Democrats Have Upper Hand In Electoral College Strategy

Nov 14, 2012

Our political history has seen rare instances where the nation, as a whole, has been consistent in terms of “red” versus “blue” states in our presidential elections.  Yet, since 2000, the fact that regionalism serves as a guiding force in our electoral maps has made the past four presidential elections notable.

Since the 1990s, the country has settled into what Merle and Earle Black, twin brothers who happen to teach political science, describe as base regions, with one region serving as the battleground for the country.

In their book “Divided America,” the Black brothers note that the Democrats and Republicans can call on two regions across the country for their bases. The Democrats have been the party of the Northeast and Pacific coast, while the GOP has been anchored in the South through the desert Southwest and turning up the spine of the Rocky Mountains.

The Midwest has been the true battleground section of the country.  And we see that pattern in the 2000 and 2004 presidential election map. 

The 2004 map confirmed what the Black brothers have argued and shows the distinctive pattern, with the GOP having 234 to the Democrat’s 189 base electoral votes.  With the magic number of 270 electoral votes needed, the Republicans appeared to have the distinct advantage in the Electoral College. Democrats needed to sweep the Midwest or “crack” the GOP regions to have a fighting chance.

The other remarkable aspect of going from 2000 to 2004 was the consistency of 47 states in their voting patterns. Only three states “flipping” from one election to the other (New Hampshire, Iowa, and New Mexico). 

Coming out of the 2004 loss, the Obama campaign recognized the need to “expand the electorate.” And not only did they do so in the battleground region, they expanded the battle in the GOP’s backyards, especially with the help of critical minority voting blocs.

In 2008, Obama’s campaign added over 10 million votes nationwide to what John Kerry received in 2008, and in the two critical GOP base regions, his campaign added 1.8 million votes in three Southern states (VA, NC, and FL) and over 500,000 votes in three Southwest/Mountain states (NV, NM, and CO) to flip them into the Democratic win column. 

In three battleground Midwest states, Obama’s campaign added 690,000 votes to Kerry’s performance in Iowa, Ohio, and Indiana, thereby flipping those states to Democrats. 

By peeling off six states in the South and Southwest and having a competitive advantage in the Midwest, Obama’s chances of replicating the 2008 strategy in his re-election bid hung on whether a turnout operation could again crack several states from the GOP base.

In this year’s election, we see the same pattern emerge again like we did in 2008, with only Indiana and North Carolina flipping.  Obama saw his vote margins drop from four years ago in all but two of the “flipped” states (Indiana and North Carolina).

And while Romney was able to gain votes in seven of the nine 2008 flipped states, it was not enough to overcome the margin of victory that Obama had built up, even with fewer Democratic votes. 

Ultimately, the 2012 electorate shrunk in size, going from 131 million to approximately 122 million: the bulk of the votes (nearly 7.3 million) came out of Obama’s 2008 numbers, while Romney lost 1.1 million from what McCain did in 2008.

The lesson, however, is for the GOP to learn that if the party can’t solidify its two base regions of the South and Southwest/Mountains, especially with big electoral votes out of Virginia and Florida, it will be harder and harder to put together that magic number of 270 votes.

And the likelihood of other states being cracked, such as Arizona and Texas (the second largest electoral state) should be of concern to the national Republican Party going into the future.