Is 2008 going to prove to be just a twist on 2000/2004?
Using the highly-addictive site 270-to-win, I’ve recreated the political map that confronted us after Al Gore’s popular vote margin failed to give him the White House in 2000. The result in the Electoral College that year was Bush 271 v 266 Gore, one of the tightest results ever. Re-apportionment of Congressional Districts as a result of the decennial census has changed the number of Electoral College votes each state casts, so 2008 would see the same distribution of states result in a 278 v 260 victory for John McCain (as pictured).
Yet casting our minds back to early June, when Obama and McCain were essentially confirmed as nominees, many of us were hoping (even expecting) a very different map. McCain’s previous hostility towards the Religious Right (calling Jerry Falwell an ‘agent of intolerance’) and Obama’s weakness amongst blue collar white men and Catholics led some to posit that 2008 might see the psephological cartography alter dramatically from the two victories of George W Bush.
Some suggested that McCain could add Pensylvania or even Michigan to Republican-voting Ohio by inviting Romney onto the ticket. Maybe the razor-thin Democratic majorities in Minnesota and Wisconsin could be turned with the GOP convention in St Paul and Governor Pawlenty given a starring role. Democrats too began to believe that Obama’s strength in the African-American community could help beat McCain in the South, and Howard Dean’s 50-state strategy for downticket races could see the Democratic nominee take states in the Mountain West or places like Missouri. Such talk is less common now.
So what changed? The number of potential swing-states has shrunk considerably in the last two months – Virginia, Ohio, Florida and Michigan are on the table, but are not on a knife edge: all lean as they have voted in the last two presidential elections. New Mexico looks to be safer for Obama, and a Gubernatorial election with Dean’s Dozen choice John Lynch should energise Democrats to secure New Hampshire. Without a real surprise in Montana (trending GOP) or Iowa (trending heavily Dem), it seems that this election will be decided by Nevada and Colorado.
I must confess to be a little disappointed by this. I always thought that Hillary Clinton would be the Democrat who would pursue the ‘Gore/Kerry plus one’ strategy – I thought that with two cross-party-appeal candidates like McCain and Obama, we might have a new map to peruse. Sadly, the seriousness of the contest has made both candidates risk-averse, and this is no better demonstrated than by their VP selections.
Don’t misunderstand me – both VP choices were clever in their own way, and the conventional wisdom (which I think happens to be correct) is that Palin was a gamble. But taken in context, with all other choices, both Biden and Palin were re-assuring selections by nominees eager not to alienate their parties’ core demographic vote. Both were ‘conservative’ choices, whose political (rather than media) appeal was that they spoke to the voters who gave Bush and Kerry the largest number of votes in Presidential electoral history. Had McCain defied the RNC to choose former PA Governor Tom Ridge, and Obama chosen maverick MT Governor Brian Schweitzer, would we be looking at the same polling map that we are at the moment? I’m tempted to think not.
In short, forbidding a landslide (ie a victory in the popular vote of more than 5%), the 2008 map is unlikely to look significantly different to the maps from 2000 and 2004. However, this should not distract from the changes in the political geography of the USA that are happening at a state and local level. Howard Dean’s 50-state strategy has delivered huge benefit to the Democratic Party in State Legislature’s and Governors’ mansions. However, it seems this work will take some time until it begins to filter up into the White House contest.
I am a great fan of Cartograms, that seek to explain a complex idea in a simple picture. The Blue/Red divide in the US is easily overstated, as can be seen from the cartogram above, but the format of the Electoral College means that the swirling vicissitudes of demographic change and voting behaviour are not yet playing into how states award their Electoral College votes. I would now be surprised (and happily so) if the 2008 was very different from the maps that have come to epitomise the 50%-50% split in Presidential Elections over the last 8 years.
One final point. I made a charity bet with RodCrosby back in December of last year concerning the possibility of an Electoral College Tie. Taking the map above (Gore states on new numbers), if Obama won either Colorado or both Nevada and New Mexico, we would see a 269-269 tie in the Electoral College, and the XIIth Amendment provisions invoked. I took 40/1 on Ladbrokes last week, and it is now down to 33/1 at time of writing. I would be lying if I said that was statistically good value, but re-apportionment and the set of swingeable states does make this election more likely to see a tie than in 2000. And it would replace the excitement that was lost when promises of a new electoral map proved to be too high a price for victory.