of the two major parties are the same. History has seen plenty of major differences in state parties versus the national counterparts to the point that many of them have their own unique nicknames. An Alabama Democrat is often going to be quite different from your typical Democrat from, say, California. A Massachusetts Republican is often going to be quite different from your typical Republican from, say, Texas. Republicans Larry Hogan and Charlie Baker would not be the governors of Maryland and Massachusetts, respectively, if they ticked all the boxes of what the typical conception of a Republican is because that would not have worked in those Democratic states. Democrat Laura Kelly would not be the governor of a Republican state like Kansas if she ticked all the boxes of what the typical conception of a Democrat is.

The above is yet another example of why partisanship and ideology are not the same thing. The states have varying political realities, electoral considerations, and environments that are conducive to changes in ideology. Of course, there are going to be individual exceptions even within states. Alabama is going to have some much more Democratic and/or liberal pockets than the rest of the Democratic Party in the state mostly is. California is going to have much more Republican and/or conservative pockets than the rest of the Republican Party in the state mostly is. But state parties often will respond to their respective state electorate’s ideological opinions, particularly when they are the ones holding legislative power.¹

Today’s politics and American history have plenty of examples of state parties that have noticeable variations from the national parties or what we may consider “usual” for the parties. Below are some examples, first from history and then from current or recent times. There are so many cases in both of these areas that this post can’t possibly cover them all (e.g. the “Stalwarts” and “Half-Breeds” in the Republican Party in the Gilded Age).

There was a stark divide between Northern and Southern Democrats on social issues, particularly civil rights, around the mid-20th century. The southern states had been virtually solely dominated by the Democratic Party for some time, leading to the nickname of the “Solid South.” It was the primary contributor to why Jim Crow segregation was particularly strong in the South.

Yet the Northern contingent would come to embrace civil rights reform as part of its platform in 1948, one of the most prominent contributors being then-U.S. Senator (and eventual presidential candidate) Hubert Humphrey from Minnesota. Further angering Southern Democrats was then-U.S. President Harry Truman, who was running for re-election in 1948, signing an executive order to integrate the U.S. armed forces.

These Democrats stormed out of the Democratic National Convention and went on to form the Dixiecrats. They put up noted segregationist Strom Thurmond — then-South Carolina governor who eventually served nearly five decades in the U.S. Senate — as their presidential candidate in the hopes of denying both Republicans and Democrats a majority in the Electoral College (thus moving the election to the U.S. House of Representatives for a final decision) and having the Dixiecrats be declared the “official” Democratic Party in the South.² While the Dixiecrats did manage to win the electoral votes of a bunch of the southern states, they would not peel off enough votes from the main Democratic Party as Truman would win re-election.

It wasn’t just the Democratic Party who once had a significant regional division within the party. At the end of the 19th century and into the first few decades of the 20th century, the Republican Party had its own schism — only instead of between North and South for Democrats, Republicans had two factions in the South. The two factions were the Lily-White and the Black-and-Tan movements.

The Republican Party took root in the 1850s, with one of their primary political platforms being the opposition to slavery. In the Reconstruction Era following the Civil War, The North occupied the South. With the Republican and Democratic Parties primarily being separated along these regional lines, Democratic Party power in the South was significantly curtailed during the occupation. This began to change with the Compromise of 1877. In exchange for Democrats conceding the hotly-disputed 1876 presidential election to Republican Rutherford B. Hayes, Republicans agreed to end Reconstruction and remove Northern troops from the South.

With the withdrawal of the North, Democrats returned to dominate Southern politics. At the same time, the dwindling Republican Party in the South experienced a significant amount of infighting between these Lily-White and Black-And-Tan factions. The Lily-Whites viewed political survival in the South as only possible with an all-white Republican Party and disenfranchisement of the party’s black voters. The Black-And-Tans were the traditional, biracial wing of the Republican Party who fought back against the Lily-White movement.³

Constant threats of violence from the Ku Klux Klan, other forms of intimidation, and various methods of disenfranchisement against both black and white voters were cited by Lily-Whites as reasons for their movement, seeing their political future as only possible by embracing Jim Crow segregation and the Southern Democratic type of politics. Many white Republicans would leave the GOP or quit politics altogether.⁴ The struggle would continue between the two factions through the first few decades of the 1900s, although black voters began to exit the GOP.³ The swing of black voters from the GOP to the Democratic Party would be fully realized with President Franklin Roosevelt’s first election in 1932.

There are so many differences in the political realities of the states that it can force changes in their respective major party affiliates. This is more often the case in more closely-contested states because of the ruling party’s fear of electoral repercussions if they move too far in their respective ideological direction. Other states were the ruling party has a much stronger hold on the government is more likely to move further in that ideological direction.⁵

On a related note, political factors of the states also have a major impact on the number of voters identifying as independents, which varies greatly from state to state.⁶

One particular current-day examples comes from Minnesota. The state version of the Democratic Party in the North Star State has its own unique name: the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party. While it has been called the DFL for quite some time, this was not always the case. Originally, it was two separate parties: the Democratic and the Farmer-Labor Parties. The Farmer-Labor Party started running candidates for office during the 1920s, with a focus on agrarian reform, public ownership of railroads, and protections for farmers and union workers. In 1944, it would merge with the Democratic Party to create the DFL that we still see today.⁷

There are still some candidates and officeholders in or from Minnesota who have only the Democratic label instead of the full DFL label, but most politicians in the party are considered DFL.

The Democratic Party in Alabama is a much more conservative than most of its partisan counterparts. For example, many are more resistant to various gun control measures than Democrats in other states. Alabama Democrats being more conservative also had a role in U.S. Senator Doug Jones’s 2017 special election victory. It was also an unusual set of circumstances — most notably the accusations of sexual harassment and perhaps more against Republican candidate Roy Moore, who defeated the appointed Luther Strange in the primary — but Doug Jones being more conservative than many other Democrats helped propel him to victory.

Two aforementioned examples are Republican Governors Larry Hogan of Maryland and Charlie Baker of Massachusetts. Not only are they the unlikely governors of two very “blue” states, but they are beloved by both Republicans and Democrats alike in their respective constituencies. In fact, they were the two most-beloved governors in Morning Consult’s 4th-quarter 2018 poll, with Baker receiving 72% approval and Hogan receiving 68% approval.⁸ Many of their Republican colleagues in those states are also closer to the center. If Hogan and Baker were much more conservative, it would have been virtually impossible for them to win their governorships.

While they aren’t all alike, they are arguably more so than in the past. Overall party unity has only risen in recent years. State parties used to have enormous influence on which candidates they ran, but the national parties have taken much of the reins. Campaign financing laws have also caused their influence to dwindle.⁹ We routinely see outside groups, namely SuperPACs, jumping into the fray and pouring exorbitant amounts of money into elections.

State parties, more and more, follow the lead of their national counterparts and more elections have become “nationalized,” where elections are gaining much more national attention and being influenced by national circumstances instead of just those in a district or state. Many states are also governed by trifectas, where one party holds the governorship and majorities in both state legislative chambers. Currently, there are 14 Democratic and 22 Republican trifectas.¹⁰

These trends, or at least most of them, are likely to continue for some time, meaning there is a good chance we will see state political parties vary less and less. But one thing is for certain: There are still plenty of differences one can find from state to state because of so many local and state political factors still matter a lot.

  1. Robert S. Erikson, Gerald C. Wright, Jr., and John P. McIver. 1989. “Political Parties, Public Opinion, and State Policy in the United States.” American Political Science Review 83 (3): 729–750.
  2. Scott E. Buchanan. Georgia Encyclopedia. 2016. “Dixiecrats.” https://www.georgiaencyclopedia.org/articles/government-politics/dixiecrats (accessed February 28, 2019).
  3. Benjamin R. Justesen. NCPedia. 2006. “Lily-White Politics.” https://www.ncpedia.org/lily-white-politics (accessed February 27, 2019).
  4. Ryan Byarlay. BlackPast. 2009. “Black and Tan Republicans.” https://www.blackpast.org/african-american-history/black-and-tan-republicans/ (accessed February 27, 2019).
  5. Robert S. Erikson, Gerald C. Wright, Jr., and John P. McIver. 1989. “Political Parties, Public Opinion, and State Policy in the United States.” American Political Science Review 83 (3): 729–750.
  6. Barbara Norrander. 1989. “Explaining Cross-State Variation in Independent Identification.” American Journal of Political Science 33 (2): 516–536.
  7. Ballotpedia. “Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party of Minnesota.” https://ballotpedia.org/Democratic-Farmer-Labor_Party_of_Minnesota (accessed February 27, 2019).
  8. Morning Consult. “America’s Most and Least Popular Governors — January 2019.” https://morningconsult.com/2019/01/10/americas-most-and-least-popular-governors-q4-2018/ (accessed March 1, 2019).
  9. Alan Greenblatt. Governing. “The Waning Power of State Political Parties.” http://www.governing.com/topics/politics/gov-waning-power-state-parties.html (accessed March 1, 2019).
  10. Ballotpedia. “State government trifectas.” https://ballotpedia.org/State_government_trifectas (accessed March 1, 2019).

Written by

Senior Page Editor - Sayfie Review, Assistant Staff Writer - Ballotpedia (my views do not express those of my employers), M.A. in Political Science

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