Some in the political world shy away from insanely-early election analysis. It is somehow unseemly (or even downright shameful), these people tell us, to indulge in speculation about an election too far in advance. These are the same type of people who point out that there's an election this year to get through first, for Pete's sake.
We don't listen to these people, however, so we'd like to welcome you to our first article to take a hard look at the 2016 election. We're going to engage in some rampant speculation not just (as some are doing) over the primary races, but indeed over how Democrats and Republicans are positioned for the general election itself. In specific, predicting how the Electoral College will vote by delving into a state-by-state statistical analysis of voting trends.
To be clear: when we say "statistical analysis" what we really mean is "taking a hard look at the numbers from the past six elections," rather than applying any sort of formulae or accepted statistical methodology. Just so nobody gets confused. We're going to divide the states up into a few broad categories based on past voting trends, and then at the end add up what it all means in the Electoral College.
A few caveats are in order, before we begin. We only went back six election cycles, which cuts off both George H. W. Bush and Ronald Reagan. The three elections which preceded the period we examined were overwhelming Republican landslides. But you have to draw the line somewhere, and we felt that the 1980s were just too far in the past to have much relation to where the country stands today. Even Clinton's two elections didn't influence us all that much, as we're mostly looking at the last four elections for signs of which way the state is moving, politically.
Barack Obama's 2008 election was a special coming-together of all sorts of demographic groups, which may never happen in the same fashion again. He boosted turnout in ways that may not be repeated in 2016, to put this another way. Then again, for all the talk of how different the 2012 election was from 2008, Obama did manage to hang on to all of the states he initially won, with the only exceptions being Indiana and North Carolina.
Of course, the biggest caveat is that each election is unique, and until we know who the nominees are going to be, we're just engaging in the sheerest of speculation. Entire demographic groups could get excited in unforeseen ways, and shift the whole electoral picture as a result. For instance, the Republicans could nominate a woman with Hispanic roots, while the Democrats nominate an old white guy. Hey, stranger things have happened, right?
But we've got to start somewhere. So today, we're starting with just a pure analysis of how each state has voted in the recent past, to show some sort of baseline before the contest gets underway. Because, at the end, you'll see that the picture which emerges heavily favors one side, which is indeed worth noting even at this insanely-early date. So let's get on with it, shall we?
Here are the states which have voted for one party or the other in all six of the past six elections (listed in order of how strongly they voted for their party, on average -- highest vote percentage down to lowest):
Washington D.C., Hawai'i, Vermont, New York, Rhode Island, Maryland, Massachusetts, California, Delaware, Connecticut, Illinois, New Jersey, Maine, Washington, Michigan, Oregon, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania.
Utah, Wyoming, Oklahoma, Idaho, Nebraska, Kansas, North Dakota, Alabama, South Dakota, Texas, Alaska, South Carolina, Mississippi.
There's not a lot to quibble about in either of those lists. Some are predicting that Texas (due to demographic changes) might eventually become a battleground state, but even the most optimistic of these predictions usually admits "not until 2020, in all likelihood." Some of the Democratic states may come into play depending on the Republican nominee (New Jersey and Wisconsin, for example), but we're taking a broader look today, ignoring any changes due to a home-state candidate.
Conservatively (in more than one sense), there are a few states which Republicans have been lusting after for the last few elections, which could come into play. Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania are the most-often cited. Just to be scrupulously fair, we're going to downgrade Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, but we think Michigan's a bridge too far for Republicans in 2016 (Obama carried the state by 16 points in 2008 and nine points in 2012).
This still leaves 19 states which didn't reliably vote for either party. First, we have the states which voted either four or five times (out of six) for the Democrats. George W. Bush won once in New Mexico, Iowa, and New Hampshire, and twice in Nevada and Ohio.
Out of these five states, two seem like a lock for Democrats next time around: New Mexico and Nevada. Changing demographics seem to have shifted these states to a reliable blue, at least for the near future. Of the other three, we're going to put two into the "Lean Democratic" column: Iowa and New Hampshire. This leaves one as a pure toss-up state: Ohio.
Over on the Republican side, the picture is a bit more complicated. Call it the difference between Bill Clinton and Barack Obama. Clinton was from the South, and had a blue-collar appeal that Obama just doesn't. But Obama had a youthful appeal and got excited crowds of minority voters out to the polls. Clinton's elections were the oldest under examination here, but then again if his wife runs they may become more germane.
Five states voted Republican in five out of the six previous elections. Three of these broke for Clinton once: Arizona, Georgia, and Montana. Two broke for Obama once: North Carolina and Indiana.
While Arizona did go for Clinton in 1996, since then it has never voted above 45 percent Democratic, so we're going to call it a solid Republican state for now. Georgia is in much the same category as Texas for Democrats: they like to dream about flipping the state, but it likely won't happen in 2016. But since we downgraded Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, we're also going to put Georgia in only the "Lean Republican" column for now. Montana and Indiana are both pretty solidly Republican (Obama winning Indiana was a fluke that likely won't be repeated soon). North Carolina, however, has to be seen as a pure toss-up state, at this point.
Seven states voted four times for Republicans, and twice for Democrats: Virginia, Missouri, Louisiana, Tennessee, Kentucky, Arkansas, and West Virginia. All but one of these voted both times for Clinton (Virginia was the exception, which voted for Obama both times). The six who voted Republican in the past four elections are all pretty solidly red, at this point. The only exception to this might be West Virginia, but that's just a hunch, not based on any actual numbers. But Virginia is moving more and more towards the Democratic column, again due to shifting demographics. I can't put the state into a Democratic category quite yet, but even though rated a toss-up, it will be one of the easier toss-up states for a Democrat to pick up.
Only two states split their vote down the middle, voting three times for each party. Both Colorado and Florida voted both times for Obama, both times for Bush, and once for Clinton. Out of the two, Colorado shows clear signs of becoming bluer and bluer. Colorado is the heart of the Democratic strategy to take as many of the Mountain West states as they can, and it has to be seen as at least in the "Leaning Democratic" category for the near future. Florida, however, could go either way even without a favorite son on the ballot, so must be seen as the biggest prize among the true toss-up states. It's not going too far out on a limb to predict that the heaviest states for presidential television commercials will once again be Florida and Ohio, to put this another way.
Adding them up
Limiting ourselves to five categories ("Safe" and "Lean" for both parties, as well as "Toss-up"), let's take a crack at adding up the Electoral College votes for a generic Democrat running against a generic Republican. States are listed with their electoral votes in parenthesis.
Washington D.C. (3), Hawai'i (4), Vermont (3), New York (29), Rhode Island (4), Maryland (10), Massachusetts (11), California (55), Delaware (3), Connecticut (7), Illinois (20), New Jersey (14), Maine (4), Washington (12), Michigan (16), Oregon (7), Minnesota (10), New Mexico (5), Nevada (6).
Wisconsin (10), Pennsylvania (20), Iowa (6), New Hampshire (4), Colorado (9).
Utah (6), Wyoming (3), Oklahoma (7), Idaho (4), Nebraska (5), Kansas (6), North Dakota (3), Alabama (9), South Dakota (3), Texas (38), Alaska (3), South Carolina (9), Mississippi (6), Montana (3), Indiana (11), Arizona (11), Arkansas (6), Kentucky (8), Tennessee (11), Louisiana (8), Missouri (10).
Georgia (16), West Virginia (5).
Ohio (18), Florida (29), Virginia (13), North Carolina (15).
When we add up the numbers, Democrats have 19 states locked up, for a total of 223 electoral votes. Five more states lean Democratic, for a total of 49 electoral votes.
Republicans have 21 states locked up, but these states only add up to 170 electoral votes. Two other states lean Republican, adding in 21 electoral votes.
There are four toss-up states, with a whopping 75 votes between them. But, astonishingly, the toss-ups may not even matter.
When you add the safe and leaning Republican electoral votes together, you get 191. But when you add the safe and leaning Democratic states, you wind up with 272 electoral votes -- which is two more than is necessary to win the election. A Democrat could lose Ohio, Florida, Virginia, and North Carolina and still squeak out a 272-266 victory in the Electoral College. Winning any of the four toss-ups would just be icing on the cake.
Of course, it is insanely early. And past elections are not all that reliable as a predictor of future elections. So it would be absurd to suggest to the Republican Party that they have no chance whatsoever of winning, and should really just spare America from all that campaigning next time around by just leaving the field wide open for the Democratic nominee to waltz into the White House.
Kidding aside, though, what cannot be denied is the overwhelming advantage Democrats have in the Electoral College at this point. When the race begins, Democrats will enjoy an automatic headstart, as they can rely on 223 electoral votes to the Republicans' 170. Democrats will only need to pick up 47 more electoral votes to win, while Republicans will need 100. If you classify the states a bit less conservatively, moving Wisconsin and Pennsylvania into the safe category for Democrats, then this advantage gets even steeper, at 253 to 170. Adding in all the leaners, Democrats hold 272 to Republicans' 191. Those are pretty stunning totals to consider, even if it is way too early to be thinking about such things.
-- Chris Weigant
Follow Chris on Twitter: @ChrisWeigant