U.S. Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, asks questions during a Senate appropriations subcommittee on financial services and general government hearing to examine proposed budget estimates and justification for the 2024 fiscal year at the Capitol in Washington on March 22. Collins is the only Republican from New England in Congress. Credit: Amanda Andrade-Rhoades / AP

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I have a confession to make. Fooling around with an Electoral College map, adding and subtracting states (and, in the case of Maine and Nebraska, congressional districts), is something that is fun to me.

While doing that with an upcoming presidential election is an exercise in analyzing campaigns, places and polls, it’s also fascinating to look at past results.

Electoral College maps show widely varying political times, revealing a lot about how state and regional politics have changed. And, as William Shakespeare wrote, “What’s past is prologue.” 

Going back nearly 100 years to the election of 1924, it’s striking how differently the swatches of red and blue sit. Of the 48 states, the 12 that went Democratic were all in the South. Just two of those — Virginia and Georgia — voted for Democrat Joe Biden in 2020. All the other states (save Wisconsin, which backed its native-son, progressive Robert LaFollette) voted for the Republican in 1924.

While Democrat Al Smith, the first Catholic presidential nominee, lost decisively to Republican Herbert Hoover in 1928, he mobilized a lot of new immigrants in urban areas, many of them Catholic. Voters in Boston and Providence helped Smith win two New England states, Massachusetts and Rhode Island.

What happened in 1928 in New England was repeated in 1932. This time Democrat Franklin D. Roosevelt was the big winner nationally but the same four New England states — Maine, Vermont, New Hampshire and Connecticut — voted for Hoover.

Roosevelt won an even larger landslide in 1936 versus Republican Alf Landon, lacking just two states in his column, Maine and Vermont. This led FDR’s political confidant James Farley to quip a modification of “As Maine goes, so goes the nation”: “As goes Maine, so goes Vermont.”

But an awful lot has changed in our region since then. While Maine and Vermont were the only states that never voted for Roosevelt in his four presidential runs, they’ve backed Democrats statewide for president the past eight times, from 1992 through 2020. The last time any New England state voted for a Republican presidential candidate was in 2000, when New Hampshire backed George W. Bush.

A similar shift happened with congressional races. Democrats won under 20% of House and Senate seats in New England in the 1920s. Now there’s only one Republican in Congress from the region, Maine’s U.S. Sen. Susan Collins, and she got just 51 percent of the vote in 2020, down from nearly 69 percent in 2014.

Why did New England go from red to blue? State leaders, like Maine’s Ed Muskie, mattered but so did national political dynamics. As Democrats embraced civil rights in the 1960s, they lost a key part of their electoral coalition, the South. Then, over time, the Republican Party took its cues more from the South, a highly religious and evangelical area. That was a big turnoff to New Englanders.

The last Republican who represented Connecticut in Congress, U.S. Rep. Chris Shays, explained this transition. When he lost in 2008, Shays noted the regional decline of his party and predicted, “I don’t see us winning with social conservatism.” Three years earlier Shays warned, “This Republican Party of Lincoln has become a party of theocracy. . . There are a number of people who feel that the government is getting involved in their personal lives in a way that scares them.”

But what’s happened since? Ten years ago every state in New England allowed same-sex couples to marry, but none in the South did. Now regions are going different directions on either banning or allowing books that deal with race, gender and sex in school libraries, and either limiting or protecting and expanding transgender rights and reproductive rights.

In part because of these issues, voters younger than 45 support Democrats. As the Brookings Institution advises,“Republicans need to take steps now to reverse these trends among young people…” Given what Republican leaders are doing and their base supports, that seems unlikely. But Democrats also shouldn’t take these voters for granted.

For this time is also prologue. As the past shows, if candidates and political parties are willing, they can look at voters, organize and change.

Amy Fried has written about the media and politics, women in politics, Maine and American political culture, and political activism, and works to create change through the Rising Tide Center. A political...