The “Reagan Democrat” Electoral Myth

He didn’t flip the voters you think…

There’s a political myth that has survived too long- Ronald Reagan won because he flipped the “Reagancrats.” They were northern, union, Catholic households that were attracted to his message of lower taxes and less government. To Democrats, Reagan convinced them to vote against their own economic interests. It is a neat story, a more interesting story of complicated outreach that changed electoral politics. It’s also pretty much fiction.

In 1976, Jimmy Carter was elected President of the United States. He won without winning anything in the Western United States, literally. With the exception of Hawaii, Carter won all of his electoral votes in states that closed their polls by 10pm at the latest. He won without sweeping the Northeast. He won while losing almost as much of the Rust Belt as he won. He dominated in Appalachia. He won nearly the entire South. President Ford won a lot of places that Republicans don’t even dream of competing in today. He lost the election because he got crushed across the “Solid South” that Democrats dominated for a little over a hundred years, but never again after this election.

But let’s talk about those “Reagan Democrats” from labor households, across the Rust Belt, Kennedy Catholics that had been the backbone of the Democratic Party up until this point, supposedly. Yes, Reagan won them in 1980 and 1984. He won almost every group in both elections. He lost a grand total of 62 electoral votes in the two elections, and while he did better across the Rust Belt than Ford, the difference was pretty much in proportion to his victory. Basically Minnesota and West Virginia defied his political reach. Ford managed to win those and hang on to Wisconsin, Ohio, and Pennsylvania, and it was close. Carter was an outlier in this era though.

One look at Richard Nixon’s 1968 and 1972 victories tells you the story of the “Reagan Democrat.” Their flip happened in 1968, from Kennedy voters to the swing voters that remain crucial even until today. Nixon carried Wisconsin, Iowa, Illinois, Indiana, Missouri, and Ohio in both of his victories. Minnesota, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia came along in 1972. Iowa, Illinois, and Indiana went red for Ford in 1976 for a third straight election, and Michigan went for the 38th President’s party a second straight time as well. All in, from 1968 until 1988, the GOP did pretty well throughout the midwest:

  • Illinois and Indiana went red six straight times.
  • Iowa went red five straight times until Bush lost it in 1988. Ohio and Missouri went red every time except for 1976. Michigan went blue every time except for 1968.
  • Pennsylvania went red four times out of six elections in this time period. Wisconsin did as well.
  • Minnesota did defy the GOP every time in this period, amazingly.

The main point of course is that it was not Reagan who flipped the Midwest, or the “Reagan Democrat.” One could make a pretty strong argument that this was already a region in play, and that it was Nixon who brought it onto the red side, more so than Reagan. The trouble for the GOP heading into the 1980 election wasn’t the Rust Belt- it was the South. The Democrats hold on the region was already slipping in 1968 when Wallace won Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, and Arkansas, and Nixon pulled in Tennessee, Florida, North Carolina, South Carolina, Kentucky, and Virginia. In 1972, Nixon swept across the South, as with most of America. In 1976 though, Carter swept the whole region back into the Democratic column, for the first time since LBJ’s 1964 blowout. Reagan’s task was to break that hold on the South. His campaign zeroed in on it, and that focus has predominantly held it since.

Ronald Reagan’s 1980 campaign slogan was “Let’s Make America Great Again.” He made it an explicit attack on government and a fight for “states rights.” He attacked anecdotal enemies such as the “welfare queen.” He gave an explicitly “states rights” speech at the Neshoba County Fair, near the site of the Philadelphia, MS lynchings of 1964. On the one hand we have to admit that Reagan simply seized on electoral trends that dated back to at least 1966 (the first “post Civil Rights” legislation election) and ran with them. On the other hand, Reagan explicitly ran on those themes and flipped the region into the Republican column for good.

In the 40+ years since Reagan’s victory, there have been some exceptions to the GOP’s “Solid South,” which now clearly includes Appalachia running north out of Dixie. West Virginia stayed in the Blue column in 1988, 1992, and 1996, before leaving to the Republicans ever since. Bill Clinton carried Louisiana, Arkansas, Tennessee, and Kentucky in both of his elections, and Georgia in 1992 and Florida in 1996, before Al Gore and John Kerry lost every state in the South. Barack Obama did flip Virginia and Florida both times, and North Carolina once, before Hillary Clinton lost everything in the South besides Virginia. And of course, Joe Biden won Virginia and Georgia on his way to victory in 2020. For the most part though, Reagan left a legacy of a solidly Republican South. One look at 1988’s map shows what he created.

Ronald Reagan’s political revolution realigned the Southern United States into the Republican column. The truth about the northern “Reagan Democrat” is that while he won them, it was not any true marking of a massive change. Nixon and Ford did well with them too, but these voters remained the swing voters that would give the Presidency to Bush 41, Clinton, Bush 43, Obama, Trump, and eventually Biden thereafter. Reagan’s enduring political legacy is the permanent flip of the South away from Democrats, because he made an explicit appeal to grievance politics in the region that have become emblematic of his party since.