Cutting Through the Election Fog

Cutting Through the Election Fog




I don’t like to bash the media (well, maybe a little); I think it’s more a reflection of the public’s appetite for simplicity and sensationalism than it is a creator of that need. Still, sometimes I wish the media would pay more attention to how the electoral system actually works in this country. Most of the time, we get national or individual state polls, expressed in percentages, which, as we learned in the Bush-Gore election, are not really that important. It’s all about the Electoral College.  I decided to look into it a little.  If you have more than 30 seconds, here’s what I found out so far.


Most States Are Locked Up


In the last four elections (since 2000), 40 of the 50 states have gone for the same party. Election “experts” differ on the details, but the “270 to Win” consulting group says that, for 2016, ten states (at most) are in doubt, or so-called “swing states.” In 2012, most of these states were decided by razor thin margins.  For example, Florida, a huge state with nearly 9 million votes cast, was decided by 73,000 votes. These key states, their electoral votes, and their 2012 results are:


        Electoral Votes   Dems          Reps

  1. FLA       29     50.0%   vs.      49.1%
  2. PA        20     52.0             46.8
  3. OH        18     50.1             48.2
  4. N.C.       15      48.4             50.6
  5. VA       13      50.8             47.8
  6. WISC     10      52.8             46.5
  7. CO       9       51.2              46.5
  8. NV       6       52.3              45.7
  9. IOWA     6       52.1              46.5
  10. NH       4      52.2               46.5


So, there are 130 electoral votes available in these “battleground” states. Based on the past four election patterns, the Dems need 53 votes to get to the 270 needed; the GOP needs 79.


Another group, Politico, finds that only seven states are in doubt, and the Dems have 247 and the Reps have 206, leaving only 85 up for grabs. They give PA, WI, and NC to the Dems.  PA and NC seem like a stretch to me. In this analysis, the Dems need 23 to win; the GOP needs 64.


According to Real Clear Politics, it is almost (but not quite) a necessity that the GOP win both Florida and Ohio. If they don’t get those 47 votes, they would need to sweep all eight of the other swing states, not considered likely.  John Kasich on the ticket as VP candidate would provide a boost in Ohio, and, in my view,  either Jeb Bush or Marco Rubio at the top of the ticket would probably deliver Florida to the GOP.


What can we take from this info?  First, if you don’t live in one of these swing states, don’t expect to see much of the candidates in the 2016 presidential election. and, unless something very unusual happens, your state won’t have much of an impact on the results.


In an Oct. 8 poll by Quinnipiac University, Clinton barely beat Carson in Florida (45% to 43%), but Carson beat Clinton in both Ohio and Pennsylvania by identical 49%% to 40% totals. The fact that these states are this close is appalling, but it’s early, and I’ll save comments on the Republican candidates for some other time (or never). I’m also going to save a look at the age group turnout issue for later.


I don’t put much weight on polls at this stage, and, of course, we don’t even know the nominees yet.


Real Clear Politics has an excellent interactive model in which you can run different scenarios (sorry I don’t know how to embed links yet, but here’s the link):


You can do all kinds of interesting things with this model, but here are a few simple take-aways.


Turnout is Key


  1. The 2016 election is probably going to be extremely close, and turnout will probably be more important than undecided voters.


2) Here’s a stunning stat: The Democrats have not won the white vote for president since 1976! Obama got 43% of the white vote in 2008 and 39% in 2012.  Bill Clinton got 44% in 1996 and Jimmy Carter got 48% in 1976.  During that period, the white vote as a percentage of the electorate has dropped from 89% to 72%.


3) African-American voter participation (before Obama) typically lagged white participation by 6-11 percentage points.  In 2008, black participation only trailed white by less than 2 points (64.7 vs. 66.1).  In 2012, black participation actually exceeded white (66.2 vs. 64.1).


4) If African-American participation falls back to six percentage points below white rates, the Democrats’ projected popular vote margin shrinks from 4.6 points to 2.2 points. Some experts believe that newly passed voter identification laws in some states could make sure that that shrinkage happens. 


Again, popular vote doesn’t matter, but the Real Clear model INCLUDES the demographic components of each state and adjusts the electoral vote total accordingly. As a result, in that same scenario (black turnout reverts to pre-Obama levels), Florida flips to the Republicans, Virginia slips to only 0.4 point margin for Dems, and the Ohio Dem margin shrinks to about 1 point. With those slim margins, any GOP gains among whites or Hispanics could give those states (and the election) to the GOP. All of these totals are based solely on turnout, not on any changes in the actual voter preferences from 2012.


5) A similar study done by the Brookings Institution (May 10, 2013) also assumed that demographic group turnout reverts back to the pre-Obama 2004 levels. It then adjusted each group’s size according to current Census data and applied the 2012 voter preferences of each group. Their model showed the Democrats winning in 2016, but by a narrow margin (I couldn’t find the exact numbers, even on the Brookings site).


6) Despite all the hoopla about the potential impact of the Hispanic vote, the Real Clear model says that the Republican share of the Hispanic vote would have to fall to 8% (they got 27% in 2012) before another state flips to Democrats. Obama won both Florida and Colorado in 2012. Texas would not flip to Democratic unless the Republican share of the Hispanic vote fell to 5%.


7) On the other hand, if everything else from 2012 holds, the Republicans would have to jump all the way to 49% of the Hispanic vote (from 27% in 2012) to win the popular vote, and even then they would lose the Electoral College, 289-249. Republicans would have to jump all the way to 63% of the Hispanic vote to win the Electoral College.  Given the “murderers and rapists” comment, this seems hard to imagine, but voters have short memories.


8) If Republicans capture the four key demographics groups at the same rates they did in the 2014 midterms (a big assumption), they would win the popular vote by 3 points and win the Electoral College, 295-243.  Colorado and Pennsylvania would go Republican. Out-of-power parties normally get a nice bump in midterm elections.


Still a Lot of Moving Parts


Notice that this discussion doesn’t have much to do with positions on the issues, candidates’ experience, etc. I would like to think that the quality of the candidates can make a big difference, but the evidence is pretty compelling that most states are already locked up. Without a doubt, the election has a lot of moving parts: (Will women swing toward a female candidate? Will young voters care enough to turn out?  Will minority voters? Will external events, terrorist attacks, etc. cause a shift in turnout or voter preferences? Will new laws restrict minority voters from voting?)


The next area I want to learn more about is the nature of the electorate in the ten swing states. I recall from 2012 that some of these states came down to a handful of so-called “swing counties.” To think that the direction of our country could come down to a few counties where voters may or may not be well-informed is alarming.  So, like Scarlett O’Hara, I’ll think about that tomorrow.