Superstorm Sandy has largely passed my area by, and Pepco has been spared another round of calamitous outages. Luckily for you that means I get to write a post digging deep into presidential election statistics.
Though the election polls have produced differing results, a general consensus has seemingly emerged. Mitt Romney is, at worst, tied with President Obama, and has upwards of a five-point lead. The Real Clear average of polls puts Romney up by less than a point. On the other hand, RCP has Obama up 201-191 in the electoral college, with a 290-248 edge in the “no toss-up” scenario. Obama has held a consistent edge in the battleground state of Ohio, though Rasmussen’s most recent poll now has Romney up by two.
In general, I agree with Jim Geraghty that it appears almost certain that Mitt Romney will win the popular vote. It takes polls with rather generous Democrat advantages (in the range of D+7 and up) to even get Obama tied. I trust Gallup’s likely voter screen more than other polls, and Gallup has had Romney with a steady advantage of three-to-five points.
It’s certainly possible that Mitt Romney could win the popular vote and lose the electoral college. It has happened to several presidential candidates in our history, and we are all familiar with what took place in 2000. What is fairly unlikely, however, is for Mitt Romney to win the popular vote by a substantial margin and still lose the electoral college. If Mitt Romney wins the popular vote by more than even just a percentage point, than he will be the next President of the United States. Of course we can never be certain in politics, but it seems like a safe bet that the electoral and popular vote winner will the the same person.
One of the reasons that an Obama electoral college victory in the face of a popular vote defeat is unlikely is that massive swings in national vote totals are reflected in all states. President Obama won the popular vote by seven percent over John McCain in 2008. Assume for the moment that Mitt Romney wins by just one percent – that would signify an eight point swing in favor of the Republicans. Such a huge shift in the electorate is not going to be limited to a small number of states. And as history has shown, when the incumbent party loses support, it loses support everywhere.
I have taken a look at each presidential election since 1976. Since that election, the incumbent has lost twice, the incumbent party has lost two additional times, the incumbent has won three times, and one time the incumbent party has won once. In all but two of the elections since 1980 there has been a net shift of at least eight percent. Let’s take a closer look:
In 1980, Governor Ronald Reagan defeated President Jimmy Carter by ten percent, winning all but six states and the District of Columbia. Carter had won election in 1976 by two percent over Gerald Ford. Exactly one state increased its Democrat vote share between 1976 and 1980: Vermont, which went from an 11-point Ford victory to a 6-percent win for Reagan. Vermont was in the midst of transforming from a deep red state to a deep blue state.* In fact, Vermont has voted Democrat in six presidential elections, with five of those years being the last five presidential elections.
* Since Republican states were traditionally designated with the color blue prior to 2000, technically Vermont has always been a blue state.
Four years later Ronald Reagan demolished Walter Mondale by 18 percent, a shift of 8 percent in the GOP’s favor. This time, seven states plus DC increased their Democrat vote share, though all voted for Reagan: California moved from a 17 to 16-point Reagan win, Iowa went from Reagan +13 to Reagan +7, Montana from +24 to +22, Nevada from +36 to +34, North Dakota from +38 to +31, South Dakota from +29 to +27, and Utah went from Reagan +52 to Reagan +50. Reagan also lost DC by 72 points instead of 62. So, essentially, there were no real major movements towards Mondale, though several states moved heavily further towards the GOP. This was especially true in southern states which Reagan barely won in 1980 or even lost, and which he won handily in 1984.
In 1988, George Bush defeated Michael Dukakis by eight percent. Though a fairly significant landslide, it did signify a loss of 10 percent by the GOP. Bush fared better than Reagan in exactly no states, though he lost DC by only 68 percent instead of 72. Most ominous of all were relatively narrow victories in California, Illinois and Michigan – all states that Republicans had done well in previously, but have not won since. 1988 also marked the final time that New Jersey would vote GOP in a presidential election.
Bill Clinton defeated George Bush in 1992, winning a plurality vote split between those two and Ross Perot. Clinton’s margin over President Bush was six percent, a net shift of 14 points towards the Democrats. The only state President Bush improved in was Iowa, which he lost by six instead of ten. Again, the movement of votes was total. Even strongly Republican states like Utah moved heavily towards Democrats. Obviously there wasn’t much room for Utah to move after the blowouts in 1980 and 1984, and Bush still won the state by 16, but the point is that all states moved in the Democrat direction both in 1988 and 1992.
We’ll get back to 1996 in a moment. In 2000, George Bush narrowly won election in the electoral college while losing the popular vote by some half-million votes. Even though Bush lost the popular vote, he improved on Bob Dole’s performance by almost nine percent. As close as the final outcome was, not a single state in the union increased its Democrat vote share from 1996. On a side note, as much as we focus on Florida, it’s amazing how often we forget the nail-biters in Wisconsin (won by Gore by 0.2 percent), Oregon (won by Gore by 0.4 percent) and New Mexico (0.06 percent margin for Gore).
Again we’ll skip the re-election of the incumbent in 2004 and look at 2008. Obama defeated McCain by roughly seven percent, a nine-percent improvement over John Kerry in 2004. This time three southern states went in the opposite direction of the electorate: Arkansas went from a 10-point win for Bush to a 20-point win for McCain, Louisiana went from R+15 to R+19, and Tennessee jumped from a 15-point Bush margin to a 16-point McCain win. Otherwise, as was the case in the other five years in which the electorate moved sharply one way or the other, the movement was total. In heavily Republican states like Georgia, Idaho, Nebraska, North Dakota, South Dakota, Texas and Utah, Barack Obama improved upon John Kerry’s vote share by at least 10 percent. None of these states except Georgia was particularly close, but it shows that even the non-swing states move in the same direction as the electorate as a whole.
The two elections I skipped were ones in which the incumbent won but improved only marginally in his vote share. In 1996 Bill Clinton defeated Bob Dole, besting him in the popular vote by approximately nine percent, only a three percent improvement over his 1992 share. (His popular vote total actually increased by seven, but that was negated partially by the GOP vote increasing by about four percent). More importantly, nearly half the states actually increased their GOP vote share as three – Colorado, Georgia, and Montana – shifted from the Democrat to the Republican column (with Arizona and Florida shifting from Republican to Democrat).
In 2004, George Bush defeated by John Kerry by just over two percent, representing a nearly three-percent improvement. Again, 17 states actually moved towards the Democrats, though only two by more than two percent. Moreover Bush only lost one state he won in 2000 – New Hampshire, while picking up Iowa and New Mexico.
So the trends have been pretty clear over the past three decades or so. When there is significant movement towards one party or the other, almost no states buck the trend and move away from the rest of the electorate. Usually the shifts are consistent in all states – both swing and otherwise. The only elections that fluctuated involved incumbents winning by marginally higher vote shares than previously.
Notice that there is one pattern we have not seen: the incumbent winning by a lower margin than previously. That’s because in American history it’s only happened twice (excluding FDR’s third and fourth terms): James Madison in 1812 and Woodrow Wilson in 1916. In both cases, the president won with a lower Electoral College vote tally. Madison’s two elections came during a time when the popular vote tally was not always fully recorded. As for Wilson, he actually increased his popular vote tally from 1912 to 1916, but in 1912 he ran against two Republicans who split the electorate, and Wilson wound up with a much wider electoral college vote margin than was really warranted. In essence, NO president has won re-election with a lower popular vote margin than when initially elected. Barring something unforeseen, Barack Obama will certainly have a lower popular vote share than in 2008.
Now it’s true that Obama can afford to lose votes in Ohio, Wisconsin, Colorado, New Hampshire, Minnesota, and Iowa and still win each of those states. Obama carried all those states by decent margins (9-10 in each except Ohio, which he won by 6), and he could bleed several percentage points in each without losing them. But that would entail those states moving less strongly in the Republican direction than all other states. Anything is possible in politics.
Possible. Not probable