Graphing the Democrats’ rise in New England

One of the things that first spurred me to think seriously about New England’s complex regional history in the twentieth century, and its evolving place within the larger nation, was the Congressional election of 2008, when the Democratic Party swept the last Republican from the six states’ U.S. House seats. The moment seemed to symbolize New England’s status as a liberal outlier, even within a very strong year for Democrats nationwide. Obviously, partisan control of House seats is a crude metric: it obscures more-complex realities in voting patterns for other elected offices, it fails to distinguish between party and ideology, and it doesn’t capture intra-regional diversity very well. Still, the 2008 results—along with other indicators, including the rapid advance of state recognition of same-sex relationships and surveys showing atypically low levels of religious adherence—bespoke a New England that stood apart from the national mainstream.

What intrigued me is when and how this “liberal New England” had come to be, especially given the historical image, and to some significant degree the reality, of flinty Yankee conservatism. Then, in the wake of Tuesday’s election results, which included Republican victories in both New Hampshire U.S. House races, I wondered whether New England was, even by this crude metric, actually all that exceptional any more. So, as a way to start answering these questions, I decided to throw together a quick graph of the historical data on Democrats’ share of New England’s House seats to see what sort of light it could shed.  Here it is:

Graph: Democratic Party Share of U.S. House Seats

After the jump, some amateur, first-impression political science. What’s immediately striking here is that, in most elections since 1930, the Democratic share of House seats in New England has largely risen and fallen in line with the party’s national fortunes—with a few big exceptions. And the elections of 1958 and 1994, the two biggest exceptions, seem to have been consequential turning points, dividing the last eighty years into three distinct periods.

First, between 1930 and 1956, the lines representing Democrats’ regional and national share of available seats basically track one another, but with New England Democrats under-performing by about 20-to-30 percentage points. I’d imagine that this gap resulted partly from a fundamental tilt in the Republicans’ favor in the region, and partly from distortions in the national figure due to single-party rule in the South.

Then, in 1958, when Democrats nationally gained nearly 50 seats amid an economic recession, they picked up nine in New England alone, including all six of Connecticut’s seats. Although the party did not hold all of these gains, for roughly the next thirty years, its percentage of the New England delegation roughly matched its overall strength in the House, never falling below fifty percent.

Finally, around 1990, Democratic strength in New England began to climb steadily higher than the party’s national power. When the Republicans recaptured the House in 1994–and isn’t it remarkable to see how small the margin for the “Republican Revolution” in fact was?–the results in New England were a wash, with the parties swapping Maine’s two seats and trading a Democratic loss in New Hampshire for a pickup in Rhode Island. The Republican gains nationally, meanwhile, came largely from the final purging of many Southern Democrats. In 1996, the Democrats’ small national net gain of nine seats depended heavily on four seats picked up in New England. And in years since, the region’s Democrats have won at a steadily higher rate than the party’s candidates nationwide—even, of course, on Tuesday.

An obvious next question, then, is what happened in 1958 to fuel gains for Democrats in New England Congressional races that were not only dramatic, but evidently lasting? A 1958 article in Time, which declared, “In New England, chronic economic problems obviously played a major part in Democratic gains and sharply reduced Republican margins,” offers one possible lead. The region also lost three of its House seats—from 28 to 25—in the post-1960 reapportionment, so redrawn districts may have helped to solidify Democratic gains. Did civil rights politics play a role? Did the rise of the Kennedys? I’m curious to see what more I can dig up.

(Some notes on the graph: All data is from Wikipedia, and it reflects the party breakdowns at the opening of the Congress elected in the year indicated. Bernie Sanders is counted as a Democrat, where applicable. And the Democratic share of the 112th Congress, elected yesterday, is estimated, due to some outstanding races. Also worth noting: In 1930, the New England states had 34 House seats; in 2010, they have 22, and Massachusetts is projected to lose a seat in 2012.)

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