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Romney Faces a "Blue Wall" -- But Is It Solid?

Romney Faces a "Blue Wall" -- But Is It Solid?

By Sean Trende - May 18, 2012


Last week, I wrote a piece suggesting that Mitt Romney's path to the presidency wasn't necessarily narrow. Rather, the breadth of that path will depend on "environmental" factors that could ultimately push him well past the 286 electoral vote ceiling that has seemingly been imposed upon the Republican party since 1992.

On the other hand, Ron Brownstein suggests that this ceiling is an outgrowth of demography and changing coalitions, and is largely etched into our electoral map. This has created a “blue wall” consisting of “the 11 states from Maryland to Maine (except New Hampshire); the three West Coast states; and Michigan, Minnesota, Illinois, Wisconsin, and Hawaii (plus the District of Columbia).”

While Republicans fared well in these states from 1968 through 1988, since 1992 the increase in the minority population and the movement of Northern suburbs toward the Democrats has, according to Brownstein, placed these states out of reach for the party of Lincoln.

So which is it -- bad luck in the overall playing field, or have a substantial number of states moved irrevocably toward Democrats?

As it turns out, we can test these hypotheses fairly easily. And, as it also turns out, the truth is “a bit of both.”

What we can do is control for any “national effects” by looking at the states’ Partisan Voting Index, or PVI, over the past few elections (I’ve chosen 1980 through 2008 in order to capture trends that started pre-1992).

As a refresher, PVI tells us how a state votes compared to the country as a whole. In other words, Reagan won Massachusetts with 51 percent of the vote in 1984. Someone unfamiliar with American politics might therefore have labeled Massachusetts a swing state. But of course, Reagan was winning nationally with 59 percent of the vote that year, in large part due to some very favorable tailwinds for the GOP. If we instead look at Reagan’s showing in Massachusetts relative to his national results, we see that the state actually had an eight-point Democratic lean.

So if Brownstein is right, and what we’ve seen in these states are demographic and coalitional forces pushing them out of the GOP’s grasp, we should see their PVIs drift toward the Democrats over the past 30 years or so. Specifically, we should expect to see a bunch of states that resemble Vermont, which clearly has realigned toward the Democrats, independent of any national forces, mostly since 1988:

If however, all that is going on is the ebb and flow of national forces, their PVIs should remain more-or-less constant (since we’re essentially controlling for national forces).

Please note before we go further that the following charts are not scaled so that a PVI of zero is always in the middle. Instead, they’re scaled so the chart covers 20 points of possible PVI movement. This allows us to conduct an apples-to-apples comparison of the line slopes.

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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 strende@realclearpolitics.com. Follow him on Twitter @SeanTrende.

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