Electoral Math: Six Months Out (Part 1)

This year, the general election will be on November 8, the latest possible date. (The election is held on the first Tuesday after the first Monday, a tradition that of course needs no explanation.) Such a delayed date is perfect for this election cycle, the longest ever. It’s not enough that we’ll experience the ugliest contest since 1800, but we’ll experience it for the longest possible time. Thanks for nothing, election gods.

On Friday, I addressed Donald Trump’s five “Herculean” labors heading into his campaign against Hillary Clinton, the first four of which were uniting his own party, the unique challenges of a general election, a lack of policy knowledge, and broadening his base of support. The fifth, electoral math, is the subject of today’s column.

A couple obvious caveats:

  1. It’s early! Polling can shift dramatically in six weeks, to say nothing of six months. We don’t even have running mates yet, nor have we experienced the national conventions, seen Bernie Sanders’s intentions, had a debate, or thrown our collective remote at the TV.
  2. State polling is scarce! Though we’ve been inundated with primary polling, general election polling in states has been far less frequent. More frequent is national polling for general election match-ups, but those are relatively meaningless. We don’t hold a national popular vote to determine the winner. Just ask presidents Gore and Tilden.
  3. Between 1 and 2, there is a huge margin for error in electoral math six months before the election, no matter who the candidates are.

With that out of the way, let’s do this thing!


Most electoral breakdowns these days start with a foundation dubbed the “Blue Wall.” Think of it like the Wall in Game of Thrones, but instead of trying to keep White Walkers out of Westeros, it attempts to keep Republicans out of the West Wing. The Blue Wall has 19 castles guarding it: the 18 states and district that have voted Democratic in every election dating back through 1992, or six straight elections. Combined, these 19 prizes make up 242 electoral votes, putting the Democratic ticket just 28 EVs (electoral votes) from the 270 needed to clinch the Electoral College.

The Blue Wall (Electoral votes in parentheses): California (55), Connecticut (7), Delaware (3), Hawaii (4), Illinois (20), Maine (4), Maryland (10), Massachusetts (11), Michigan (16), Minnesota (10), New Jersey (14), New York (29), Oregon (7), Pennsylvania (20), Rhode Island (4), Vermont (3), Washington (12), Washington D.C. (3), Wisconsin (10)

The Republicans respond with the “Red Wall,” but if the Blue Wall is the Wall guarded by the Night’s Watch, the Red Wall looks like piddling Hadrian’s, more symbolic than it is foreboding. Its 13 states total only 102 EVs.

The Red Wall: Alabama (9), Alaska (3), Idaho (4), Kansas (6), Mississippi (6), Nebraska (5), North Dakota (3), Oklahoma (7), South Carolina (9), South Dakota (3), Texas (38), Utah (6), Wyoming (3)

If both walls hold, they account for 33 of the 51 mini-elections on Election Day. Only 18 states, totaling 194 EVs, remain. I call them Presidential Politics for America’s Purple Playing Field, or PPFA’s PPF.

The Purple Playing Field: Florida (29), Ohio (18), Georgia (16), North Carolina (15), Virginia (13), Arizona (11), Indiana (11), Tennessee (11), Missouri (10), Colorado (9), Kentucky (8), Louisiana (8), Nevada (6), Iowa (6), Arkansas (6), New Mexico (5), West Virginia (5), New Hampshire (4), Montana (3).

The “Blue Wall” theory posits that the Democrats have a tight grip on the Iron Throne Oval Office because the Republicans have to be nearly perfect with remaining states to get to 270, while the Democrats are allowed a huge margin of error. Democrats only need to win 14.4 percent of remaining EVs (28 of the 194 available), while Republicans must win 86.6 percent (168 of the 194). Realistic Democratic combinations include:

  1. Florida alone.
  2. Any two of Ohio, North Carolina, and Virginia.
  3. Ohio and any two of: Missouri, Colorado, Nevada, Iowa, New Mexico.
  4. Any five of the purple states they won in the last two elections, the smallest combination of which would be New Hampshire, New Mexico, Iowa, Nevada, and Colorado, even though they also won big dogs Florida, Ohio, and, Virginia.

That first scenario should be most worrisome for a Republican voter. It means the GOP could win 17 of the 18 PPFA PPFs and still lose the election.


But it’s not that simple. I think we can make some obvious changes to those purple states. Remember, to qualify for that list, a state needed to vote for either party at some point in the last six elections. We can’t forget, though, that the first two of those six elections included a relatively moderate Democrat from Arkansas, Bill Clinton. He’s an anomalous candidate. Plus, they were the earliest two elections of this streak. In tandem, those factors, make 1992 and 1996 much less relevant than everything since 2000.

As an alternative, Wikipedia has a handy map for just the last four elections:

959px-Red_state,_blue_state.svg
Since 2000: R 4 times, R 3 times, 2 & 2, D 3 times, D 4 times

If we trust this trend more than the earlier trend, the Red Wall grows a bit. We can add Georgia, Arizona, Tennessee, Missouri, Kentucky, Louisiana, Arkansas, West Virginia, and Montana, which total 78 electoral votes, bringing the R column up 22 states and 180 EVs. The PPF is then reduced to 116 electoral votes, comprised of just 10 states:

The Purple Playing Field: Florida (29), Ohio (18), North Carolina (15), Virginia (13), Indiana (11), Colorado (9), Nevada (6), Iowa (6), New Mexico (5), New Hampshire (4).

Now the Republicans only have to win 90 from that list. It’s still an uphill climb, but North Carolina and Indiana lean red . . . and Trump seems really popular in Florida . . . and then they’re sitting at 233 EVs and just under the Blue Wall. . . . Who knows?

We also must consider that this electoral calculus applied perfectly four years ago, when two conventional candidates did battle over the typical states. We now have some warning signs that things could be a lot different in 2016.

1. The “Blue Wall” is not impregnable. No wall is. It’s tough to man all of the castles all of the time. Consider that the Republicans had a sizable Red Wall for two decades, from Nixon to George Bush I. The wall included the current Democratic locks of California, Illinois, and Vermont (!). Patterns are patterns until they’re not, and if southern moderate Bill Clinton halted GOP dominance, northern moderate Donald Trump can do the same to the Democrats.

2. It’s unlikely that the Democrats win Florida and the Republicans win the rest. If the Republicans win the rest, they’re probably winning Florida, too. In other words, a strong national campaign can slide many states en masse over to the red column. It’s not like they have to do it one by one. Remember, George HW Bush won 426 EVs in 1988 and just 168 four years later. Things can change, and they can change fast.

3. Donald Trump is the biggest wildcard in the history of presidential elections. (Apologies to Aaron Burr, who, after losing the election of 1800, became vice-president, the first of two to shoot someone.) His strength with white working class males, for example, might put the northern “Rust Belt” states in play, helping in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin, and Minnesota. Indeed, Trump is stepping up attacks on NAFTA, a shrewd move that tries to tie Clinton to her husband’s signing of the bill which critics say have hurt American industry in the region. If any Republican candidate could have scrambled an electoral map, it’s Trump.

As a result, we might need to lower the blue wall. To see what blue wall states are most vulnerable, let’s look at the 2012 results. I sorted by President Obama’s state percentages. Here were the smallest victories:

Untitled
Maine (and Nebraska) give Congressional districts an electoral vote.

The good news for Trump: Pennsylvania should be removed from the blue wall and placed into the PPFs. Not only is it in the Rust Belt, but it was one of the most vulnerable Democratic states in 2012. Indeed, even though it’s gone Democratic in the last six elections, it’s regularly considered a swing state.

The bad news for Trump: Of the eight most vulnerable Democratic states, Pennsylvania was the only one not already a PPF. Romney lost all other states by at least eight points. Not only was Michigan a double digit loss despite Romney’s ties to the state, but so was New Mexico, which we identified as purple. After them we get into Oregon and Washington, two states most consider as safely blue, and away we go with dark blue states after that.

So while I’m willing to throw Pennsylvania into the mix, I’d have to see some pretty compelling state polling in Michigan, Wisconsin, and Minnesota to take those bricks out of the blue wall.

Speaking of polling . . . that’s what Part 2 is for! How are the PPFA PPFs looking six months out? See you next time.

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