Mitt Romney’s narrow electoral vote path explained — in 5 maps

September 24, 2012

In our Monday column for the newspaper -- yes, we occasionally write for print too! -- we explored the fact that, at least at the moment, former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney is struggling to replicate the electoral map that delivered President George W. Bush a second term in 2004.

That got us to thinking about what the electoral maps looked like in years when Republicans won the White House and whether they offered any insight into Romney's path this November.

Let's first look at the electoral maps in the last five national presidential elections that Republicans won -- all courtesy of the indispensable Real Clear Politics.

Here's 2004:

2000:

1988:

1984:

1980:

The simple fact when looking at these maps is that Romney's narrow path to 270 electoral votes this fall isn't anything new.  Not since 1988 has a Republican nominee won the presidency with more than 286 electoral votes.

That low electoral ceiling is a major reversal of fortune for Republicans who, as recently as Ronald Reagan's two winning races in 1980 and 1984, had many more paths to massive national sweeps than did Democrats.  In fact, since 1968 the 400 electoral vote ceiling has only been broken four times -- each time by a Republican: 1972 (Nixon 520), Reagan 1980 (489), Reagan 1984 (525) and Bush 1988 (426).

Because of the changing demographics and voter patterns in the country then, it's hard to look at 1980, 1984 and 1988 for potential Romney paths this fall. Reagan, for example, carried New York and California in both his races, which, um, ain't happening for any Republican nominee in 2012. Even George H. W. Bush swept Michigan, Pennsylvania and Illinois -- which at the time handed him 69 electoral votes -- in 1988.

That leaves us George W. Bush's 2000 and 2004 wins to sift through for clues as to Romney's potential path to victory. As we wrote in our column, Romney seems unlikely to win Iowa or New Mexico -- both of which Bush carried in 2004 -- and looks to be in trouble in Ohio.

And so we are left with the 2000 map.  In that year, Bush carried all traditional Republican states as well as the swing states of Florida, Colorado, Ohio and New Hampshire. (He lost New Mexico, Iowa and Wisconsin.) Bush also carried Virginia and North Carolina, two states that were not considered swing states 12 years ago but absolutely are in that category today. 

As of today, Romney has a reasonable hope to re-create that map -- although Ohio remains a major problem and, if he can't win the Buckeye State, it's hard to imagine how he gets the 271 electoral votes Bush won in 2000.

It's easy to blame Romney for the decidedly narrow electoral path that remains to him in the final 43 days of the race. But to do so ignores the fact that Republicans have been fighting for a shrinking piece of the electoral college pie for the better part of the last two decades -- a strategy that has been (and remains) the equivalent of a political high wire act with no net.

No matter what happens six Tuesdays from now, Republicans must find a way to expand their electoral map heading into 2016 and beyond. If they don't, what is a narrow path to victory today could well disappear.

Chris Cillizza writes “The Fix,” a politics blog for the Washington Post. He also covers the White House.
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Sean Sullivan · September 24, 2012