Connecticut Slows Down, Settles in Democratic Groove

Connecticut became reliably Democratic only when affluent suburbs like Westport started supporting the party. (1937 postcard from Wikimedia Commons)

Connecticut still has plenty of big campaign contributors and Fortune 500 companies (17!), but this secular, environmentalist state that depends on immigration for its meager population growth is pretty much off the radar of the Republican Party.

(Un)Conventional Wisdom is presenting a short history of each state’s role in modern presidential politics. Connecticut is the fifth in the series.


Connecticut is where the Bush dynasty started, before that Republican family got wise and shifted its base to Texas.

For a Yankee state, it was surprisingly competitive in the 18th century, with the Republicans never cracking 60 percent until William McKinley did so in 1896. As it became known as a refuge from bustling New York City, it became more reliably Republican, giving its love to Herbert Hoover, Tom Dewey and Prescott Bush (father of George H.W.), who served as a U.S. senator during the 1950s—after leadership roles in Planned Parenthood and the United Negro College League, typical of New England Republicans of the time.

Connecticut then went a little wild. Democrat John F. Kennedy spent the Sunday before the 1960 election here, rousing the Catholic and the union vote, and the state was never the same. One of the most memorable sections of Theodore H. White’s The Making of the President described a rally of 40,000 for Kennedy in Waterbury at 3 o’clock in the morning. Of the motorcade to that city, along Route 8 in the Naugatuck Valley, White wrote, “at every crossroads, at midnight and at one and at two in the morning, they were waiting with torchlights and red flares to cheer and yell ‘We love you, Jack.’”

Kennedy easily won the state, coming in the middle of a swing from 64 percent for Republican Dwight Eisenhower in 1956 to 68 percent for Democrat Lyndon Johnson in 1964—in both cases, well above the national average. But then there was a backlash to the Democratic Party in what was still a suburban, almost-all-white state. From 1972 through 1988, the state went back to solid Republican majorities, helped no doubt by George H.W. Bush being on the ticket the last three times (even if he was by then a Texan). Bush lost here in 1992, thanks to a bad economy and unease with his drift to the right on cultural issues. The GOP hasn’t come close since. When President Obama won here in 2012, it marked the first time in the state’s history that either party took Connecticut in six consecutive elections.

As with New Jersey, the state’s relative affluence may promote political stability. The state has a poverty rate of 10.2 percent, well below the national average of 15.4 percent. Anyone who’s taken a bus or train through the state knows that there are pockets of great economic distress: Bridgeport has a poverty rate of 23.3 percent, and New Haven, the presence of Yale University notwithstanding, has a poverty rate of 26.5 percent. But the poorest cities in Connecticut aren’t very big, so they don’t have a lot of political power compared with more prosperous places like Stamford (a financial industry center and the political base of the current Democratic governor, Dannel Malloy), Norwalk (where Xerox is headquartered) and dozens of small towns at a discreet distance from rail yards and highway exchanges. The contrast is so great that last year Business Insider ranked the Bridgeport-Stamford area as “the most unequal place in America.” (“Whereas Greenwich is dotted with mansions and country clubs, deserted factories and public-housing projects line the streets of Bridgeport.”)

Yet this contrast isn’t so striking in recent presidential election results. In 2012, Obama got 85 percent in Bridgeport, 62 percent in Stamford, and a respectable 44 percent even in “country club” Greenwich. All of these places are in Fairfield County, which Obama with 55 percent, up from only 47 percent for JFK and 41 percent for Jimmy Carter in 1976. No Republican can win Connecticut without a big margin in the county that is still synonymous with suburban wealth.

So why don’t Republican candidates do better in upper-class Connecticut? As with the Northeast in general, the state is light on evangelical Protestant voters, so school prayer and opposition to gay rights (or Planned Parenthood) doesn’t play well here. At the same time, the Democrats benefit from seeming stronger on environmental protection, not surprising in a state where there’s not a lot of land left to develop. (Connecticut is one of the few states with no land that hasn’t been incorporated into a city or town.) However, being “green” can also be a cover for NIMBYist opposition to new affordable housing in already developed areas.

Connecticut ranked 43rd in population growth from 2010 to 2014 (with an increase of just 0.6 percent), and it was one of six states to actually lose people from 2013 to 2014. The high cost of living is surely one reason that people are moving away. As the New York Times reported last year, “As late as 1970, Connecticut ranked in the top 10 among states in the share of natives retained. Connecticut now ranks 29th in retaining natives, with the South replacing the Northeast as the most popular destination.”

The state needs immigrants to maintain a labor force: Between 2010 and 2014, some 70,000 people moved to Connecticut from other countries, almost making up for the loss of 76,000 native-born Americans to other states. It also needs a strong public education system to provide skilled workers for a post-industrial economy (manufacturing jobs aren’t coming back), and a high level of public services (mass transit, parks) and a responsive government to convince people to live here despite a cold climate and astronomical housing prices. That’s a recipe for Democratic wins—Connecticut’s pioneering laws mandating employers to provide paid sick leave and paid parental leave could not be a better fit for Hillary Clinton’s campaign—and it would probably take a huge policy misstep, such as proposing a tax on indoor cycling classes, for the party to fumble the state in 2016.

Connecticut demographics (Census Bureau)

Where Connecticut residents come from (New York Times)

Religious composition of Connecticut (Pew Research Center)

Connecticut Secretary of State (Elections and Voting division)

Note: The best source for state- and county-level presidential election results is Dave Leip’s Atlas of Presidential Elections.

Connecticut has been more Democratic than the U.S. as a whole since 1988, when Michael Dukakis lost the state by 5.1 points as opposed to his 7.7 point-loss nationally. Since then, the state has voted Democratic in every presidential election.

More: Delaware, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Georgia

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
Joseph J Dunn
3 years 6 months ago
These state-by-state insights are valuable. While national surveys and statistics are interesting, a lot of what we do in this country is still heavily reflective of state-level political situations. Population shifts drive shifts in Congressional seats, which directly affect distribution of Electoral College votes. And a lot of human resources work is driven by state-level decisions and policies: medicaid, child services/adoption/foster care, education as examples. One area not explored is Why people are moving from state to state. Some of it is no doubt driven by retirees, no longer tied to the job market, moving to warmer climates or lower cost-of-living, and that theme will continue as Boomers retire over the next 20 years. But retirement does not seem to explain all or even most of the movement. One interesting survey of migration: And an article that reveals some important policy implications: Thanks to Robert David Sullivan for this thought-provoking series.
Steven Reynolds
3 years 6 months ago
Interesting series and raises questions beyond why different states have aligned on presidential party trends. The disparity between cities in Fairfield County is a good example. Take a drive on the road that is shared by Sacred Heart University on one end and University of Bridgeport on another. Two different worlds really in a very short distance. It begs us to ask what have we done.
Bill Collier
3 years 6 months ago
Thanks for this interesting comment. While Connecticut is almost surely a safe blue state in the 2016 presidential race, it does have economic policies that are causing a significant exodus of some of its middle class retirees. Accord to a Kiplinger's survey, CT is the # 3 worst state in the country for retirees when it comes to taxation: Only Rhode Island (# 1) and Vermont (# 2) are worse. In addition, CT is # 2 in having the highest gasoline taxes in the country, behind Pennsylvania only.


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