May 26, 2016
We think of presidential elections as a national event, but they’re not. The Electoral College means each state separately chooses whom to support. Once upon a time, many states were competitive. In 1976, Jimmy Carter and Gerald Ford were within 5 points of each other in 20 states. Another 11 were closer than 8 points. That gave them plenty of campaigning options.
It’s normal to have blue states and red states. The extent to which we can assume many states are not up for grabs in a competitive election is not. Barack Obama’s margin over Mitt Romney in 2012 was only a couple points more than Carter-Ford. But only 4 states were decided by less than 5 points, another 8 by less than 8.
We’ve become used to thinking about a few key states. If Democrats can take Florida or Ohio from the Republicans, they’ll probably win. If Republicans can hold those and take Pennsylvania, they’re likely celebrating on election night. Places like Virginia, Colorado, Iowa and New Hampshire are considered competitive. That’s about the list. Maybe add Nevada.
So our big national event is largely confined to about 10 locations, excluding large states like California, Texas, Illinois, and New York. Most states have picked the same party in the past 4 elections. The majority have chosen the same party for at least 5 of the past 6.
Blue states mostly get bluer. Red states tend to get redder. Forty-four states voted for Lyndon Johnson in 1964. Forty-three of them chose Richard Nixon in 1972 (plus the 6 that had picked Goldwater.) Each victory accompanied a national margin of a little over 20 points. So at the time, a Republican winning 60% of the vote and a Democrat winning 60% of the vote could both expect to win almost all of the states.
That worked for FDR in 1936, and Ronald Reagan (with a slightly smaller popular vote win) in 1984. In recent elections, it would not have. While losing, Romney was able to win multiple states by more than 30 points. It doesn’t look like we’re headed for the same result in 2016. If we get the close election current polling is indicating, we’ll actually have plenty of close states as well.
The states that are supposed to be close are polling close. Places like Utah that a Republican should win easily are indicating a much closer outcome, even if it’s very unlikely Hillary could win there. At the same time, though California is looking inhospitable to Trump, his current deficit is much smaller than where McCain and Romney wound up.
It’s unlikely the campaign will come down to Utah and California. But places like Arizona and Georgia aren’t completely out of reach for Clinton, and Minnesota and Michigan are looking like more than a tease for Trump. Given The Donald’s profile as a candidate, it’s reasonable to expect he could outperform his recent predecessors in states where getting a higher percentage of less educated white males to the polls would make a big impact.
It’s equally logical to think normally red states with large Latino and/or African American populations might get uncomfortably close. Current polling backs this up. There’s plenty of time for these states to start looking as they have in the past several elections, but it’s way too soon for the campaigns to assume they will.
Hillary will have the funding, organization and wherewithal to compete in more than 7 to 10 states at once. Her team has invested heavily in data analytics and she already showed a penchant for focusing on local issues during the primaries. Even if her team was previously anticipating a less competitive race, she had reason to prepare for a larger field of states if only to help down ballot candidates (who might now want her to stay away.)
Trump has none of those things. He’s also well behind in the funding race (at least for now.) But he does have unprecedented media coverage and access along with the ability to draw huge crowds whenever he wants. Normally deciding on target states is a major resource allocation issue. Recent GOP campaigns drew criticism for spending crucial time and money trying to win Pennsylvania while falling short in Ohio and Florida.
The combination of free media, large audiences, and ignoring the normal size ground staff means it will require far less for Trump to decide to put a state in play. If he adds a couple targets at the last minute, no big deal. If he pulls back, no worries. It’s not like he would need to lay off 75 staffers and disappoint a core group who spent months preparing the state organization for combat.
At the moment, plenty of down ballot candidates are still keeping him at arm’s length, even if they’ve endorsed him or at least signaled Trump has their vote in November. Even if candidates clamor for him to visit, he’s shown he’s very independent minded (i.e. what’s good for Trump) and likely won’t feel the same pressure to pitch in as the normal candidate.
Those who have most quickly and resolutely supported Trump tend to hail from states and districts that like him too. If he drops in on them it’s for a victory lap and pulling together a large, supportive audience for the cameras. Even in states where you wouldn’t expect Trump to win, he can still find a congressional district where he’s very popular and put some extra pressure on Hillary.
Over the next several weeks, particularly after the candidates have chosen running mates and we have an idea of how and where Bernie is planning on spending his summer and fall, we’ll take a look at the traditional swing states and the potentially interesting ones for 2016. It’s likely we have at least 15, maybe 20 states that could go either way in a reasonably competitive election, and even more that could move in a landslide.
From 1876 to 1892, the electoral map was fairly locked in, much as it’s been for the past few elections. Then it wasn’t. Victories were on the margin, though the balance favored Republicans in those days. Instead of a few key states, New York often decided the result by itself.
When William McKinley won for the GOP in 1896, he built a long-lasting advantage for his party, one that allowed several big victories over the next few decades. Expecting this of Trump is pushing it a bit, but he is likely contributing to a re-arranging of the chess pieces. Between his toxic approval ratings and unconventional (for a Republican) policy positions, and Hillary’s general ineffectiveness, we get to pay way more attention to some recently forgotten states.
Consider it a consolation prize for those otherwise horrified by what we’re likely to see over the next several months.