Breaking the Democrats' Electoral College Blue Wall

Many savvy political analysts believe the Democrats have a built in advantage in the Electoral College.  Democrats have won four of the last six Presidential elections, and in all six races, they have won a collection of 18 states plus the District of Columbia, now totaling 242 Electoral College votes. These states include all of the New England states except New Hampshire, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Hawaii, California, Oregon, Washington, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, Illinois, Pennsylvania, and the District of Columbia. Democrats have won 5 of the last 6 Presidential contests in New Hampshire, Iowa, and New Mexico, three states with 15 Electoral College votes.  Since 270 Electoral College votes are needed for victory, if history is a guide, Democrats start off with a collection of states that puts them very close to victory. The blue wall is not mythology.

Republicans also have some states where they have had a string of six straight victories, but there are only 13 of them with 102 electoral college votes: Alaska, Wyoming, Alabama, Kansas, Oklahoma, Idaho, Mississippi, Nebraska, North Dakota, South Dakota, South Carolina, Texas and Utah.  This comparison of 242 versus 102, is not, however, a realistic look at the GOP’s current position. There are several southern or border states, and a few western states that have been reliably Republican in the last four cycles, but voted for Bill Clinton once or twice, including Georgia, Arizona, Louisiana, Arkansas, Missouri, Tennessee, Kentucky, Montana, and West Virginia. Indiana strayed once for Obama in 2008, but otherwise has been won by Republicans in the other five most recent Presidential elections. North Carolina has also been won by Republicans in five of the last six elections, but has been decided by razor thin margins in the last two cycles -- first for Obama in 2008, then for Romney in 2012. It would be foolish to consider North Carolina a safe part of the GOP base at this point. Without North Carolina, the GOP’s effective red wall is 23 states with 191 Electoral College votes. With North Carolina, the GOP is at 206, exactly where Romney finished.

It is apparent that a Republican will not win the White House without winning Florida, Ohio and Virginia. These three states would add 60 Electoral College votes, bringing the GOP to 266. In 2012, Obama won each of these states by narrow margins -- Florida by 0.88%, Ohio by 2.98%, and Virginia by 3.88%, either below or matching  his national margin of victory (3.86%). In essence, they are the next three targets moving up the ladder of difficulty for Republicans. 

The problem for the Republicans in 2012 was that even had the popular vote been a tie, and the 3.86% Democratic national margin been eliminated with a margin shift of exactly 3.86% in each state, they would have won Florida and Ohio, but still lost Virginia and not won any other states. The Democrats’ victory margin in the next closest state won by them was Colorado, with a margin of 5.36%, Pennsylvania at 5.38%, New Hampshire at 5.58% and Iowa at 5.81%. In other words, Republicans would have had to have won the popular vote by over 1.5% to capture both Virginia and Colorado and win the Electoral College.

In reality, if the national margin becomes more favorable to Republicans by 5%, it does not mean that all states will move by 5%. Nate Silver has tracked this sensitivity or elasticity in individual states, and Pennsylvania, as an example is relatively insensitive. So a shift of say 5% in the national popular vote towards Republicans would likely not move the numbers that much in Pennsylvania.  But they might move the numbers by more than 5% in New Hampshire, Iowa and Colorado.

So one path for the GOP to 270 is to hold North Carolina, and win the three essential bigger Electoral College vote states in which they are most competitive: Florida, Ohio and Virginia. Then the GOP needs to win at least one from the list of New Hampshire, Iowa or Colorado. Unless there is a dramatic shift in the popular vote -- 6% or more from 2012  giving the GOP at least a 2% national popular vote margin -- this strategy is something like pulling an inside straight in poker.

There is a strategy, however, which can significantly improve the GOP’s chances in 2016.  This strategy only involves taking advantage of the fact that Republicans control both the Governor’s mansion and the state legislature in a few states that are part of the Democrats’ blue wall. The GOP’s path to victory would be to adopt the approach already used by two states, Maine and Nebraska, in which the party that wins the state’s popular vote wins two Electoral College votes (associated with the two Senators), but the candidate who wins in each congressional district  wins one Electoral College vote for his party. 

The two states where I recommend the Republicans move quickly before 2016 are Michigan (16 Electoral College votes) and Wisconsin (10 Electoral College votes).  Michigan was competitive in 2000 and 2004, but Obama won the state easily both times he ran (9.5% in 2012, and 16.44% in 2008). Wisconsin was almost a tie in both 2000 and 2004, but was a very strong state for Obama, and even with Paul Ryan on the ticket, Obama won in 2012 by 6.94% (and by 13.91% in 2008).  Assuming the Republican nominee for President lost both states, but won the same Congressional districts now held by Republican Congressmen, the GOP would pick up 5 Electoral College votes in Wisconsin, and 9 in Michigan, for a total of 14. 

Some might argue that if Scott Walker is the GOP nominee, then he will win the state’s 10 Electoral College votes under the current system.  Hillary Clinton ran poorly against Obama in the Democratic primary in 2008, and Walker has won a series of statewide votes for Governor and in the recall.  I would counter that Walker is not the certain nominee, and even he is hardly a lock to win the state. Every other Republican candidate would start out as an underdog in the state.  For all the other possible candidates other than Walker, there are states that they would likely win before Wisconsin might fall into their column (Colorado, New Hampshire, and Iowa).  In other words, they probably do not need to win in Wisconsin to win, but the Electoral College votes they might get from a shift in the state’s method of awarding Electoral College votes would be a bonus, improving their chances if they lost Iowa, New Hampshire and Colorado.

Assume Walker were the nominee and won the state under the new system. He would likely claim 7 of the 10 Electoral College votes, a penalty of but 3. On the other hand, any Republican nominee would have a decent shot at picking up 5 while losing the state. Michigan seems a no-brainer. Republicans will not win the state, but can pocket the equivalent of a Colorado by shifting the state’s rules.

Republicans should have done this in Pennsylvania in 2013 or 2014 before they lost the Governor’s race. The rule change in this state might have pocketed the GOP as many as 13 Electoral College votes, even if they lost the state, the same as winning an extra Virginia.

As to the charge that the GOP should abide by the current rules, my response would be to consider what the Democrats did with Senate rules on filibusters of Appeals Court nominees to enable Obama to have dozens of liberal judges confirmed and win control of 9 of the 13 circuits. At this point, given the huge successes the Republicans have had in governors races and state legislatures, they are the only party that can take this step for the 2016 races and gain from it. The GOP could also do this in Ohio and Florida, but it seems the party has a better chance of winning these states outright than is the case for Michigan or Wisconsin, so it makes no sense to give up some Electoral College votes you would gain by winning these states under the current system.  If the Republicans cannot win Florida and Ohio, the other states really do not matter.

In 2008, Barack Obama won 1 of the 3 Congressional districts in Nebraska (the 2nd district).  Republicans won one of Maine’s two House seats in 2014 (the 2nd district). So the two states that have already taken this step include a blue state and a red state.  If Republicans are serious about beating up on the Democrats, and not just each other, the state parties in Michigan and Wisconsin should get moving with legislation.

Update: Oklahoma added to the list of GOP wall states. It was already included in the Electoral Vote total.