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Posted by on Sep 18, 2014 in 2016 Presidential Election, Politics | 18 comments

The Democratic Edge In The Electoral College

The electoral college has been shifting in a Democratic direction since the Bush years when the country was split more evenly and a single state would determine the winner. This trend was seen both times Obama was on the ballot leading to the assumption that the Democratic candidate in 2016 has a strong edge. Tom Holbrook at Politics by the Numbers took a closer look at the electoral college. Here is a condensed version for those who want the predictions without going through all the data. The conclusion in the final paragraph is that the Democrats don’t have a “lock” on the Electoral College but do have a strong advantage:

In very gross terms, there is a an important trend in favor of Democratic presidential candidates. Looking just at the direction of movement (ignoring magnitude), there are 29 states that have seen Democratic gains, and 21 states where Republicans have gained strength.  In terms of electoral votes, the states where Democrats have made inroads control 366 electoral votes, while the states with Republican gains control just 169 electoral votes.  This is a substantively large and meaningful difference.  However, it may overstate the case somewhat, since some states in which the parties gained strength were already in the Democratic or Republican column and only became more strongly partisan; and in a few states where a party gained strength (e.g., Mississippi and Georgia for the Democrats, and Minnesota and Wisconsin for the Republicans), their position is improved but they are still at a distinct disadvantage.  And there are a handful of states where movement was very slight, though on balance in one party’s favor…

From this perspective, there has been clear and important movement in the direction of the Democratic party.  The number of states that have moved through this zone in the Democratic direction (and the number of electoral votes associated with them) improves the Democratic position substantially over the past forty years.  A couple of caveats. First, this is only one way to cut the data and the designation of the competitive zone is admittedly arbitrary (as most such designations would be).  Second, this discussion places a premium on a certain type of change and ignores cases in which parties increased their grip on already friendly states.  To be sure, there are a number of Republican and Democratic states where this has happened, and the Republican party has a slight edge in this category…

In the current period, Democratic candidates have a distinct advantage in close national contests. If the average state-level vote is 50%, the expected Democratic Electoral Vote count is 319.  If the average Democratic state vote drops to 48%,  Republicans would be expected to pick up Colorado, Florida, Nevada, and Ohio, but Democrats would still have a fighting chance, with an expected Electoral Vote count of 257.  And, of course, if Democrats carry 52% on average across the states, they win a comfortable Electoral Vote margin.  What is most impressive here is not just the Democratic advantage, but how that advantage has shifted since the 1970s, where the Democratic Electoral Vote was much more proportional to the national popular vote.

It is important to remember that the change in the Democratic advantage is not affected just by changes in patterns of party support across the states but also by changes in the Electoral Votes awarded to the states.  In fact, changes in the distributions of electoral votes have muted the shift in Democratic advantage slightly. For instance, at a 50% average state vote the expected Electoral Vote of Democrats in the 2010s would be 333 if there had been no change in the Electoral College since the 1970s.

There is still no evidence of a Democratic “lock” on the Electoral College, but the data presented here do make a clearer case that Republican presidential candidates face an uphill battle, and that their position has deteriorated over time.  The political landscape has changed appreciably in the last forty years and that change is politically consequential. Of course, all of this raises interesting questions about the causes of the changes in party support, questions I will take up in my next post (soon, I hope).

The causes have been widely discussed and it will be interesting to see if Holbrook comes to the same conclusions based upon the data as most political observers have. The most obvious trend has been for the Republicans to increasingly to have their support concentrated in the south and portions of the west, while losing support in most other states. Demographic changes such as younger voters, more educated voters, and racial changes have all favored the Democrats, leading to some red states turning blue, with others possibly flipping in the future. Holbrook does not see Texas flipping as others have predicted it might in the future.

Democratic advantages among the young and minorities are discussed more often, but the effect of education is also quite significant. In looking at the effects of education on voting trends, it is worth repeating an interesting statistic which I quoted recently from Electoral-Vote.com:

In 1980, when Ronald Reagan was first elected, white voters without college degrees made up 65% of the electorate. In 2012, that number was 36%. Ever since Richard Nixon began his Southern strategy, Republicans have been basing their campaigns on getting older white men without college degrees to back them. They still do, but there aren’t enough of them any more and it is beginning to be a real problem, hence the action in many states to limit who can vote (voter ID requirements) and when they can vote (shortening early voting periods).

Originally posted at Liberal Values