The Democratic Edge In The Electoral College

The electoral college has been shifting in a Democratic direction since the Bush years when the country was split more evenly and a single state would determine the winner. This trend was seen both times Obama was on the ballot leading to the assumption that the Democratic candidate in 2016 has a strong edge.Tom Holbrook at Politics by the Numbers took a closer look at the electoral college. Here is a condensed version for those who want the predictions without going through all the data. The conclusion in the final paragraph is that the Democrats don’t have a “lock” on the Electoral College but do have a strong advantage:

In very gross terms, there is a an important trend in favor of Democratic presidential candidates. Looking just at the direction of movement (ignoring magnitude), there are 29 states that have seen Democratic gains, and 21 states where Republicans have gained strength.  In terms of electoral votes, the states where Democrats have made inroads control 366 electoral votes, while the states with Republican gains control just 169 electoral votes.  This is a substantively large and meaningful difference.  However, it may overstate the case somewhat, since some states in which the parties gained strength were already in the Democratic or Republican column and only became more strongly partisan; and in a few states where a party gained strength (e.g., Mississippi and Georgia for the Democrats, and Minnesota and Wisconsin for the Republicans), their position is improved but they are still at a distinct disadvantage.  And there are a handful of states where movement was very slight, though on balance in one party’s favor…

From this perspective, there has been clear and important movement in the direction of the Democratic party.  The number of states that have moved through this zone in the Democratic direction (and the number of electoral votes associated with them) improves the Democratic position substantially over the past forty years.  A couple of caveats. First, this is only one way to cut the data and the designation of the competitive zone is admittedly arbitrary (as most such designations would be).  Second, this discussion places a premium on a certain type of change and ignores cases in which parties increased their grip on already friendly states.  To be sure, there are a number of Republican and Democratic states where this has happened, and the Republican party has a slight edge in this category…

In the current period, Democratic candidates have a distinct advantage in close national contests. If the average state-level vote is 50%, the expected Democratic Electoral Vote count is 319.  If the average Democratic state vote drops to 48%,  Republicans would be expected to pick up Colorado, Florida, Nevada, and Ohio, but Democrats would still have a fighting chance, with an expected Electoral Vote count of 257.  And, of course, if Democrats carry 52% on average across the states, they win a comfortable Electoral Vote margin.  What is most impressive here is not just the Democratic advantage, but how that advantage has shifted since the 1970s, where the Democratic Electoral Vote was much more proportional to the national popular vote.

It is important to remember that the change in the Democratic advantage is not affected just by changes in patterns of party support across the states but also by changes in the Electoral Votes awarded to the states.  In fact, changes in the distributions of electoral votes have muted the shift in Democratic advantage slightly. For instance, at a 50% average state vote the expected Electoral Vote of Democrats in the 2010s would be 333 if there had been no change in the Electoral College since the 1970s.

There is still no evidence of a Democratic “lock” on the Electoral College, but the data presented here do make a clearer case that Republican presidential candidates face an uphill battle, and that their position has deteriorated over time.  The political landscape has changed appreciably in the last forty years and that change is politically consequential. Of course, all of this raises interesting questions about the causes of the changes in party support, questions I will take up in my next post (soon, I hope).

The causes have been widely discussed and it will be interesting to see if Holbrook comes to the same conclusions based upon the data as most political observers have. The most obvious trend has been for the Republicans to increasingly to have their support concentrated in the south and portions of the west, while losing support in most other states. Demographic changes such as younger voters, more educated voters, and racial changes have all favored the Democrats, leading to some red states turning blue, with others possibly flipping in the future. Holbrook does not see Texas flipping as others have predicted it might in the future.

Democratic advantages among the young and minorities are discussed more often, but the effect of education is also quite significant. In looking at the effects of education on voting trends, it is worth repeating an interesting statistic which I quoted yesterday from Electoral-Vote.com:

In 1980, when Ronald Reagan was first elected, white voters without college degrees made up 65% of the electorate. In 2012, that number was 36%. Ever since Richard Nixon began his Southern strategy, Republicans have been basing their campaigns on getting older white men without college degrees to back them. They still do, but there aren’t enough of them any more and it is beginning to be a real problem, hence the action in many states to limit who can vote (voter ID requirements) and when they can vote (shortening early voting periods).

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4 Comments

  1. 1
    oldgulph says:

    The National Popular Vote bill would guarantee the majority of Electoral College votes, and thus the presidency, to the candidate who receives the most popular votes in the country, by replacing state winner-take-all laws for awarding electoral votes.

    Every vote, everywhere, would be politically relevant and equal in presidential elections. No more distorting and divisive red and blue state maps of pre-determined outcomes. There would no longer be a handful of ‘battleground’ states where voters and policies are more important than those of the voters in 80% of the states that now are just ‘spectators’ and ignored after the conventions.

    The bill would take effect when enacted by states with a majority of Electoral College votes—that is, enough to elect a President (270 of 538). The candidate receiving the most popular votes from all 50 states (and DC) would get all the 270+ electoral votes of the enacting states.

    The presidential election system, using the 48 state winner-take-all method or district winner method of awarding electoral votes, that we have today was not designed, anticipated, or favored by the Founders. It is the product of decades of change precipitated by the emergence of political parties and enactment by 48 states of winner-take-all laws, not mentioned, much less endorsed, in the Constitution.

    The bill uses the power given to each state by the Founders in the Constitution to change how they award their electoral votes for President. States can, and have, changed their method of awarding electoral votes over the years. Historically, major changes in the method of electing the President, including ending the requirement that only men who owned substantial property could vote and 48 current state-by-state winner-take-all laws, have come about by state legislative action.

    In Gallup polls since 1944, only about 20% of the public has supported the current system of awarding all of a state’s electoral votes to the presidential candidate who receives the most votes in each separate state (with about 70% opposed and about 10% undecided).

    Support for a national popular vote is strong among Republicans, Democrats, and Independent voters, as well as every demographic group in virtually every state surveyed in recent polls, almost always in the 70-80% range or higher.
    in recent or past closely divided battleground states like CO – 68%, FL – 78%, IA –75%, MI – 73%, MO – 70%, NH – 69%, NV – 72%, NM– 76%, NC – 74%, OH – 70%, PA – 78%, VA – 74%, and WI – 71%;
    in Small states (3 to 5 electoral votes): AK – 70%, DC – 76%, DE – 75%, ID – 77%, ME – 77%, MT – 72%, NE -74%, NH – 69%, NV – 72%, NM – 76%, OK – 81%, RI – 74%, SD – 71%, UT – 70%, VT – 75%, WV – 81%, and WY – 69%;
    in Southern and Border states: AR – 80%, KY- 80%, MS – 77%, MO – 70%, NC – 74%, OK – 81%, SC – 71%, TN – 83%, VA – 74%, and WV – 81%; and
    in other states polled: AZ – 67%, CA – 70%, CT – 74%, MA – 73%, MN – 75%, NY – 79%, OR – 76%, and WA – 77%.
    Americans believe that the candidate who receives the most votes should win.

    The bill has passed 33 state legislative chambers in 22 rural, small, medium, large, red, blue, and purple states with 250 electoral votes. The bill has been enacted by 11 jurisdictions with 165 electoral votes – 61% of the 270 necessary to go into effect.

    NationalPopularVote
    Follow National Popular Vote on Facebook via NationalPopularVoteInc

  2. 2
    superdestroyer says:

    Once again, someone notices that the Democrats have every advantage going into the future. Yet, instead of thinking about what that means for politics, governance, or policy, the author focus on a pointless exercise in thinking about elections.

    The only question for the future is what happens when the Repubicans fade away: does the U.S. become a one party state with the current Republican voter just another block inside the party or does some green party spring up to the left of the current Democratic Party.

    What is amazing is how politics is changing in the U.S. due to demographic changes and no one want to think about the impact of those changes.

  3. 3
    Ron Chusid says:

    Once again someone (a Republican?) writes total something totally untrue, totally ignoring the facts.

    This particular post is on the horse race. Every post cannot discuss everything. The vast majority of posts here are on policy matters. I have also discussed in the past the importance of having a vibrant two-party system with a meaningful opposition, which is not possible with the Republicans taking such an extremist position.

  4. 4
    Ron Chusid says:

    As I have discussed in the past, one of two things are likely to happen in light of the increasing difficulty for Republicans to win national elections, and the weaker position they will be in after the 2020 elections. Most likely they will moderate their positions to become more electable. If not there is the real possibility they will be replaced by another party.

    It is also doubtful that the current red/blue state divide will continue indefinitely. It is a relatively recent development. New issues may cause different divisions. The culture war issues which now divide the party might not remain major political issues as younger Republicans (except possibly in the South) abandon many current Republican issues.

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