Romney's Path Is Not Necessarily Narrow

Romney's Path Is Not Necessarily Narrow

By Sean Trende - May 8, 2012

Chris Cillizza of the Washington Post wrote last week that Mitt Romney's path to the presidency is awfully narrow, and that he has a ceiling of around 290 electoral votes. Thus, “[w]hile Romney's team would absolutely take a 290-electoral-vote victory, that means he has only 20 electoral votes to play with -- a paper-thin margin for error." Dan Balz followed up with a similar piece in the same publication.

Cillizza and Balz echo Ron Brownstein, who has referred to a “blue wall” -- those states that have voted for Democrats in five straight elections. Taken together, they add up to 242 electoral votes, which would suggest a ceiling for Mitt Romney of 296 electoral votes.

While the facts recited here are correct, the conclusions are questionable. As Harry Enten demonstrated a few weeks ago, it is dangerous to rely on “rules” from previous elections, especially when there are so few observations; the conclusions being drawn are based upon five elections.

There are multiple problems here. We might start by asking: Why limit ourselves to the past five elections? It’s true that Republicans haven’t won, say, Pennsylvania since 1988, but I don’t think it’s any more salient than the fact that Republicans have won Pennsylvania in one of the six previous elections, or that Obama managed to eke out a win in Indiana during the Democrats’ perfect storm of 2008.

Recall that political scientists published peer-reviewed articles in the late ‘80s and early 90s regarding the Republicans’ “lock” on the Electoral College based upon the Republicans’ electoral dominance in nine of ten elections from 1952 through 1988. Of course, they saw the pattern broken in the following election. Awarding the Democrats a “near-lock” on the Electoral College today based upon half as many observations is an even riskier venture. 

What we’ve seen over the past five elections is merely a side effect of the fact that Republicans haven’t had a particularly good presidential playing field since 1988. In 1992, they were the incumbent party running amid a slow recovery in an electorate weary of 12 years of Republican rule. In 1996 they were running against a president enjoying a solid economy recovery, amid the spectacular self-immolation of the 104th Congress.

Four years later the economy was the strongest it had been in years; the Republicans were able to manage a narrow victory only because of the weakness of the Democratic nominee and the scandals plaguing the Democratic incumbent.

In 2004, the election occurred at a unique confluence where the economic recovery had been strong enough to buoy the president, but the Iraq War hadn’t yet become unpopular enough to bring him down. So another narrow victory was possible; had the election been six months earlier or six months later, George W. Bush would probably have lost.

And, of course, in 2008 John McCain sought the presidency amid a massive economic collapse, two unpopular wars, and against a popular Democratic nominee.

In which of these years would we expect the Republicans to win states that leaned Democrat by more than a point or two? The answer is almost certainly “none.” In other words, the “big blue wall” is merely a construct of how the coin flips have landed the past five cycles, not an intrinsic feature of our politics.

So what about this year? It really remains to be seen. The signs so far are that this year won’t be like 1996 or 2008. It also doesn’t seem likely to be 1980, absent a spectacular collapse in Europe.

The most likely scenario is somewhere between 2004 and 1992 -- but in reverse, with a three-to-four point Democratic win and a similarly sized Republican win representing the poles (again, under roughly current conditions). But this is an important distinction.

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Sean Trende is senior elections analyst for RealClearPolitics. He is a co-author of the 2014 Almanac of American Politics and author of The Lost Majority. He can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @SeanTrende.

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