No matter whom Republicans nominate to face Hillary Rodham Clinton in November 2016, that candidate will start at a disadvantage. It’s not polling, Clinton’s deep résumé or the improving state of the economy. It’s the electoral college.
Yes, the somewhat arcane — yet remarkably durable — way in which presidential elections are decided tilts toward Democrats in 2016, as documented by nonpartisan political handicapper Nathan Gonzales in a recent edition of the Rothenberg & Gonzales Political Report.
Gonzales notes that if you add up all of the states that are either “safe” for the eventual Democratic nominee or “favor” that nominee, you get 217 electoral votes. (A candidate needs to win 270 to be elected president.) Do the same for states safe or favoring the Republican standard-bearer, per Gonzales’s rankings, and you get just 191 electoral votes.
That Democratic advantage becomes even more pronounced if you add to the party’s total the states that “lean” Democratic, according to Gonzales. Put Pennsylvania (20 electoral votes), Iowa (6) and Nevada (6) into the Democratic column and the party’s electoral vote count surges to 249 — just 21 votes short of winning a third straight presidential race. (Gonzales doesn’t rate any states as “lean Republican.”)
Such a scenario is decidedly realistic given that President Obama not only won all three of those “lean” Democratic states in 2008 and 2012 but that he did so by an average of eight points in Iowa and nine points in Nevada. And, the last Republican presidential nominee to carry Pennsylvania was George H.W. Bush, way back in 1988.
Gonzales’s analysis, which some will dismiss as premature but I applaud (it’s never too early!), reaffirms one of the most important — and undercovered — story lines in presidential politics in the past decade: the increasing Democratic dominance in the electoral college.
After the near-ties of the 2000 and 2004 elections, Obama ushered in this new era. He won 365 electoral college votes in his sweeping 2008 victory and, perhaps even more surprisingly, 332 electoral votes in the 2012 election, which was regarded by many neutral observers as something close to a tossup going into Election Day.
This harks back to the sort of upper hand that Republicans enjoyed in the 1980s, when Ronald Reagan won 489 electoral votes in 1980 and 525 electoral votes in 1984; Bush followed that up with 426 electoral votes in 1988.
Democrats are hoping for a similar run in 2016, and there’s some reason to believe it might happen. Of the six states with the largest number of electoral votes (the number of House members plus two for their U.S. senators), only one — Texas (38 electoral votes) — is safely in the Republican column, and California (55), New York (29) and Illinois (20) are all safely Democratic, according to Gonzales.
Then there is the fact that Democrats have become increasingly dominant among Hispanics, which has turned states such as Nevada, New Mexico and, to a lesser extent, Colorado, much more friendly to their side. Consider this: In 2004, George W. Bush won New Mexico over John F. Kerry. About a decade later, neither party spent a dime in the Land of Enchantment, and Obama won it by 10 points. (This trend, if not disrupted by Republicans, will make Arizona and Georgia potentially competitive by the 2020 election.)
It’s not all gloom and doom for Republicans, though. And that’s because the one thing we definitely know about 2016 is that Obama won’t be on the ballot. That’s a very good development if you are a Republican interested in reclaiming the White House.
Gonzales writes: “Over the last two presidential elections, Democrats expanded their advantages among some key constituencies, including Hispanic voters and younger voters. But, it’s unclear whether those are data points along a semi-permanent trend toward the Democratic Party or whether the party’s gains are the result of Barack Obama’s unique appeal.”
Gonzales goes on to note that Obama won big electoral college prizes — Ohio, Florida and Wisconsin — in 2008 and 2012 but that, Obama excepted, there’s little evidence that the states have moved at some elemental level toward Democrats. All three, for example, have Republican governors who are serving second terms and were elected for the first time two years after Obama won the presidency.
If Florida and Ohio are put into the Republican column — 47 electoral votes between them — then, all of a sudden the GOP nominee is up to 238 electoral votes (if you include all the states that Gonzales ranks as safe or favoring the party.) Put North Carolina and its 15 electoral votes in the GOP column — Gonzales rates the state, which Obama won in 2008 and lost narrowly in 2012, as “tilt Republican” — and the party’s nominee stands at 253 electoral votes, only a hop, skip and a Virginia and New Hampshire away from 270.
In short, Republicans are likely to have more and better options on their map to get to 270 in 2016 than they did against Obama in either 2008 and 2012. But that doesn’t mean the electoral college playing field starts out equal heading into this presidential race. It doesn’t. Democrats start with an edge.