Electoral College Coalitions in 2016: Is a Shift Ahead?

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This is an excerpt from my chapter on the Electoral College and 2016, contained in the forthcoming anthology from Rowman and Littlefield, “The Surge.” The book is now available for pre-order and will be released next week.  Some verbiage is modestly altered in the interests of continuity, and only major breaks are denoted with ellipses.

It is a bit of an oddity that most analyses of American elections focus on the popular vote, either implicitly or explicitly. Consider political science models, almost all of which explicitly purport to show a candidate’s likely share of the two-party vote. Only a few models examine the Electoral College.

This is an oddity, of course, because we don’t conduct our elections via the popular vote. Instead we have the Electoral College, a venerable American institution that awards states votes based on the number of representatives that they send to Congress, plus two votes for the state’s senators. To be sure, the distinction between popular and electoral vote is typically one without a difference, but as those who recall the 2000 elections know all too well, when the distinction is meaningful, it matters a lot.

If our focus is to be on the Electoral College instead, our approach must be different. This isn’t to say the popular vote isn’t relevant: It very much is, as we’ll see below. But consider again our example of demographic change. Hispanics are a powerful, growing bloc in terms of the popular vote. But in the Electoral College? They exceed their share of the overall population in only nine states, only three of which could be considered swing states (Colorado, Florida, and Nevada). While Hispanics account for 17 percent of the United States population, they only account for just over 8 percent of the population of the median state. Only one other swing state (North Carolina) has a higher-than-median share of the Hispanic population.

The African-American population raises similar issues. Blacks make up about 14 percent of the population but only exceed that share in 16 states; the median state’s population is only 8 percent African-American. There are a fair number of swing states with above-median African-American population shares, but only a handful (Florida, North Carolina, Virginia, and arguably Michigan) with above-average African-American populations. That leaves non-Hispanic whites disproportionately represented, with 37 states sporting above-average non-Hispanic white populations.

The upshot of this is that, while Republicans could have theoretically won the popular vote in 2012 by increasing their share of the Hispanic vote to 48 percent, they would have had to increase it to over 70 percent (assuming a uniform swing in vote share across states) to pull in enough Electoral College votes to win. Obviously, our approach with respect to the Electoral College must be slightly different than with the popular vote.

When we think about the Electoral College, our focus must instead be primarily upon geographic coalitions, rather than demographic ones. We must think in terms of states. That’s not to say that demographics are irrelevant to this sort of consideration; rather, it is only to say that they are subordinate to a larger consideration.

The purpose of this chapter is to explore Electoral College coalitions over time and discuss what changes we might see going forward. Might we expect a realignment in the next few years? Are Republicans separated from electoral bliss by a “Big Blue Wall”? By focusing primarily at the state level, we can see that the answers to these questions appear to be “maybe, but probably not” and “no.”

These two questions are not randomly plucked from the ether: They are ancillaries to the key questions for evaluating the Electoral College. First, what will be the ordering of states (from most Democratic to least Democratic)? Second, how will the national environment drive the popular vote to interact with this rank ordering of states?

Think, if you will, of a 51-rung ladder descending into a tidal pool. At the bottom of the ladder is the most Democratic state in the country (in the 2012 elections, this was technically the District of Columbia, but among states it was Hawaii). At the top of the ladder is the most Republican state in the country (unsurprisingly, Utah). The water represents the Democratic tide, driven by national forces such as the economy, presidential popularity, and so forth. As the tide rises, increasingly red states cast their ballots for the Democratic candidates. As it falls, blue states begin to turn crimson. Obviously, both the “ladder” and the “water” are complex and are driven by multiple factors. But it really is the interaction between these two factors that creates an electoral victory, at base. …

We start with two basic observations, which are somewhat in tension: Our elections are increasingly polarized and increasingly rigid.

We see this plainly in Figure 12.2, which takes the standard deviation for state vote shares for the parties in each election. To smooth things a bit, the data are presented as a three-election rolling average (that is, the data for 2012 are actually 2004 to 2012).

As you can see, our Electoral College really is becoming more polarized, a trend beginning in 1992. To be sure, we aren’t approaching the heights reached in the wake of Reconstruction’s end, but we’re still more polarized than we’ve been since the mid-1900s. Or consider the percentage of states in each election that were within five points of the national average. Once again, as shown in Figure 12.3, we’re on a steady downward trend, but we also really are approaching historic territory by this measure:

On the other hand, we’ve seen sharp reversals in the trend before, including the sharp turnaround from 1924 to 1928, which continued through 1952. Might we expect another sharp reversal in 2016? The problem is that not only are we becoming more polarized, we’re becoming more rigid. In other words, the order of the rungs on our ladder has been awfully stable in recent elections.

[S]ince 2000, only seven states have appeared in the list of the top five most Republican states, and only six have appeared in the bottom five. If we push back to 1988, 11 states have appeared in the top five, while just eight have appeared in the bottom five.

[Using some statistical measurements], four of the 10 most stable electoral maps in the past 180 years have been drawn in the past few cycles; none of the recent cycles qualify as unstable. Now again, this doesn’t tell us anything about who wins or loses. The strength of these correlations simply confirms that the ladder has been consistent; it doesn’t tell us anything about the depth of the pool. But we still should view any claims that that the Electoral College is about to shift radically with skepticism.

To be clear, we’ve seen sharp reversals in individual states’ partisan orientations in recent years. Arkansas moved 10 points to the left, relative to the country as a whole, from 1988 to 1992, and 10 points to the right from 2004 to 2008. Wyoming lurched nine points rightward in 2000 (this is probably a testament to how strongly Ross Perot ran there, and which party he drew disproportionately from). Iowa, Nebraska, and North Dakota moved nine points toward Republicans in 1992 as the farm crisis receded, and New Jersey swung seven points toward the New Democrats in 1996.

So, we might see some individual state shifts in 2016…

[To know for sure, check out the full chapter when “The Surge” is available next week.]

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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