So much has been made of the demographic obstacles facing Republicans in their quest to win the White House that it has been easy to overlook the other huge hurdle in their path: geography. But two prospective GOP presidential candidates — New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul — seem determined to change that.

The depth of the Republican deficit in the Electoral College was laid out in stark detail by independent analyst Rhodes Cook in his recent newsletter. Cook charts two eras in the modern history of presidential politics, one Republican and the other Democratic. Republicans dominated the period from 1968 until 1992. Democrats have been the leading presidential party since then.

During the first period, Republicans controlled the White House for 20 of 24 years. Only Jimmy Carter’s victory in the post-Watergate election of 1976 interrupted the Republicans’ rule. In the second period, Democrats won the popular vote in five of the six elections and will, by the end of President Obama’s term, have controlled the White House for 16 of the 24 years. George W. Bush served two terms but won the popular vote only once.

The Republicans’ dominance in the 1970s and 1980s was built on what came to be known as the party’s Electoral College lock. In the six elections spanning 1968 to 1988, Republicans won more than 400 electoral votes four times and topped 300 another time. Since 1992, they have never won more than 286 electoral votes, even while winning the White House twice. Three times they have fallen below 200.

The reason for these changing fortunes, and the reason Republicans find themselves in an electoral hole, is an evolution in state-by-state voting patterns that has shifted the balance in the Electoral College.

During the period when Republicans dominated the presidential vote, 21 states, accounting for 187 electoral votes, backed the GOP nominee in six consecutive elections. Meanwhile, only the District of Columbia supported the Democratic nominee in all six of those races.

In the six elections beginning with 1992, the Republicans’ Electoral College base has shrunk by nearly half, while Democrats have built an even bigger bulwark than the GOP enjoyed in its presidential heyday. Eighteen states plus the District have backed the Democrats in the six most recent presidential elections with a total of 242 electoral votes. Republicans, meanwhile, have seen their base erode to 13 states accounting for just 102 electoral votes.

Three big reasons for the changing fortunes of the two parties are California, Illinois and New Jersey. All three voted Republican in the six presidential elections from 1968 to 1988. Then they flipped. Starting in 1992, each of the three have sided with the Democrats in every subsequent presidential election. Together those three states account for 89 electoral votes.

A fourth state, Vermont, with three electoral votes, also has flipped from consistently Republican in presidential elections to consistently Democratic. That means that a total of 92 electoral votes (in the current apportionment of the states’ shares) have moved from the Republican column to the Democrats’.

The significance of those shifts was seen last November. The number of true battlegrounds numbered fewer than 10. Obama had multiple paths to the magic 270 electoral votes needed to win reelection. With a base of 242 electoral votes, Obama could have won the White House simply by adding Florida (with 29 electoral votes) to his column. Mitt Romney had almost no margin for error. He had to win most of the genuinely contested states. Whoever becomes the Democratic nominee in 2016 will begin with that advantage.

That puts two questions on the table: What moved California, Illinois and New Jersey from solidly red to solidly blue in presidential races? And what might move them or some of the other states that have been consistently Democratic back in the other direction in future elections?

There are a number of reasons why those big three shifted. In California and New Jersey especially, GOP positions on guns, abortion and the environment soured voters on the party. The Republicans’ problems in California were compounded significantly by a sharp increase in the percentage of Hispanic voters, beginning after the 1994 midterm election, when then-governor Pete Wilson backed the anti-immigration Proposition 187 in an effort to win another term.

Another factor affecting all three states was a shift among suburban voters away from the Republicans toward the Democrats. The shift became evident in 1996, when Bill Clinton did demonstrably better in suburban counties in many states than Democrats had done previously. Clinton’s margin in New Jersey went from fewer than three points in 1992 to almost 18 points in 1996. Democrats have not been threatened seriously in California, Illinois or New Jersey since then.

What might move those three and some of the other prominent states that have been solidly in the Democrats’ column (such as Michigan or Pennsylvania)? Christie and Paul offer two models, both conservative but neither bowing to Republican orthodoxy.

By necessity, Christie has had to work with Democrats, who control the state legislature. But since last fall, he has taken a more obvious step to appeal across the political spectrum. His praise for Obama in the days after Hurricane Sandy — and updated with Obama’s recent visit to the state to open the Jersey shore to summer visitors — drew the wrath of many Republicans but has made him highly popular at home. He has taken on the National Rifle Association, something else that has not endeared him to the Republican base but that plays well with broader segments of the electorate.

Christie’s latest move came Tuesday, when he called a special election for October to fill the vacancy created by the death of Democratic senator Frank Lautenberg. This was another decision that infuriated many Republicans, who said the governor should have appointed a Republican to fill the seat until the 2014 election. Instead, Christie’s appointee, state Attorney General Jeff Chiesa, will fill the seat for only a few months until the special election on
Oct. 16.

Despite the GOP’s annoyance, the move could make Christie more popular with Democrats and independents in his state.

Christie will run for reelection in November, only a few weeks after the special Senate election. The bigger his margin, the more he will be able to argue to Republicans in 2016, should he become a candidate for president, that he has the capacity to change the electoral map equation by winning blue states like his.

Rand Paul used a trip to California to make an explicit appeal for his libertarian conservatism as the way to make the Golden State, and perhaps some other blue states, competitive. He said there’s no reason a redefined Republican Party cannot compete in California.

With an eye on younger voters and the state’s high-tech community, he called for more tolerance and diversity within the party, said Republicans must appeal more directly to Hispanics and African Americans, and argued that environmentalism and small-government conservatism need not be mutually exclusive.

“I bike and hike and kayak and compost,” Paul said, joking that he’s trying to grow a giant sequoia in Kentucky.

Neither Christie nor Paul has a proven formula that will translate to a presidential campaign in 2016, but in their individual styles they are starting a conversation that other Republicans should begin to join.

For previous columns by Dan Balz,
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