There has been quite a bit of political commentary out there describing the GOP after 2008 as a "Southern regional party." But, more recent data suggests another interpretation.
All Strong Republican States Have Significant Mormon Populations
There are now only five states that are either strongly Republican (Utah, Idaho, Wyoming and Alaska) or lean Republican (Nebraska), in Gallup polling.
The states with the largest percentage of population who are members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints faith are as follows:
Three of the four most Republican states in the nation are the three most Mormon states in the nation. The fourth of the four most Republican state in the nation is one of the top ten states in the percentage of the population that is Mormon.
Conservative Christianity Distinguishes "Competitive" States With Urban Centers
The ten states described by Gallup as "competitive" (which is between leans Republican and leans Democratic) are Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, Kansas, Arizona, Texas, South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama and Mississippi.
Two of these (Montana and Arizona) are also in the top ten for the percentage of the population that is Mormon.
Which states are outside the Mormon Top Ten? "Lean Republican" Nebraska, and the following "competitive" states: North Dakota, South Dakota, Kansas, Texas, South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama and Mississippi. These states in turn fit into two basic patterns (some also found in some of the Mormon Top Ten states).
Nebraska, North Dakota, South Dakota and Kansas are all extremely rural low population density farm states.
Texas, South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama and Mississippi meanwhile are not just Southern states, but strongly Southern Baptist Southern states that lack the strong Catholic roots of Florida and Louisiana, the recent influx of professional and technology workers that Virginia and North Carolina have experienced, or the hill country roots of Tennessee and Arkansas.
Oklahoma and Indiana are the only states outside the former Confederacy, Mountain West (including Alaska), and Great Plains that are anything less than strongly Democratic, and both of these states are now, at least, leaning Democratic. Oklahoma often "acts" like a Southern State (although it didn't exist as a state at the time of the U.S. Civil War), has an oil impacted economy, and is strongly rural. Indiana has has a strong rural economy and conservative political leanings more than a century old.
Christian conservatism clearly underlies all of the more Republican leaning states with major urban centers.
Farmers and oilmen are just about the only constituencies in America for whom the Republican economic message remains persuasive. Both groups are seeing their numbers shrink, moreover, as these goods producing industries become more economically efficient and employ fewer people. Democratic support for a "New Energy Economy" may undermine even this last bastion of the Republican party's economically motivated base. Biofuels and renewable energy are a last, best chance of economic prosperity in the farm economy. While many Democratic party economic proposals have drawn scornful or indifferent reactions from the rural wing of my extended family, all of them are intensely interested in the prospects that wind power and biofuels offer them, even though some spend their time in the off season harvesting black gold. My uncle in rural Northern Ohio was one of the first sign up to lease some of his property for use in a wind farm. A transmission lines become available to link renewable energy to its markets, these economic links of farmers to the New Energy Economy will only grow stronger.
The geography of continuing support for the Republican party strongly suggests that Christian conservatism is the driving motive behind support for the Republican party elsewhere.
The GOP as a Christian Conservative Party
Political parties are ultimately a product of the committed people who remain active within them. And, as the struggle for the soul of the Republican party is fought in the wake of yet another set back election in 2008, it is apparent that Christian conservatism is the tie that binds those who remain faithful to the GOP.
Religion is a good marker for the biggest ideological fissure amongst non-Hispanic whites in the United States, which is the dominant ethnicity (particularly among likely voters) in the United States. Indeed, many of the religious denominations that have attempted to straddle this ideological divide in the United States have failed. The United States has a long history of denominational schism along these ideological lines which persists today as the Episcopal Church (the American wing of the Anglican church) is in the midst of an ongoing schism along these lines. The Roman Catholic Church has managed to keep a foot sturdily on each side of the American political divide, but few other religious denominations have managed this feat consistently.
The recent leftward swing of American politics has propelled liberal and mainline Christians (and all non-Christians no matter how diverse their ideologies) further towards Democrats, while the conservative Christians (including Mormons) have seen their comfort level in an increasingly religiously homogeneous Republican party grow.
No denomination, of course, has a strict political party litmus test. Because of this, the few denominations that are most skewed politically to the Republican party, the Mormons, the Southern Baptists and white Pentecostals mostly, have the greatest impact on the political balance of the regions where their members are most common at a macro-political scale. Evenly divided groups are irrelevant politically.
This tendency has international precedent. The leading party of the right in most of the countries of Europe is a Christian Democratic party. Religion is also the tie that binds the right leaning BJP Hindu nationalist party in India which is the leading source of opposition to the socialist leaning Congress party there. Religion closely tracks the political divides in countries as diverse as the Ukraine, Iraq, Israel and Sudan. And the divide between Western Christianity and other faiths, with the exception of Greece, is sufficient to explain the countries that are and are not within the European Union or its sister organization the European Free Trade Association.
What Options Does A Christian Conservative GOP Have?
It is hard to see a Republican party with a Christian conservative core turning away from its anti-abortion, anti-gay rights, anti-feminist social conservative agenda any time soon. But, this doesn't mean that the future of the Republican party is set in stone. As the electoral defeats that have brought the Republican party to a modern low point have made clear, support from Christian conservatives isn't a sufficient base, even if it is a necessary part of a base seeking a majority coalition in American politics.
The Republican Party has considerable freedom to rethink its direction on foreign policy and economic issues. It can embrace Mike Huckabee's populism, Tom Tancredo's xenophobia, or a less bellicose foreign policy if it wishes to do so. The intellectuals who have been attracted to the Republican party neoconservativism and the GOP's apologist stance towards the abuses of big business may have brought the Republican party funding and a certain amount of intellectual credibility, but it isn't obvious that these intellectuals have been important in garnering political support for the GOP. Populist demagogues like Rush Limbaugh have brought more people to the Republican fold than conservative Washington think tanks.
Conservative Christian Populism is a natural direction for the Republican party to move.
Most Republicans in the South are just a generation removed from the segregationist, hawkish, socially conservative New Deal Democrats that prevailed until the Republican party rolled out its "Southern strategy." Their ties to the pro-big business, small government, lassiez-faire economics that came into the Republican party's DNA via its Northeastern roots are weak. George W. Bush may be the last gasp of Herbert Hoover Republicanism.
Now that manufacturing is crumbling in the rust belt, at the same time that new factories continue to pop up in the rural South, as domestic factories chase less expensive, union-unfriendly work forces, protectionism and "managed trade" may suddenly become popular in the South, after a long history of Southern support for free trade. Industrial policy-like agricultural subsidies are already staples of Southern politics.
The Mormon base in the Republican party also has no deep seated allergy to collective fiscal action. The same Utah Mormons that have been George W. Bush's most stalwart supporters in good times and bad, also voted overwhelming to tax themselves to bring elementary school student-teacher ratios lower than they are almost anywhere else in the nation. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints maintains a welfare state for the faithful which is unrivaled today, which resembles, as much as anything else, the non-governmental system of hospitals, K-12 schools and institutions of higher education established by the Roman Catholic Church in the United States when a wave of Catholic immigration swept the United States in our last big wave of immigration from abroad.
The Mormon base of the Republican party, which is starting to overshadow even the ties of Southern Baptists to the GOP because of Mormon political unity, is also not necessarily naturally inclined to be either hawkish or isolationist in American foreign policy. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (like the Southern Baptists, particularly a generation or more ago) has always placed great importance of foreign missionary efforts that have sought to engage people abroad with their ideals on a voluntary basis through persuasion. There is no reason that a foreign policy with that kind of premise couldn't win favor with the Republican party's Mormon base.
I wouldn't even be too surprised if the Republican party of 2036 had triangulated so much that it is at least as pro-union as the Democratic party. The heavily working class, populist make up of union America would be a logical ally for a Republican party that had shed its support for big business. The anti-communist fervor and red scare that drove earlier opposition of Republicans to the labor movement has grown irrelevant in a unipolar world. The new geopolitical dividing lines on this planet are being drawn without reference to Marx or Stalin.
The Republican Party will never embrace the secular left. But, the way that its economic and foreign policy stances evolve are open questions not strongly constrained by its core Christian conservative constituencies.