Lying at the heart of the American Upper Midwest, the Driftless Area has long been one of the nation’s most interesting political regions. For most of its existence, this expansive swath of territory reliably backed Republican Presidential candidates.
Excepting victories by Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt, and Lyndon Johnson, the GOP prevailed in most of the Driftless counties from the time of Lincoln until the end of Reagan’s second term in the White House – a span of nearly 130 years.
In 1988, at the height of the Farm Crisis, Massachusetts Democrat Michael Dukakis scored the best performance for his party in the area since LBJ. His victories in Wisconsin and Iowa were the culmination of favorable leftward trends that first manifested themselves in 1984.
By improving off of the Mondale baseline throughout the Upper Midwest, Dukakis foreshadowed the ensuing three decades of Democratic dominance in the Driftless Area. The region’s ancestrally-Democratic status remained strong until outsider Republican Donald Trump shattered much of the Obama coalition on the coattails of his 2016 victory.
While most of the counties in the Iowa and Minnesota portions of the Driftless Area swung toward Democrat Joe Biden in 2020, the region-wide trends are once again pointing in the Republican direction.
Whether that directionality will hold permanently remains to be seen, though Republicans seem to have room to grow with working-class whites throughout the Driftless Area. In short, the GOP is not maxed out in the hinterlands of a state like Wisconsin as it is in the rurals of Nebraska.
This analysis will attempt to answer four important questions:
- What is the geographical definition of the Driftless Area? Furthermore, what geographical/demographic characteristics connect the voters that inhabit the region?
- What is the voting history of the Driftless Area?
- What were the causes and effects of the Farm Crisis? Furthermore, how drastic was its effect on levels of Republican support in the Driftless Area?
- The populist campaign of former President Donald Trump exemplified and exaggerated the observed trends in the Driftless Area, but what is the region’s political future in the Biden-era?
What is the Driftless Area?
The Driftless Area sits at the heart of the upper Mississippi River valley, encompassing a broad swath of territory between four states: Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois, and Iowa. While the region’s exact boundaries have been somewhat fluid over the years, the map below from the USDA seems to be a relatively accurate depiction.
Besides beautiful landscapes and bitingly-frigid winters, agriculture defines the Driftless Area. Excepting the handful of medium-sized cities lying within its bounds, most Driftless territory is rural and naturally-attuned to farming. Mild summers yield effective growing seasons, creating perfect conditions for agricultural output from dairy farms to vineyards. Another important local industry is sand mining, a process that is critical to fracking. Resource production is and has always been critical to the local economy.
The Farm Crisis – Causes and Effects
Because agriculture has been a critical fixture of life in the Driftless Area since the land was first settled in the 19th century, it makes sense that economic difficulties related to farm life have corresponded to shifts in political opinion on behalf of the region’s voters.
Before the devastating Farm Crisis of the 1980s, which will be discussed in detail later, the Great Depression tested the Driftless Area’s Republican lean. Farm price instability fomented temporary backlash to President Herbert Hoover and the Republicans, leading to strong FDR performances in the region in 1932 and 1936. The area eventually reverted to form, but the measured shifts nonetheless showed how impactful agricultural market woes could be on conventional political wisdom.
The roots of the Farm Crisis stretched back to the 1970s and peaked in the mid-1980s. Primary problems included property destabilization and foreclosures, price instability, farm equipment scarcity, and debt-related bank failures. In short, farmers that had been well off in previous decades were placed into a state of financial uncertainty that was quite similar to that of their parents and grandparents.
A Political Shift
As a result of the Farm Crisis, Democratic support grew throughout the Driftless Area in the 1980s. At the Presidential level, the first signs of a future Democratic breakthrough became apparent in 1984. Former Vice President Walter Mondale may have lost the region as Democrats had in cycles past, but he managed to improve off of Carter’s floor four years earlier.
Those trends manifested in 1988, when Dukakis won Wisconsin and Iowa. In the latter state, the Massachusetts Governor carried almost every county. His performance in the Driftless counties directly foreshadowed future President Bill Clinton’s support in the Midwest. That strength would only grow in future national elections, with Barack Obama winning every county in the region in 2008. Obama’s win in Wisconsin that year set political records that still have not been broken.
Present and Future
The Driftless Area’s Democratic lean heavily declined in 2016, when businessman Donald Trump’s populist message resonated strongly with working-class white voters. Republicans have not yet surpassed their historic dominance in the region, but such an outcome could be on the long-term horizon. Continuing declines among rural white Democratic support stand only to benefit Republicans in crucial battlegrounds like Wisconsin, where the Driftless Area takes in a significant amount of territory.
Bonus – South Korea
On March 9th, 44 million South Koreans concluded an incredibly virulent campaign by electing Yoon Suk-yeol (PP) to the Presidency. A former prosecutor with no formal experience in electoral politics, Yoon ran as a conservative under the new People Power Party banner. Despite only winning by a narrow 0.73%, the results indicated that a sizeable amount of South Korean citizens was ready for a change after five years under Democratic President Moon Jae-In. At 77%, turnout was nearly the same as it was in the prior election.
With Yoon promising to take a hard-line approach to North Korea, it seems probable that South Korea will place itself squarely in the American camp on foreign policy. Resulting from the Russian invasion of Ukraine, continued missile tests by the Kim regime, and uncertain diplomatic ties to the People’s Republic of China, South Korea seems prepared to take a more aggressive role in defending its sovereignty while moving in lock-step with the U.S. and Japan.
Without further ado, let’s take a look at how South Korea’s closest election since its democratization was fought and won.
As a result of the 2020 merger of various conservative opposition elements, there were only two major candidates contesting the 2022 election: Yoon Suk-yeol and Lee Jae-myung.
The top two candidates both faced contested primary nominations within their respective parties: People Power and Democratic.
- Lee Jae-myung was the Governor of Gyeonggi Province from 2018-2021 and previously served as Mayor of Seongnam from 2010-2018. He defeated the initial primary frontrunner, Prime Minister Lee Nak-yeon, 50-39%. Lee Jae-myung’s progressive message ultimately won the day despite Lee Nak-yeon’s establishment support. Prior to the canvass, Lee Nak-yeon had been criticized for advocating a pardon for disgraced former President Park Geun-hye.
- Yoon Suk-yeol was the Prosecutor General of South Korea from 2019-2021. He defeated Hong Jun-pyo, who ran to his right, by a competitive 48-42% margin.
Sim Sang-jung of the Justice Party was the only other significant candidate in the general election, though she only received 2.38% of the vote. Her campaign attracted some politically-attuned feminist voters, most of whom had doubts about Yoon and Lee.
Conservatives primarily capitalized on the housing and jobs crises, though COVID-19 and the feminist movement were also important points of discussion. According to reporting done by the Wall Street Journal, many young South Koreans have struggled to find proper employment. The dearth of jobs has been fueled by fierce competition among well-educated applicants, preventing many former students from saving enough money to acquire housing. This phenomenon allowed Yoon to carry Seoul for People Power, a significant political change from the last two elections.
Much of this economic resentment, particularly among young men (20s-30s), has resulted in strong opposition to the feminist movement. Exemplified by Yoon, most of this voting demographic believes that the Democratic government has unfairly advantaged women during a time of domestic crisis. Despite the antifeminist undertones surrounding parts of the campaign, the People Power movement did recruit feminists to bolster its general image. It is unusual to see a social issue become tied to economic realities enough to cause affiliation changes among the youth vote in one of Asia’s leading democratic states.
As mentioned previously, discussions regarding defense also popped up during the campaign. In the most basic sense, Yoon and Lee utilized different foreign policy tones. Lee’s arguments generally aligned with the more non-confrontational parts of President Moon’s international record – particularly with regards to China and North Korea. Yoon moved in a different direction that aligned more with the American agenda.
The breakdown of the election results by age and gender paints a clear picture of the impact that key campaign issues had on the outcome. In the 18-30 year old demographic, for instance, men favored Yoon 60-36 while women favored Lee 58-34. The stark gender divide was not nearly as apparent for voters aged 40 and over. Middle-aged participants generally supported Lee, while older South Koreans backed Yoon. It appears that the economic instability shaking *part* of the youngest generation has made it more conservative than expected.
Cross-posted from: https://www.pedagogyinstitute.org/post/a-conservative-victory-in-south-korea
My name is Harrison Lavelle and I am a political analyst studying political science and international studies at the College of New Jersey. As a co-founder and partner at Split Ticket, I coordinate our House coverage. I write about a variety of electoral topics and produce political maps. Besides elections, my hobbies include music, history, language, aviation, and fitness.
Contact me at @HWLavelleMaps or firstname.lastname@example.org