A Statistical Romp Through the Badlands of Republican Power in American States
Republicans want to take over America. How are they doing in the states they’ve already taken over?
I usually write about marketing and persuasion here on Medium. But I also spend a lot of time observing and thinking about American politics and, in particular, the paradoxical allure of the American Republican Party. I have written before on Medium about how the Republican Party long ago abandoned the interests and values of the great majority of Americans, even those who still espouse loyalty to it. This issue is especially salient today, as the GOP accelerates its efforts to disenfranchise as many Democratic-leaning voters as possible in states where it currently has the power to do so. Watching this happen in real time has led me to ask a fundamental question about power and policy in the United States:
When Republicans have greater legislative power in American states, how do their citizens fare, compared to citizens in other states?
To start exploring this question, I created a simple Republican Power Index (RPI) based on the size of the Republican (or Democratic) majority in each state’s two legislative bodies¹ following the 2020 election. The index is simply the proportion of seats occupied by Republicans in a state’s Lower House plus the proportion of seats occupied by Republicans in the state’s Upper House, divided by two, then subtracting 0.5 to produce an index that’s positive when Republicans are in the majority and negative when Democrats are in the majority.² An RPI of .10 thus means Republicans hold 10% more seats in a state than Democrats; an RPI of -.20 means Democrats hold 20% more seats in a state than Republicans.
In America after the 2020 elections, 33 states had Republican majorities and 17 had Democratic majorities. They are spread along the RPI axis as shown in Figure 1.
Many analyses treat party control as a binary variable. It’s either Repub or Dem. RPI has the advantage of adding the size of a party’s majority into the equation, allowing answers to questions not just about Red states vs. Blue states, but also about the magnitude of party control in Red and Blue states.
An underlying assumption of this analysis is that the greater a party’s majority in a state legislature, the more that state’s policies and outcomes are attributable to the wishes, priorities, and governing competence of that majority party.
Republican power and progress on COVID-19 vaccinations
An obviously important policy outcome for all 50 states is getting their citizens vaccinated against COVID-19. Daily updates on a website called Beckers’ Healthcare record the percentage of the adult population in each state that has been fully vaccinated as of that date. I collected that data for March 17, 2021. Matching each state’s vaccination progress with to its Republican Power Index produces the scatterplot in Figure 2.
Republican state power is a strong negative predictor of vaccination effectiveness. In statistical terms, RPI accounts for 44% of the variance in vaccination performance across the 50 states. For every 10% increase in Republican power, the percentage of people vaccinated in a state on average decreases by 2%.
Getting people vaccinated as quickly as possible is a function of state government that requires competence in at least three areas: marketing, logistics, and collaboration with the federal government. In terms of marketing, Republican state leaders have done a terrible job of convincing their people to get vaccinated. On the contrary, echoing loyalty to their defeated leader, many have spent months questioning and undermining the national vaccination effort. Some have argued that it’s the citizens of these states who are resistant to getting vaccinated, but those citizens follow the lead of their leaders.³ It is no coincidence that as of mid-May, 100 percent of Democrats in the national House of Representatives are fully vaccinated, compared to only 45 percent of Republicans.
In terms of logistics and collaboration, Republican majorities have shown themselves to be relatively inept on both counts, often mismanaging vaccine supply and distribution, sometimes politically skewing distribution to favor their more wealthy citizens (as in Florida⁴), and in general failing to collaborate effectively with federal agencies and authorities.
A prime directive — the prime directive — for any state government is to keep its citizens safe and alive.
Is poor performance on getting their citizens vaccinated an anomaly for Republican states? Is it a unique consequence of the extreme politicization and disinformation campaigns spearheaded by the Trump Administration, trickling down to state and local levels via constant and unrelenting media exposure?
One way to answer that question is to look at other policy outcomes state governments are responsible for delivering. If Republican majorities do more poorly in those areas, we will know that vaccination performance is not an exception. To explore this question, here are some state-by-state outcomes in four policy areas: healthcare quality, education quality, median income, and tax policy.
Republican power and state healthcare outcomes
In 2020, The Commonwealth Fund published a comprehensive report on the quality of healthcare in the 50 states, ranking them from best to worst in six categories: overall quality, access and affordability , availability of treatment and prevention services, control of avoidable costs, promotion of healthy living, and disparities in access between the state’s richest and poorest citizens. If poor performance on vaccinations is an anomaly, we should expect to find much weaker relationship between states’ rankings on these metrics and their scores on the Republican Power Index. But as Figure 3 shows, that expectation is not met. On the contrary:
For all six healthcare measures, greater Republican power is consistently associated with worse, not better, healthcare rankings.
The negative relationship between Republican power and healthcare outcomes is particularly striking in two of these categories: access and affordability of healthcare and healthy living measures. According to the Commonwealth Fund report, access and affordability summarizes items like rates of insurance coverage for children and adults, individuals’ out-of-pocket expenses for health insurance and medical care, and cost-related barriers to receiving care. All of these relate to offloading healthcare costs to citizens that other states cover or subsidize with state funds. Healthy living summarizes measures of premature death, health status, health risk behaviors (including smoking and obesity), tooth loss, and state public health funding overall. In this category, greater Republican power is quite strongly associated with lower ranks. As can be seen in the lower right corner of the Healthy living plot, as Republican power increases, states’ performance on these key healthcare quality measure decline in an almost linear manner.
What these data imply is that the relationship between Republican state power and poor vaccination progress is not a bug in Republican governance; it is a feature.
Conversely, greater Democratic power results in higher quality healthcare systems and outcomes for a state’s citizens, especially in the critical categories of affordability and access, and healthy living.
Republican power and state education outcomes
Providing a state-funded public education system for its citizens is a second critical function of state government. How does Republican power relate to states’ performance in meeting this need? In 2020, financial service company WalletHub ranked the 50 states on quality of their public education systems, from best to worst, in three categories: overall performance, quality rank, and safety rank. In addition, to capture a measure of educational attainment, I also downloaded data on the percent of adults in each state who hold a bachelor’s degree or higher. Scatterplots of these measures versus RPI are shown in Figure 4.
With regard to education, greater Republican power once again produces worse outcomes, but the disparity is less pronounced than for healthcare. Public School score is an actual number, not a rank, so it shows not only order but also distance between states’ scores. Scores clearly decline as Repub power increases, only at a more gradual rate than we saw with healthcare. More interesting, and more pronounced, are the relationships between Republican power and public school safety and with percent with college degrees.
Public School safety can be seen as another surrogate measure for keeping a state’s citizens — in this case its children — safe and alive. The measure includes factors such as COVID-related school closures, access to drugs and guns, school violence, bullying, and other dangerous behaviors.
The large cluster of Republican-controlled states ranked between 25 and 50 (n=20 of 33) means that these states are less effective at keeping their schools safe than states with Democratic majorities.
Additionally, there is evidence in the bottom-right corner of this chart that school safety scores get worse as Republican majorities in a state’s legislative bodies get larger.
Percent with college degrees can be seen as a measure of two interrelated effects that this score does not disentangle. First, it is a measure of how successfully a state’s public schools prepare its citizens to pursue a college degree. But second, it also measures a state’s ability to keep its college-educated citizens in-state. Given that Republican controlled-states are less bad at supporting their public schools than they are at supporting their healthcare systems, their poor scores on this measure probably represent a combination of these two effects. Schools in Republican-controlled states may do a poorer job of preparing their children for college, but those states also appear to be losing some proportion of their college educated citizens to other states. To see why that might be the case, we can look at how Republican power relates to citizens’ ability to generate income in each state.
Republican power and state median income
Median household income is collected by the US Census bureau each year. The data from 2019 (pre-pandemic) can be found in a convenient table here. Figure 5 shows how median income relates to the Republican Power Index across the 50 states.
The picture in Figure 5 is stark, especially down in that bottom-right corner. While only 15% of the Democratic-controlled states (2 of 13) had median incomes below $60,000 in 2019, 60% of the Republican-controlled states (20 of 33) had median incomes below $60,000. Further, as we’ve seen with other indicators, greater Republican power is associated with lower median incomes in Republican-controlled states.
One culprit here is probably the prevalence of “right to work” and anti-union laws in these states, which are known to suppress wages and income. Other factors may be relevant as well, but the bottom line is that Republican-dominated legislatures are either unable or unwilling to allow income levels in their states to rise to the levels found in most Democratic-led states.
On average, the larger the Republican majority in a state government, the lower its citizens’ median income levels.
Republican power and state tax policy
If Republican-controlled states are not good at vaccinating their citizens in a pandemic, providing effective healthcare systems, providing effective education systems, or promoting competitive income potential, what exactly are they good at?
The answer should not be surprising. They are good at cutting taxes. An organization called the Tax Foundation keeps track of tax rates and policies across the US. In their 2021 State Business Tax Climate Index report, they rank states on six metrics: a summary measure of overall tax rates and separate measures of corporate, individual, sales, property, and unemployment tax rates. In the Tax Foundation’s rankings, lower rates are considered better than higher rates. Thus, I refer to the summary measure as the “business friendly” ranking of a state. Scores on the six tax measures matched against each state’s RPI measure are displayed in Figure 6.
Here we finally see some trend lines pointing up as Republican power increases. In all categories except one, taxes on average are lower as Republican majorities get larger. This effect is most pronounced for corporate tax rates and individual tax rates, both of which are beneficial to businesses looking to minimize overall state tax liabilities. And here we see a possible benefit of those lower median income levels, at least in the eyes of Republican state legislators. Not only can businesses in their states expect lower tax bills, they can also expect to pay their in-state employees less than in higher income states.
The revealing exception to this relationship between Republican power and lower taxes is the rankings for state sales tax. Here Republican-led states have not lowered taxes in a systematic way compared to Democratic-led states. Why might that be? Unlike the other tax categories, a lower sales tax does not provide bottom-line benefits to businesses. But because a sales tax is a regressive tax — in that it takes a larger percentage of income from lower-income people than higher-income people — Republican-led states can use sales tax revenue to compensate for tax cuts in other areas, thus effectively shifting at least some of their tax burden from businesses and higher-income citizens to lower-income citizens.
There is, of course, a direct relationship between lower taxes and levels of state spending on services like healthcare and education.
Lower tax rates mean less money flowing into state treasuries, which in turn means less money available for state programs.
Conclusion: Is this the future we want for America?
Let’s return to our original question: When Republicans have greater legislative power in American states, how do their citizens fare, compared to citizens in other states? Here is what we’ve learned:
- Whether though mismanagement, partisan signaling, or inadequate infrastructure, COVID vaccination progress has lagged in Republican-led states. The larger the Republican majority in a state, the worse it tends to perform on this critical public health imperative. Citizens in Democratic-led states have been safer, better informed, and better served than citizens in Republican-led states.
- Citizens in Republican-led states have significantly worse healthcare systems and healthcare outcomes than citizens in Democratic-led states. The larger the Republican majority, the worse the state’s healthcare effectiveness compared to other states.
- Citizens in Republican-led states have significantly worse educational systems and educational outcomes — including, crucially, school safety outcomes — than citizens in Democratic-led states. The larger the Republican majority, the worse the state’s educational system and outcomes compared to other states.
- Citizens in Republican-led states have significantly lower median incomes than citizens in other states. Of the states with median annual incomes over $70,000 in 2019, ten have Democratic legislative majorities and only three have Republican legislative majorities. Republican efforts to suppress unionization in their states probably play a role in producing this disparity.
- Citizens in Republican-led states suffer these comparative disadvantages because their state governments have prioritized lower taxes over citizen services and support. As long as citizens in these states continue to send Republican majorities to their law-making bodies, there is no reason to expect their situation to improve compared to other states.
We won’t take up here the question of precisely why Republicans are so bad at state governance, or how they manage to stay in power when they are so bad at what they do. We know the basics: racist signaling, culture war distractions, blame-gaming, voter suppression, gerrymandering.
What we can clearly see — especially after the Capitol attack and attempted coup on January 6 — is exactly what the Republican Party is planning for America. Given their incompetence at governing, their willingness to embrace fantasist conspiracy theories and lies, their abject subservience to a mentally-ill con man and criminal, and their relentless war against the inevitable demographic changes in the American public, they have chosen to pursue a new path, one they are undertaking in one Republican-led state after another. They are trying to use their power in state legislatures to pass laws that will allow them to overturn election results in their states whenever they see fit. Thanks to the arcane rules of the Electoral College, they believe this will be enough to ensure that the Democratic Party will never again win a majority in either House of Congress, nor will Democrats ever manage to elect another Democratic President. Republicans have decided to sacrifice democracy to save their Party from electoral accountability and extinction. As things stand today, they may well succeed.
The evidence summarized here is both circumstantial and correlational. It does not tell us definitively, for example, whether poorly-performing states elect Republicans or Republicans create poorly-performing states. But the Republican Power Index helps here, because it shows us not just that Republican-led states tend to perform worse than Democratic-led states, but also that states with larger Republican majorities tend to perform worse than states with narrower Republican majorities. This implies that Republican power is the causal factor in this equation: give Republicans more power in a state, get worse outcomes as a result.
Circumstantial evidence becomes more compelling when it consistently points in one direction in multiple areas, as it does here. Americans have watched Republicans govern some states for decades. They have lived under Republican rule. The results are clearly reflected in the data we have reviewed. Republicans are not good at the prime directive of state governance: to keep their citizens safe and alive. They are no better at helping their citizens get a good education or make a competitive wage. They have other priorities, which they continue to pursue in more and more dangerous ways.
Republican-led state legislatures are now laying the groundwork to overturn American elections and bring their unique brand of ideological denial and incompetence to the federal level.
Is this the future we want for all of America? Emphatically not. A Republican takeover of the federal government will not only establish an authoritarian plutocracy over every American citizen, it will also bring to power a cabal of incompetent, dissembling, reality-denying opportunists who will take the whole country down to the level of the worst Republican-led states we see operating today. Under such leadership, American democracy — and indeed America itself — has little hope of surviving.
¹ Yes, for readers who were actually listening in the 5th grade, Nebraska is the exception. It is the only state with a single-body (unicameral) state legislature.
² For example, in South Dakota, where Republicans have a 62–8 majority in the state House of Representatives and a 32–3 majority in its Senate, the state’s RPI is .40 (the highest of all 50 states). At the opposite extreme, Hawaii has a 47–4 Democratic majority in its House and a 24–1 Democratic majority in its Senate, giving it an RPI of -.44. All other states fall between these two extremes.
³ On the tendency of Republican voters to follow their leaders rather than any fixed ideological principles, see Barber, Michael, and Jeremy C. Pope. “Does party trump ideology? Disentangling party and ideology in America.” American Political Science Review 113.1 (2019): 38–54.
⁴ See, for example, “DeSantis faces deepening controversy over vaccines for ultra-rich Florida community,” Axios, 3/8/2021.