To understand changes in the political map, we naturally tend to look for contemporary explanations. But American political alignments are not written on an empty slate. Beginnings matter, and the civic personalities of states tend to reflect the cultural folkways of their first settlers.
So I was not startled when I compared state poll results in this election with the results of the 2004 election and found patterns that reflect the surges of historic internal migration. For this year’s polls, I used the results from FiveThirtyEight.com, which discounts results based on its estimates of pollsters’ accuracy and the recentness of the polls. Thus, they don’t fully reflect the recent tightening of the national polls.
In two broad swaths of the country, John McCain is running about as well as George W. Bush did or better. One is the route of the westward surge of New England Yankees across upstate New York, northern Ohio, southern Michigan and into northern Illinois. McCain is running ahead of Bush in Massachusetts and just one-percent behind in New York and (despite its economic problems) Michigan. Historically, this Yankee-settled region has been turned off by southern accents, such as Bush’s Texas twang, and McCain evidently is less off-putting to its cultural liberals.
The other area in which McCain is running even with or better than Bush is the set of states settled by the Scotch-Irish stock, who thronged to the Appalachians in Colonial days and whose descendants followed the southwest path pioneered by their hero, Andrew Jackson. Barack Obama, who has lived in university communities all his adult life, did very poorly in primaries here. McCain, a career military man, runs ahead of Bush in Tennessee and Arkansas and about even in Kentucky, Missouri and Oklahoma. He’s running further behind in West Virginia only because Bush ran especially well there.