One of the most common misperceptions about the presidential election is that on November 4, we will have a national election to select our next President. In fact, we will have 51 separate elections on November 4 because of the Electoral College.
As Al Gore discovered in 2000, you can get more than half-a-million more votes than the other guy and still lose the race for the White House because George W. Bush, with a little help from the Supreme Court, won 271 electoral votes to Gore’s 266. In 1876, Rutherford B. Hayes, with help from a special congressional committee, beat Samuel Tilden by one electoral vote, even though Tilden won the popular vote. (See the link at left for an interactive map of the electoral college and popular vote total for every election.) So, in addition to message and biography, the two presidential campaigns are focused intensely on the geography of the election.
The first fact about the electoral map is that most people vote the way they did last time. So, states that have voted for the GOP for many elections – red states – tend to vote for the GOP this time too. Comparing the elections of 2000 and 2004, only three states switched from one party to the other. George Bush lost New Mexico and Iowa to Al Gore but won them in 2004 against Kerry, while Kerry won New Hampshire which had voted for Bush in 2000. Every other state in the union voted the same way in both elections.
The second fact about the electoral map is that knowing which party controls the local government tells you next to nothing about how the state will vote for the presidency. Maine sends two Republican senators to Washington, both relatively liberal women, but Maine last voted for a GOP presidential candidate when summer resident George H.W. Bush – of Kennebuckport – ran in 1988. Virginia elected a Democratic Governor in 2005 and a Democratic Senator in 2006, but it last voted for a Democratic presidential candidate in 1964 when Lyndon Johnson won the Old Dominion. Chances are that a Democrat in Virginia is more conservative than a Republican in Maine.
The third fact about the electoral map is that it can change. In 2004, John Kerry’s campaign set aggressive Get Out The Vote (GOTV) targets in key swing states like Ohio. On election night, the Kerry campaign knew that it had exceeded its targets in Ohio and they were convinced they had won the state. But, George Bush’s campaign had aggressively registered new voters in the rural northwestern part of the state, and sent both the President and his surrogates into relatively small cities to campaign. Bush won Ohio and consequently the election. (More on the importance of registering voters tomorrow!)
So, what does the map look like today? And how much room is there for change? Barring anyone slipping on a banana peel – and never, ever discount that possibility – the map appears to be favoring the Democrats this year. Obama appears to have locked up nearly all the states that Kerry took in 2004, with only New Hampshire and Michigan showing up on the GOP’s radar. Some Republicans dream of shifting Pennsylvania into teir column but that is wishful thinking. Conversely, potential Democratic pick-ups include New Mexico, Colorado, Nevada and, of all places, North Dakota where the most recent poll (taken before the conventions) had Obama up by 3 percent. By way of comparison, Bush won North Dakota with 63 percent of the vote to Kerry’s 36 percent. The toss-up states include Florida, Virginia, and Ohio, with enough electoral votes to swing the election either way. So, while the geography appears to favor Obama this year, buckle up. The race remains tight in many of the states. Either campaign could decide to spend some money in advertising in a given state to try and alter the map, or even just to get the opponents to also spend money defending a state they should win easily. Look for Obama to run ads in Georgia and McCain to run ads in Pennsylvania. In California, New York, Texas and Illinois, no one will likely see an ad this year. But, the battleground states will be dripping in campaign ads by November. It is a good thing for democracy when more states, and therefore more people, know that their votes may make a difference.
Michael Sean Winters
Cross posted with America’s election blog