Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Electoral Vote Counting 53 Weeks in Advance

FHQ doesn't know that any new ground was broken yesterday when both the RNC and an anonymous Obama administration official revealed at least some information about their likely target states for the 2012 presidential race. I say that simply because none of it is terribly revealing in the first place. A look at FHQ's Electoral College Spectrum -- particularly the middle column -- shows that the list below is predominantly comprised of states that were the most competitive in 2008.

Table 1: The Electoral College Spectrum1
1 Follow the link for a detailed explanation on how to read the Electoral College Spectrum.
2 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 275 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.

3 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.
4 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 in 2008.

That the RNC is going on offense in traditionally close states and states that flipped to Obama and the Democrats in 2008 is no real surprise. Nor is it a stretch to consider that Obama is staring down the reality of playing more defense in 2012 as a known quantity -- as an incumbent. The only target for offense mentioned in the Obama administration official's thoughts was Arizona. But let's have a look at the states listed in the RNC strategic memo:

Table 2: 2012 RNC/DNC Targets -- Presidential Battleground States
StateEVsRed to Blue in '08?Traditionally Blue?Traditionally Red?2004 Margin12008 Margin2












1 Source: Leip's Atlas
2 Source: Leip's Atlas

Note that, as is the custom in this time of the cycle, the RNC has cast its net widely. That is not to suggest that the DNC is not also considering states Obama may or more appropriately may not win next November, but it is usually the party on offense that can be and actually is a bit more aggressive in terms of the states it is considering. There were times in 2008, for instance, when the polling looked not necessarily good but promising in states like the Dakotas, Montana, Georgia and even Alaska before Palin was added to the Republican ticket in the late summer. Did that mean that Obama would have won those states after all was said and done on election day? Probably not, but there comes a time in every general election campaign where the tough decisions have to be made about which states to focus on. North Carolina, Virginia and Colorado were much more realistic to Obama than, say, Georgia or Arizona. In the same way, the RNC is able to throw a few states on the board that the eventual nominee may not win, but are intriguing possibilities nonetheless.

[Note also that the fifteen states in the table immediately above are ordered roughly in terms of how close the margin was between Obama and McCain in 2008. Another way of thinking about this is that the closer a state was in 2008, the hypothetically easier it will be for the Republican candidate to flip it in 2012. Those states moved largely in line with the national average shift in the vote from 2004 to 2008.]

Some states, however, are more or less intriguing than others. The "Red in 2004, Blue in 2008" states at the top of the table are more realistic targets for the GOP than some of the "lean blue" states that may be close in a more competitive presidential election year but crested above a 10% margin in Obama's favor in 2008. Are they pie in the sky states for Republicans? Perhaps, but they are steeper climbs for the Party of Lincoln than they are for Obama and Democrats to maintain. If the average shift in the vote is large enough they may shift too, but that would require a larger shift.

History is not always the best predictor -- Obama did win longstanding red states like North Carolina, Indiana and Virginia in 2008 -- but the states at the bottom of Table 2 are states a Republican candidate has not won in most cases in over 20 years. New Hampshire flipped to George W. Bush in 2000, but has been reliably Democratic since Clinton carried the Granite state in 1992. Michigan and Pennsylvania have been fairly close in some election cycles over the last generation but both been in the Democratic column in the time since George H.W. Bush won the Keystone and Wolverine states in 1988.  For Wisconsin and Washington, one has to go back to Reagan's 1984 landslide to find the last time a Republican carried either state. And on the other side of this, Arizona voted for Bill Clinton in 1996, but for the last time the Grand Canyon state went blue, one has to go all the way back to 1948.

That said, those are all macro views that may fail to capture trends on a more micro level: that for instance Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania (not to mention New Hampshire) saw large Republican gains in offices across the states in the 2010 midterm elections. [Is that a function of something growing at the grassroots for Republicans or was it attributable to Obama not being on the ticket?] All this is to say that this is a big list of swing states (185 total electoral college votes). There will be additions and subtractions over the course of the next year, but the list will contract more than it will expand. The contraction is more likely to include Arizona and Pennsylvania on one end of the list and Indiana and North Carolina on the other than it will for more traditionally volatile states like Ohio and Florida.

Note: Shockingly -- or not so shockingly -- enough, no one seems to be saying much of anything about former bellwether, Missouri.

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Unknown said...

I'm with you up until your last sentence. The choices there are particularly oddly chosen.

Polling keeps showing that Obama has lost much more ground in Pennsylvania than he has in most other states on the list. That's true whether you measure head-to-head, or by approval ratings. We're used to thinking of it as the bluest state in the PA-OH-FL group, but it's not so clear that will be the case this time.

North Carolina is one of those states that seems to be trending blue over time. On top of that, the Democratic convention is going to be held there. It seems quite possible that North Carolina could jump down the list to around where Ohio is--i.e., very close to the tipping point.

Indiana, on the other hand, is likely to drop off the list--that was kind of a fluky win, doesn't seem indicative of a trend, and Obama's approval is awful there. Nevada could drop off the list if Romney is the nominee.

In the other direction, New Mexico seems to be trending solid blue, and may drop off the list, and I'm very skeptical of Washington.

So once I make a list it kind of undermines the common-sense notion that the states that drop off are near the edges of the 2004 spectrum. If not quite a full-fledged realignment, states are slide around quite a bit over a period of decades, but political pundit memory almost always lags those changes. Remember how long the conventional wisdom insisted on West Virginia as a swing state? New Jersey? Arkansas? If states can move entirely out of swing status like that, they can certainly move from uber-swing to reach.

Unknown said...

I'm not sure why Blogger wants to sign me "unknown." The last comment was me.

--SarahLawrence Scott

toto said...

The National Popular Vote bill would guarantee the Presidency to the candidate who receives the most popular votes in all 50 states (and DC).

Every vote, everywhere would be politically relevant and equal in presidential elections. Every vote, everywhere would be counted for and directly assist the candidate for whom it was cast. States have the responsibility and power to make their voters relevant in every presidential election. Candidates would need to care about voters across the nation, not just undecided voters in the current handful of swing states.

In the 2012 election, under the current winner-take-all laws (i.e., awarding all of a state’s electoral votes to the candidate who receives the most popular votes in each state) used by 48 of the 50 states, candidates will not care about at least 72% of the voters- voters-in 19 of the 22 lowest population and medium-small states, and 17 medium and big states like CA, GA, NY, and TX. 2012 campaigning would be even more obscenely exclusive than 2008 and 2004. Candidates have no reason to poll, visit, advertise, organize, campaign, or care about the voter concerns in the dozens of states where they are safely ahead or hopelessly behind.

Policies important to the citizens of ‘flyover’ states are not as highly prioritized as policies important to ‘battleground’ states when it comes to governing.

Since World War II, a shift of a few thousand votes in one or two states would have elected the second-place candidate in 4 of the 13 presidential elections. Near misses are now frequently common. There have been 6 consecutive non-landslide presidential elections. A shift of 60,000 voters in Ohio in 2004 would have defeated President Bush despite his nationwide lead of over 3 Million votes.

When the bill is enacted by states possessing a majority of the electoral votes-- enough electoral votes to elect a President (270 of 538), all the electoral votes from the enacting states would be awarded to the presidential candidate who receives the most popular votes in all 50 states and DC.

The presidential election system that we have today was not designed, anticipated, or favored by the Founding Fathers but, instead, is the product of decades of evolutionary change precipitated by the emergence of political parties and enactment by 48 states of winner-take-all laws, not mentioned, much less endorsed, in the Constitution.

In Gallup polls since 1944, only about 20% of the public has supported the current system of awarding all of a state's electoral votes to the presidential candidate who receives the most votes in each separate state (with about 70% opposed and about 10% undecided). Support for a national popular vote is strong among Republicans, Democrats, and Independent voters, as well as every demographic group in virtually every state surveyed in recent polls in closely divided Battleground states: CO - 68%, FL - 78%, IA 75%, MI - 73%, MO - 70%, NH - 69%, NV - 72%, NM-- 76%, NC - 74%, OH - 70%, PA - 78%, VA - 74%, and WI - 71%; in Small states (3 to 5 electoral votes): AK - 70%, DC - 76%, DE - 75%, ID - 77%, ME - 77%, MT - 72%, NE 74%, NH - 69%, NV - 72%, NM - 76%, OK - 81%, RI - 74%, SD - 71%, UT - 70%, VT - 75%, WV - 81%, and WY - 69%; in Southern and Border states: AR - 80%,, KY- 80%, MS - 77%, MO - 70%, NC - 74%, OK - 81%, SC - 71%, TN - 83%, VA - 74%, and WV - 81%; and in other states polled: CA - 70%, CT - 74%, MA - 73%, MN - 75%, NY - 79%, OR - 76%, and WA - 77%. Americans believe that the candidate who receives the most votes should win.

The bill has passed 31 state legislative chambers, in 21 small, medium-small, medium, and large states, including one house in AR, CT, DE, DC, ME, MI, NV, NM, NY, NC, and OR, and both houses in CA, CO, HI, IL, NJ, MD, MA, RI, VT, and WA. The bill has been enacted by DC (3), HI (4), IL (19), NJ (14), MD (11), MA (10), CA (55), VT (3), and WA (13). These 9 jurisdictions possess 132 electoral votes -- 49% of the 270 necessary to bring the law into effect.