How Republicans can solve their electoral-vote problem

February 3, 2013

Republicans have an electoral-vote problem.

The Republican nominee hasn’t won more than 300 electoral votes — out of a possible 538 — since George H.W. Bush in 1988. In the six elections between 1992 and 2012, the Republican presidential candidate has averaged 210 electoral votes. The Democratic nominee has averaged 327 electoral votes during that same time.

Given that stark electoral-college reality, it’s not terribly surprising that a handful of Republican-controlled state legislatures in swing states — led by Virginia — either have tried or are contemplating trying to change the way in which electoral votes are allocated. This effort, which would move the process from a statewide divvying up of electoral votes to one done by congressional district, has stirred up outrage among Democrats and newspaper editorial boards and now seems likely to stall out everywhere it’s being tried.

Rather than spend time on that losing fight, Republicans would do well to study the electoral map as it stands and rethink (or reinvent) their approach. Here are four suggestions on ways in which they could solve — or, at least, mitigate — their electoral-vote problems.

Win Florida: It seems simple, but Republicans lost the Sunshine State to Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012. Prior to 2008, Democrats had carried Florida in only one presidential election since 1980 — and that was in 1996, when Bill Clinton took 48 percent in a three-way contest. Florida is a fast-growing state, and its 29 electoral votes can make up for lots of electoral problems the party has elsewhere. And, it’s not that heavy a lift. Florida was the closest state in the country in 2012, with Obama claiming victory by less than a point.

Give up on the Northeast: Part of knowing how to win is knowing where not to fight. Any time (or money) a Republican presidential candidate spends in the Northeast is largely wasted at this point. Take New Hampshire. Yes, it’s a state that has shown a willingness to vote for Republicans at the presidential level in the not-too-distant past. (George W. Bush carried the Granite State in 2000.) But to reach the southern part of the state means buying television time in the pricey Boston media market, a prohibitive cost for New Hampshire’s four electoral votes. Or think about it this way: The six states that make up the Northeast (Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Connecticut, Massachusetts and Rhode Island) have a total of 33 electoral votes. Texas has 38 electoral votes by itself.

Get the South solid again: One of the keys to Republican electoral-college dominance during the 1980s was the consolidation of the South behind its presidential candidates. That lock-step support has eroded in recent elections, with Obama winning Virginia in 2008 and 2012 — he’s the first Democrat since Lyndon Johnson in 1964 to do it even once — and coming very close in November to repeating his 2008 victory in North Carolina. While the Old South — Mississippi, Alabama, Louisiana, etc. — has grown more and more unfriendly to Democrats (or at least Obama), the New South is moving in the other direction. And, given that Virginia and North Carolina have 28 electoral votes between them (Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama have 23 total), finding ways back to a majority of the vote share in both states is absolutely necessary.

Find a new big state to win: Of the six states with the largest electoral-vote troves — they allocate 191 votes among them — Republicans won just one (Texas) in the past two elections. Florida, as we noted above, is a must-have big state for Republicans. But they probably need one more — a state the party hasn’t been able to win in the recent past. California (and its 55 electoral votes) seems out given just how Democratic it is and has been for the past few decades. Ditto New York — particularly since there’s a decent-to-good chance that the Democratic nominee in 2016 (Hillary Clinton, Andrew Cuomo, Kirstin Gillibrand) comes from the Empire State. That leaves either Illinois or Pennsylvania, both of which give out 20 electoral votes, as potential GOP targets. Pennsylvania, which was the sixth-closest state in 2012 (Obama won it by just over five points), is the obvious choice.

None of the above will be easy for Republicans — with the possible exception of giving up on the Northeast, which takes no effort at all. And the challenge is made doubly hard by the fact that demographic changes — particularly the rapid growth and continued Democratic tilting of the Hispanic vote — seem likely to make past GOP strongholds such as Arizona competitive in future presidential races.

Still, paths to 270 electoral votes — and higher — do exist for Republicans. To get there, however, they need to reassess their electoral calculations — spending more time in and tailoring messages more to certain states, and doing nothing at all in others.

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