In the past few decades, swing states, once major wild cards in presidential politics, are becoming scarcer.
When Florida decided the 2000 election with 537 votes, 12 states helped elect the president by less than five percentage points. In 2012, the number of swing states dropped to four.
For today’s Electoral College, 40 of 50 states have voted for the same party in all four elections since 2000, says Larry Sabato, Kyle Kondik and Geoffrey Skelley in today’s POLITICO. Of the 10 exceptions, three were flukes: New Mexico’s vote was “razor-thin” in going for Al Gore in 2000, as well as 2004 when George W. Bush won the state. Indiana and North Carolina were trending Democratic, narrowly electing Barack Obama in 2008, mostly because of a strong field game and advertising by Obama’s campaign. Hoosiers tend to be Republican, as do the Tar Heels, by a slight margin.
Sabato estimates seven real swing states: Colorado, Florida, Nevada, Ohio, and Virginia – each backing Bush and Obama twice. Iowa and New Hampshire went Democratic in three of the last four presidential contests.
It should then come as little surprise that the particular seven states start as clear toss-ups on the first Electoral Map for 2016.
It’s effectively the same map we featured for much of the 2012 cycle, and it unmistakably suggests the Democratic nominee should start the election as at least a marginal Electoral College favorite over his or (probably) her Republican rival. However, at the starting gate it is wiser to argue that the next election is basically a 50-50 proposition.
How can that be when Democrats are so much closer to the magic number of 270 than Republicans?
At heart, it’s because the past is often not a good guide to the future. With regularity in modern history, the Electoral College’s alleged lock for one party has been picked by the other party, usually at eight-year intervals. A few states that appear to be solidly in one party’s column can switch in any given year because of short-term (Indiana) or long-term (Virginia) forces. Other states that merely lean to one party require less of a push to change allegiances. North Carolina tilts to the GOP and Wisconsin to the Democrats, but it doesn’t require much imagination to foresee the winning party flipping one or the other.
To win in 2016, all Democrats have to do is hold off GOP gains and limit any blue-to-red transformations.
If those state that Sabato sees as lean, likely, and safe Democratic, the nominee needs just 23 of the 85 toss-up electoral ballots. In addition, in the case a lean Democratic state such as Wisconsin falls to the Republicans, those lost votes can be easily made up with a handful of toss-ups.
For Republicans, Sabato says winning poses a considerably greater challenge. First, he or she must hold all the usual R states, plus patching together another 64 electoral votes, or 79 votes if North Carolina goes Democrat. To do so, a GOP candidate would have to sweep of a handful of swing states – an unlikely scenario, unless a few election cycle essentials turn against Democrats — Obama’s job approval, the economy, war and the like.
At this point in the election cycle, we can already make two prediections:
Republicans will not win if they lose either Florida or Ohio. Although the two states are somewhat slightly more Republican than the U.S. as a whole, if the GOP wants any chance if success, they will pick a nominee appealing to both Sunshine and Buckeye State voters.
Second, a Democratic path to the White House might be possible without Virginia, but anything more than a percent or two (either way) will be a definite failure. Virginia was slightly more Democratic than the nation in 2012, Sabato notes, for the first time since FDR, and there are rising population trends more favorable to Democrats.
“If you plan to go where the action will be,” he concludes, “you can already safely book those autumn 2016 travel packages to Columbus, Denver, Des Moines, Las Vegas, Manchester, Richmond and Tampa.”