Dominance: The New Democratic Voting Base Is an Electoral Steamroller
Have the Democrats opened up a real Electoral College advantage over the Republicans?
I’m not talking about the illusion of an advantage that comes with winning consecutive elections. That might be the result of a streak in which the party is helped by favorable fundamentals, or it can be, as with Democratic majorities in the New Deal era, simply part of a national advantage. In either case, a party might win the same states every time, but — as Republicans discovered in 1992 — when those favorable conditions end, the apparent electoral “lock” disappears, too.
No, I’m talking about an Electoral College edge above and beyond the national vote. That’s not defined by which states went for which candidate; it’s found by looking at what would have happened in the Electoral College if an election had been tied in the national vote. To calculate it, assume uniform swing – that is, if swing state Ohio moves toward the Democrats, then liberal Vermont and conservative Utah will also move toward the Democrats by the same amount. In reality, the states don’t swing quite that equally, but they’re very close to it.
Usually, Electoral College advantages have been very small, and they flip back and forth between the parties – during the 2000 election, when George W. Bush wound up winning because of a very slim Electoral College advantage, polls throughout most of the contest actually showed a slight Electoral College edge for Al Gore. However, in the last two election cycles, Democrats have suddenly enjoyed a substantial bias in their favor.
In 2008, Barack Obama won the national vote by 7.3 percentage points; had John McCain improved in every state by exactly that much, Obama still would have prevailed in the Electoral College, with Colorado putting him over the top. The Democrats carried the Rocky Mountain state by 9 points, so the shift would still have given Obama the win – with 1.7 percentage points to spare. This year, Colorado was once again the tipping-point state, based on returns counted so far, and the Democratic edge in the Electoral College is 1.8 points.
That may not seem like a lot, but it’s actually a very big deal. Seven of last 47 elections were decided by margins under 2 percentage points. Two others were not far from that. To put it another way, 2 percentage points is just about the difference between an excellent campaign and a lousy one; it’s probably roughly the difference between having a good candidate and a poor one. So getting a 2-point edge going in is probably as large, or larger, than the difference between Bill Clinton and Michael Dukakis.
So it’s important. The question is where it comes from. So far, we don’t know. I’ll run through several possibilities, from the best for the GOP to the worst.
The best-case scenario for Republicans is that it’s just a random shuffle of the numbers. If that’s the case, it won’t continue in 2016. That’s possible! Random deviations from uniform swing happen all the time – could be the weather on Election Day, for all we know.
Next-best is that it’s something having to do with Barack Obama in particular. Perhaps, for example, Obama is losing worse than a generic Democrat would in solid Republican states, but otherwise basically getting the same swing any other Democrat would get. That would depress Obama’s national totals compared to swing state results, thus creating the Electoral College edge, and by definition it would be gone in the future once Obama is off the ballot.