Election Geekery

I was talking to someone the other day about choices for Vice President; the fact is, they don’t seem to matter much, but the VP nominee does have a small home-state advantage, giving their ticket a 2- or 3-point bump in most cases. So mostly it’s a good idea to pick a VP who won’t make you want to stick your arm in a garbage disposal, but occasionally it would come in handy to have one from a swing state.

Harry Enten at 538.com opined recently that we don’t know yet what the swing states will be, but they have in fact been extremely stable over recent elections. A swing state or battleground state is one that is close in a close election, i.e. where the vote resembles the national average. I took a look at the 2004 and 2012 elections (I didn’t want to overweight Obama), noting where each state fell in comparison with the national popular vote: for example, Obama won nationally by 4 points and lost North Carolina by 2 points, so NC gets a rating of R +6.

The overall landscape was so little changed in the eight years between ’04 and ’12 that if you shifted every state by 6.4 points (Kerry’s losing margin plus Obama’s winning margin), Kerry wins and loses exactly the same states that Obama won and lost. Virginia, to be sure, would be very close, and it has been on a long-term shift from a reliable Republican state to deep purple, but still, that’s a lot of stability.

The most striking change between 2004 and 2012 isn’t among the battleground states, it’s the move of the border South from ‘lean Republican’ to ‘wouldn’t vote for Jesus Christ if he was a Democrat.’ West Virginia went from R +10 to R +31, Arkansas from R +7 to R +28, and Missouri, Louisiana, Tennessee, and Kentucky all shifted by at least 8 points to longer wavelengths. Bill Clinton won all these states twice, and no Democrat has won any of them since, IIRC. There was a fierce debate in the ‘90s and up to 2008 about whether the Democratic Party needed to shift to more conservative positions, especially on social issues like gay rights and reproductive rights, in order to compete in the border South. That ship appears to have sailed, at least in Presidential elections. Kentucky is not coming back—instead, the Democrats have become competitive in the Southern states with more prosperous, better-educated populations, Virginia and North Carolina.

Another change that is smaller in scale but does involve swing states is the Democratic edge in parts of the Mountain West: Colorado has moved from slightly red to a pure tossup, and Nevada and New Mexico now appear to be leaning Dem, rather like Wisconsin or Minnesota.

Here is a list of what probably will be battleground states, ranged from those that lean so far Republican that they are barely battleground states to those that lean so far Democratic that they are barely in play in a close election.

Safe Republican States 191 EV

North Carolina (a marginal swing state, if it’s in play then Clinton is winning)

Florida (R +3) in both ’04 and ’12)


Virginia (Traditionally Republican, has been trending D and possibly should be flipped with PA)

Colorado (Tossup)

Pennsylvania (Has been slightly D-leaning, but apears to be drifting towards the Republicans)

Iowa (D +2) in both ’04 and ’12)

New Hampshire

Nevada (Used to be a true tossup, trending D as more people of color move in)

Wisconsin (D +3 in both ’04 and ’12)


New Mexico (another former tossup)

Michigan ((D +6 in both ’04 and ’12)

Safe Dem States 186 EV


From an electoral college point of view, the ideal VP would be from FL or VA or OH, but things are complicated by the fact that a sitting Senator would be replaced by the current governor,, and a VP nominee probably isn’t worth losing a Senate seat over. We have a Democratic governor here in Minnesota, and I think either of our Senators would be a reasonable choice, especially Amy Klobuchar.

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