Tuesday, December 30, 2008

A One State Presidential Election in 2012?

Over in the comments to the post with an updated projection of the 2012 electoral college map, we've been discussing the likelihood of a close election four years from now. More specifically, we've talked about, given the current trends, the structural advantages the Democrats appear to have heading into future elections. Despite potentially losing ground via the post-census reapportionment, Democrats still look to hold advantages in enough states to clear the 270 electoral votes necessary to win the White House.

But let's take a step back for a moment here and assume that we will see a close presidential election in 2012. And let's use a version of the election results Electoral College Spectrum adjusted for the seat shifts projected after the census.

The Electoral College Spectrum*
*Follow the link for a detailed explanation on how to read the Electoral College Spectrum.
**The numbers in the parentheses refer to the number of electoral votes a candidate would have if he won all the states ranked prior to that state. If, for example, McCain won all the states up to and including Colorado (all Obama's toss up states plus Colorado), he would have 269 electoral votes. McCain's numbers are only totaled through the states he would have needed in order to get to 270. In those cases, Obama's number is on the left and McCain's is on the right in italics.

Colorado is the state where Obama crossed the 270 electoral vote threshold to win the presidential election. That line is referred to as the victory line.
****Nebraska allocates electoral votes based on statewide results and the results within each of its congressional districts. Nebraska's 2nd district voted for Barack Obama on November 4.

If, in 2012, the momentum swings against the Democrats and Barack Obama, the GOP is likely to pull Nebraska's 2nd, North Carolina, Indiana, Florida and Ohio back into their column. And even with those 74 electoral votes, generic Republican (Let's call her Sarah Palin for the heck of it.) still comes up 16 electoral votes short of victory. Virginia is next in line, gets the "close but not quite" distinction with 13 electoral votes, and, as Jack points out, is trending away from the GOP.

Depending on the candidates and conditions, though, I think that Virginia and Colorado are the most likely candidates for the Florida (2000)/Ohio (2004) distinction in 2012 should the election be that close. And whoever the GOP candidate is will need both states if they all fall in line in the same order four years from now. [I'll have to look into how long or short the odds of this are. But that's another research idea to look at later.] Virginia would be closer to the GOP compared to Colorado based on the 2008 results and that would make the Centennial state the victory line state. But given what happened last month, it is somewhat difficult to see Colorado swinging back. However, ask me in a couple of years and see if I've changed my mind.

Recent Posts:
A Projected 2012 Electoral College Map (version 2.0)

The Race for RNC Chair

Backloading in 2012? Arkansas is Moving Closer


SarahLawrenceScott said...

There's a difference between an election decided by a single state and an election where a single state is the main battleground. The first case could always happen if an election is sufficiently close. The second only happens when there aren't plausible alternate paths to victory the day before the election.

So suppose we have a close election in 2012. Is it really plausible that both candidates would be thinking "Colorado will decide it, and that's that?" Won't the GOP be also looking at New Hampshire, Iowa, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, and Maine? (Why those? Because in a close election, we've got to assume the middle has soured on Obama somehow. Unless he makes some horrible misstep with Latinos, demographics will continue to move Nevada and New Mexico his way. And I just don't believe Pennsylvania, New Jersey, or Oregon will turn against him in a close election.) As for Obama, even if he's facing a tough election, Virginia and North Carolina would have to seem like options for him even without Colorado.

So I continue to doubt that we'll see the monomaniacal focus on single states that we saw toward the end of 2000 and 2004. There will be multiple paths to victory if the election is close, and it would be foolish not to consider all of them.

Josh Putnam said...

I don't think it is plausible that the candidates chase just one state if the election is close in 2012. I don't think it is plausible in the same way that it was not the strategy for Bush/Gore in 2000 or Bush/Kerry in 2004.

Florida was the closest state in 2000 in terms of results but Iowa, New Mexico, Oregon and Wisconsin were also well within striking distance for the losing candidate.

Similarly, in 2004 Iowa, New Hampshire, New Mexico and Wisconsin were all closer in the end than Ohio.

So there were alternative paths in both those elections, but Florida and Ohio, respectively, represented a quick and easy way to surpass 270.

In the post-2008 environment, there is no big prize to fill that role; just a lot of mid-range electoral vote states. If the GOP wants to win the White House, they need both Florida and Ohio and some help. And that's the big difference. There is that one victory line state in every election, but it isn't a big electoral vote state necessarily. And from a numbers standpoint, that confirms what you are saying, Scott.

However, if it were to come down to one state like the previous two elections, I still think that Colorado or Virginia would be those states (but not to the detriment of other seemingly close states).


As an aside, I completely agree with your list of target states and the reasoning behind their inclusion. It'll all be about the middle in a close election.

Jack said...

"Florida was the closest state in 2000 in terms of results but Iowa, New Mexico, Oregon and Wisconsin were also well within striking distance for the losing candidate."

Josh, I believe Gore officially lost that election.

According to Wikipedia, the only other state within 3 percent he lost was NH (1.27%). MO, OH, NV and TN made up a second tier of states in which Gore lost by 3.34% to 3.86%.

Josh Putnam said...

Losing candidate in each state, not overall. Gore lost Florida and Bush lost Oregon, for instance.

...but yeah, that was somewhat ambiguous.

Anonymous said...

Won't Arizona get closer without McCain on the ticket?

(Also, what would be the effect of the GOP choosing a candidate from Colorado and VP from Virginia? Are there plausible scenarios for this? Which states would be best for the GOP to pick their candidates from?

Josh Putnam said...

If there is a shift toward the GOP, in 2012, we could see Arizona stay about the same, but instead of being pro-McCain, the shift would be pro-(generic)Republican. In that case, though, the Grand Canyon state would likely jump up some states in the ECS rankings.

Colorado and Virginia are pretty bare as far as prospective national Republican candidates are concerned. If George Allen hadn't lost to Jim Webb in 2006, he could jump to the forefront with someone from Colorado as a running mate. But if Allen hadn't lost he likely would have run for president in 2008. Ah, counterfactuals.

SarahLawrenceScott said...

Hmm...the home state question is interesting. Seems to me the GOP has a problem in that they're both quasi-regional and fractured. So unless things change a lot, they may need a VP and President from different factions (e.g. a social conservative and a business-friendly type). There are enough different factions, that they would love to get combos in one candidate (social conservative/low tax crusader, for instance). Even if they could plan that carefully, by the time they finish with that, they're not going to be able to pick home state as well, and will probably end up with at least one part of the ticket being from a very red state.

They actually caught a break that way with McCain.

Greg said...

Four years is an eternity in the political sense, but at this point, it seems as though the GOP will have some difficulty in 2012. The recent defeats in 2006 and 2008 have removed a lot of moderate members and/or GOP legislators from swing/lean-blue states. Just looking at a few senators: Smith-OR, Coleman-MN, Dole-NC, Sununu-NH. Others have retired: Warner-VA, Dominichi-NM, Hagel-NE, and looking at the list of those planning to retire in 2010: Martinez-FL, Bond-MO, Voinovich-OH. The center of the republican party in government is thus moving further right, but unless Obama's popularity takes a hit, the GOP will need a moderate candidate to bring independents on board. As S.L.S. said earlier, McCain should have been a break for the GOP this election cycle. In 2012, I expect to see a candidate from the Palin wing of the party, be it the Gov. herself, or another strong social/fiscal conservative candidate. Any candidate like this would probably need some very good branding to manage a win, especially in a climate that has been very democratic as of late. The remaining moderates in the GOP may wind up biding their time until 2016 (again, provided Obama remains reasonably popular). And I should re-emphasize, in four years, everything could be different.