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Democrats Have No Lock on the Electoral College

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg View columnist. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.
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Can we please stop all the “blue wall” nonsense already?

This refers to the supposed near lock the Democrats have on the White House because, as the Fix’s Chris Cillizza puts it:

If Clinton wins the 19 states (and D.C.) that every Democratic nominee has won from 1992 to 2012, she has 242 electoral votes. Add Florida's 29 and you get 271. Game over.

No. Elections don’t work that way. There is no blue wall

The U.S. does not have 51 (including D.C.) separate, independent presidential elections, one per state, proceeding largely independently from one another. It has one big overall election, and the states move more or less in lockstep in response to the same things. If it's a good year for the Democrats, then each state moves about the same distance toward the Democrats -- whether it's a swing state like Virginia or Ohio, or Democratic like Rhode Island or Vermont, or Republican like Utah and Alabama. When the Republicans have a good year, the shift goes their way.  

In the last six presidential elections, the Democrats have had four good years (1992, 1996, 2008 and 2012). The Republicans had one marginally good year (2004). In 2000, the nation was split dead-even. So swing states have mostly wound up in the Democrats' column in the last couple of decades. This does not mean the odds are stacked against the Republicans. If the GOP has a good year overall, the swing states and even marginal Democratic states such as Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Minnesota could go Republican. 

Back in 1992, the party was said to have an Electoral College “lock” because so many states had gone Republican (in 1968, 1972, 1980, 1984 and 1988). A run of good years had created the illusion that all the swing states were solidly on their side. 

Of course, individual states may have big shifts over time. West Virginia, which was one of the most Democratic states in 1980, was one of the most Republican in 2012. New Jersey was somewhat less Democratic than the nation as a whole in 1992, but by 2012 it was far more Democratic.

A real electoral map advantage is one that gives a party an edge if the national vote is even. Of course, someone has to win in a tie -- as George W. Bush did in 2000 -- but the question is whether anything systematically favors one party time after time. The simple way to check this is to look at past elections and shift each state equally to what would have happened in a tie election. 

Political scientists who have done this sort of analysis find a possible electoral map advantage for the Democrats in a close vote. One estimate gives Democrats an 80 percent chance of winning the Electoral College if the national vote is tied. But that edge only kicks in if this vote is within one or perhaps two percentage points.

As for the assumption that Democrats begin each presidential election with 242 electoral votes in hand? Nope.  

  1. There could simply be an overall advantage for one party, as there probably was for Democrats in the 1930s and 1940s. But a quick glance at election results for offices other than the presidency quickly shows that's not the case. 

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Jonathan Bernstein at jbernstein62@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Katy Roberts at kroberts29@bloomberg.net