The 2016 Playing Field

There is a belief in electoral politics that it has become difficult for Republicans to win the Presidency because of the so-called “blue wall.” This is the assertion that the Democrats start with an electoral vote advantage.  Under this theory, the Democratic Party has a lock on the electoral votes of 18 states plus DC and need only find about 30 more electoral votes to reach the magic number of 270.  However, looking at some figures, it is not becomes obvious that this blue wall is not impervious to a breach.

The “18 states plus DC” figure is based on election results over the last six presidential cycles, or 24 years- the post Reagan/Bush 1 years.  Since Democrats have won 4 of those 6 elections, it naturally stands to figure that states would appear to be Democratic.  This analysis fails to take into account demographic and population changes within any state.  For example, Florida gained 5 electoral votes since 1992 while traditionally Democratic states like New York and Illinois have lost electoral votes.

Furthermore, four of the last six presidential elections involved incumbents who have an added built in advantage for victory.  The broad-based analysis of which party won is further hindered by the margin of victory.  Obama won both Indiana and North Carolina by slim margins in 2008, only to lose them in 2012. This led some on the Left to believe that North Carolina was “blue” or turning blue after the 2008 election.  Also, because Obama won Virginia in both years does not necessarily automatically transform that state into blue status, but using the broad stroke analysis, it does.

Looking over just the past four elections, this writer analyzed the electoral outcomes in all states.  The last four elections are almost a perfect sample: two open races- one won by each party, and two incumbent elections- one won by each party. Furthermore, I looked at the margin of victory in particular states that were flipped from one party to the other between any particular cycle.  For a state to have a statistically significant shot at flipping from one party to the other, the margin of victory had to be 6 points or less in the previous election, or 53-47%.  A 54-46% margin for either party practically guarantees a win for that same party four years hence.

Using this criteria, we find that the GOP has a lock on 20 states and 154 electoral votes while the Democrats have a lock on 15 states plus DC and 202 electoral votes.  There are six states (or 90 electoral votes) that can be considered legitimate swing states:  Colorado, Florida, Nevada, North Carolina, Ohio and Virginia.  If we wanted to, we could prognosticate, based on previous outcomes, that Republicans would capture 46 of these swing state’s electoral votes and the Democrats would take 44 votes.  This would bring the Democrats to 246 electoral votes and the GOP to 200.

Before looking at targets of opportunity for the Republicans, let’s look at targets for the Democrats.  These are states that tend to vote for one or the other party in presidential elections, but whose margin of victory is within that 6% difference range.  The Democrats have three such targets representing 37 electoral votes: Arizona, Georgia and Missouri.  The Georgia votes are most likely attributable to their large black population and the fact that in the last two elections, the Democrats ran a black candidate.  Thus, the closeness is skewed by this fact.  However, looking at Obama’s margin of victory from 2008 to 2012 in these states, he actually slid backwards in his loss margins in these states, including Georgia.  Conversely, Bush increased his margin of victory in these states from 2000 to 2004.  Although they may be statistical targets, they are not realistic targets.  Realistically, we have to give all 37 of these electoral votes to the GOP making the electoral vote count 246 to 237 in favor of the Democrats at this point.

That leaves six statistical targets for the Republican Party- Iowa, Minnesota, New Hampshire, New Mexico, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.  We can discount Minnesota; the last time they voted for a Republican presidential candidate was Richard Nixon in 1972.  And since 1992, New Mexico has voted Republican only once and that was for Bush in 2004 and only by 6,000 votes.  So realistically, let’s give the Democrats these 15 electoral votes.  The new total is 261-237 for the Democrats.

Therefore, the race in 2016 most likely comes down to (besides the six swing states), four states- Iowa, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.   At this point, the GOP has a very small margin of error.  They can lose New Hampshire or Iowa ONLY, but MUST win the other three states.  A caveat: this scenario does not hold if the GOP does better than suggested in the six legitimate swing states.  If they do worse than expected in the swing states, then it would be hard to win even if they capture all four of these states.  They would then almost have to win New Mexico and Minnesota also.

What does this say about the possible GOP nominees?  If we were to put forward a nominee with appeal to certain demographics, it may play well with the voters of particular states.  For example, one with appeal to working class, blue collar whites would likely do better than previous efforts in states like Iowa, Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania.  All four of these states were won by Obama in 2008 and 2012.  The last time Iowa voted Republican was recently- 2004.  But, we have to go back into the 1980s for a GOP victory in the other three states.  Assuming they win all these states except Minnesota, they would need Pennsylvania to prevail.

A candidate with appeal to upscale white voters would likely have appeal in states like Colorado, New Hampshire and Minnesota.  Realistically, Colorado and New Hampshire are attainable, but it would have to be a landslide of an election for Minnesota to flip.  In this scenario, it would be tough for any GOP candidate to win.  A candidate that appeals to Hispanics may play well in Colorado, Nevada or New Mexico, but there are precious few electoral votes among the three states, although all three are realistic targets. The Republican would need Ohio, Pennsylvania and Florida also to win.

Finally, a candidate with some appeal to Midwestern voters would put Iowa, Michigan, Wisconsin and possibly Minnesota in play and likely pull along the presidential bellweather- Ohio- into the GOP fold.  Assuming this, they could lose Florida, but would have to win Pennsylvania to win.

This then infers that besides the six legitimate swing states and the fierce competition for their 80 electoral votes, the state most often mentioned is Pennsylvania.  If not Pennsylvania- if that seems out of reach- then the Upper Midwestern states of Michigan and Wisconsin can offset a Pennsylvania Republican loss.

It may be easier to simply capture Pennsylvania; its one state instead of two.  And the key to Pennsylvania is the Philadelphia suburban counties of Bucks, Montgomery and Delaware. These three counties account for 18% of all Pennsylvania voters, so their importance is obvious.  Unfortunately, it is also a fact that until 1988, these counties were reliable GOP territory.  That is not the case today.  In fact, since 2000 they have grown increasingly Democratic in presidential elections.

Yes, there is a Democratic advantage in the Electoral vote count, but it is not insurmountable.  There are a few possible pathways to 270 electoral votes for the GOP.  The key is nominating the right candidate with the right message.