skip to main content
Polling Matters
A New Regional Paradigm for Following U.S. Elections
Polling Matters

A New Regional Paradigm for Following U.S. Elections

by V. Lance Tarrance

Geopolitics is defined as the interrelationship of politics, economics, demographics and geography, and can influence not only elections, but delineate new political power centers and political strategies. Regional groupings of states that are organized around cultural and demographic similarities as well as geography can provide important ways of approaching U.S. politics.

U.S. politics today are characterized by deep partisan divides on cultural and political issues. The Cook Political Report recently said that "across the country we're seeing a political division -- some say the greatest since Reconstruction" with "seismic shifts, not just Republicans on one side and Democrats on the other … but on a geographic level."

Traditional Census regions -- the Northeast, Midwest, South and West -- don't fully align with today's political divisions, and the well-known red/blue state classification lacks geographic references. A new scheme is needed that hews closer to the socio-political differences among the states while retaining enough geographic unity to qualify as a "geopolitical" framework or lens for making sense of the nation.

Historians and ethnographers have made many attempts to define regional groupings that represent "the real America." Joel Garreau's 1981 book, The Nine Nations of North America, regrouped the states in the U.S. into multiple power centers based on distinct cultural, ethnic and geographic identities. In 2011, Colin Woodard released American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Cultures in North America, in which he maintains that there has never been "one America," but rather several rival blocs of Americas, each a distinct nation that looks at elections and everything else in its own way.

Defining Regional Political Alliances in the U.S.

If the U.S. is indeed a patchwork of separate populations, each with its own historical roots and distinct values, then we should expect them to differ in thought and behavior. But there has always been a challenge in delineating these inner regions of America in a way that makes sense politically.

America, today, can arguably best be understood in terms of three super regions, in turn based on five geographic regions, as follows:

  1. The West/East Coast Alliance, comprised of the West Coast and White Collar East Coast regions:

    1. West Coast: California, Oregon, Washington and Hawaii

    2. White Collar East Coast: Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Maryland and Delaware -- plus Virginia and the District of Columbia

  2. The Heartland/New South Alliance, comprised of the American Heartland and New South regions:

    1. American Heartland: North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, Montana, Arizona, Colorado, Idaho, Wyoming, Utah, Nevada, New Mexico, Alaska

    2. New South: North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Florida, Tennessee, Alabama, Mississippi, Arkansas, Louisiana

  3. The Blue Collar Midwest: Ohio, Michigan, Indiana, Illinois, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa, Missouri, West Virginia and Kentucky

And here is the visual representation:

Regional Alliances of the States for Understanding the 2020 Election

Each of the three broad regions represents strong power centers cohered by general cultural and policy preference similarities. The values orientation of each is seen in their responses to a number of values questions in Gallup polling. The West/East is as liberal as the Heartland/New South is conservative, while the Blue Collar Midwest is more conservative than liberal, but in a few cases (especially gambling and gay marriage) lands in between the other two regions in its views.

Values and Policy Views of U.S. Regions

Values and Policy Views of U.S. Regional Political Alliances
West/East Coast Alliance Blue Collar Midwest Heartland/New South Alliance
% % %
Conservative on social issues 31 37 34
Conservative on economic issues 39 53 42
Pro-choice 55 41 45
Gay marriage should be valid 76 67 60
Consider morally acceptable
Abortion 51 39 37
Death penalty 57 66 64
Doctor-assisted suicide 61 50 49
Premarital sex 77 69 63
Human embryonic stem-cell research 73 62 61
Having baby outside marriage 71 61 60
Gambling 76 70 60
Gallup, May 1-10

The West/East Coast Alliance features a total of 16 states with dual power corridors: Los Angeles to San Francisco to Seattle and Washington, D.C., to New York to Boston. This bicoastal alliance contains about 38% of the nation's population and 45% of Hillary Clinton's total national vote in 2016, with her winning 15 of the 16 states (and D.C.) by nearly 10 million more votes than Donald Trump.

The West/East coastal states also have the significant distinction of electing disproportionately more Democrats than Republicans to the U.S. House of Representatives --114 Democratic Congressmen and only 52 Republican Congressmen. Most importantly, this merger of the West and East Coasts into a single super region provides a total of 203 Electoral College votes in the 2020 presidential election, not far from the 270 Electoral College votes needed to win the U.S. presidency.

Conceptually these two regions hold together on the basis of their uniquely liberal values. The coasts are more liberal than the rest of the country on abortion, gay rights, stem-cell research, doctor-assisted suicide, premarital sex, out of wedlock births and gambling. Additionally, coastal residents are more likely to have college degrees and to identify as politically liberal, and less likely to approve of President Trump.

The potential rival to the West/East Coast Alliance would be a grouping of 24 states, 21 of which Trump won in 2016, that can be described as the Heartland/New South Alliance. This alliance brings together the American Heartland states, centered on the Great Plains, and the New South. It is home to a powerful force of conservative populism -- an election-useful thematic of the "common man" usually expressed in elections as being against "big government," "big media," "big banks" and "big unions," to name a few. Richard A. Viguerie, in his 1983 book The Establishment vs. The People, Is a New Populist Revolt On The Way?, first defined this type of path, which Trump later took in his 2016 election by pivoting to the "forgotten man" in his campaign rhetoric and railing against the "swamp" of special interests in Washington, D.C.

This may explain why the Heartland/New South regional alliance gave Trump over 5.5 million more votes than Clinton, as well as 44% of his total national vote, and that it sends 124 Republican representatives to Congress versus only 47 Democrats. It provides 221 Electoral College votes for the 2020 presidential election -- a number that, like the coasts, is also close to the 270 Electoral College votes needed to win the presidency. In terms of issue positions, the Heartland and New South share more conservative tendencies on most of the values-based issues compared with the more liberal West and East coastal regions.


The Blue Collar Midwest as National Tie-Breaker

These two super regions -- the West/East Coast Alliance and the Heartland/New South Alliance -- tend to balance each other out in presidential elections, which leaves the third and final region, the Blue Collar Midwest, as the region that can tip the balance of politics one way or the other. This single region located between the Ohio River, the Mississippi River and the Great Lakes, is noted for concentrations of "working class" Americans and at one time was designated as the "Rust Belt," but is no longer. This region is also a strategic center, not so much of finance, media and government, but of manufacturing and natural resources.

In the stunning outcome of the 2016 presidential election, eight of 10 Blue Collar Midwest states voted for Trump. This differs dramatically from the 2008 presidential election, when John McCain carried only three of these states to Barack Obama's seven, and lost this region by about 3 million votes. In 2016, Trump received 1.5 million more votes than Clinton in Blue Collar America. Even though there are fewer Electoral College votes in this region (114) than in the two super alliances, there are enough to swing any presidential election to either the Republicans or the Democrats.

Political Indicators of Three Geopolitical Regions

Political Indicators for Three Regional Political Alliances
West/East Coast Alliance Blue Collar Midwest Heartland/New South Alliance
Number of states 16 + D.C. 10 24
% of U.S. population (2017) 38 21 41
2016 election
States Trump carried 1 8 21
States Clinton carried 15 + D.C. 2 3
% of region carried by Clinton 94 20 13
Votes in 2016 (in millions)
Donald Trump 19.6 15.6 27.7
Hillary Clinton 29.6 14.1 22.2
U.S. House seats
Republicans 52 59 124
Democrats 114 33 47
% Democrats 69 36 27
Party ID
% Republican/Lean Republican 35 41 43
% Independent, no lean 13 13 13
% Democrat/Lean Democratic 47 44 39
Gallup, May 1-10

Bottom Line

A major conclusion arising from this geopolitical division of the country is that we have two super power alliances in the West/East Coast and Heartland/New South that largely offset each other.

The Blue Collar Midwest tipped its support to Trump in 2016 and looks a lot like the Heartland/New South in its generally conservative values. But it still tilts more Democratic than Republican in party ID and the majority of its states voted Democrat in 2008 and 2012. It is therefore not a sure bet for either party, and should be considered the swing region that could decide the 2020 election.


V. Lance Tarrance is a Gallup contributor.

Gallup World Headquarters, 901 F Street, Washington, D.C., 20001, U.S.A
+1 202.715.3030