Will the GOP be able to compete in the Electoral College?Conventional political wisdom holds that incumbent Presidents are hard to beat. But this year, Mitt Romney and the Republican Party thought they had a good chance. In their view, President Obama’s first term had been a failure: he was presiding over a stagnant economy, high unemployment, and a looming fiscal crisis. The President seemed vulnerable, and indeed, pre-election polls showed a dead heat. But to the chagrin of the American Right, instead of a victory their candidate was roundly defeated – at least in Electoral terms. What many thought would be an election decided in the wee hours of Wednesday morning (or even later), was over by the time the polls closed on the West Coast. In the end, Obama won a second term by a lopsided Electoral Count of 332 to 206, not much less than his landslide four years ago.
In these days after the election, the Republican Party and American Right probably feel like the Democrats and American Left felt eight years ago after George W. Bush won a second term. Confused about losing an election they thought they could win. They are left wondering what went wrong and what do they have to do to stand a better chance in 2016? But from this writer’s perspective, Republicans face a far stiffer challenge today than Democrats did in 2004.
This is not a political blog, and I’m not going to write in any detail about what Republicans should do to win on the national stage, but (looking from the Center) some things appear obvious. It would seem vital to attract a larger share of the Latino vote. This is a large and growing cohort of the electorate and the Republicans can’t afford to get less than 30 percent of their vote like they did this year. A more coherent and less xenophobic stance on immigration would likely go a long way. America, as is often said, is a country of immigrants. This is true and people across the globe have always wanted to come to this country. Immigration is a complex issue, and a blanket open door is almost certainly not the right answer, but neither is a closed door, and Republicans will have to embrace a more welcoming and workable position. Moderating their positions on social issues would be good as well. Abortion may be abhorrent to many on the Right, but an immediate prohibition will never happen, and stridently preaching for one doesn’t help with the larger mass of voters, especially women voters. Neither does, say, stigmatizing homosexuals, or the poor, or painting the government (and by extension government employees) as a parasite feeding on the productive private sector. And Republicans have to do better in articulating their message. If President Obama was vulnerable in this election, especially on economic issues, this argument, as presented by the GOP, clearly didn’t win over the voters. Mid-term elections are supposed to be a referendum on the incumbent, but much of the national discourse in the months leading up to October seemed to be focused not on the President’s first four years, but on the Democratic message that Mitt Romney was an out-of-touch elitist. Republicans clearly lost the rhetorical battle.Romney and his Party didn't do what they needed to do: convince Americans why they were the better choice to lead and not the President and his Party.
All of these are important, but none directly address the largest problem for Republicans, their increasing narrow path to an Electoral majority.
A Growing Electoral Reality
The President won about 50.6% of the national vote to Romney’s 47.9%. This is hardly a landslide, actually down noticeably from 2008, but the 332 to 206 Electoral count, as noted above, was lopsided by any measure. This just continues a trend that’s been evident for a generation. The last Republican Electoral landslide occurred in 1988, when Vice President George H. W. Bush defeated Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis. The Electoral count in that year was 426 to 111, the popular vote 53.4% to 45.7%. Bush 41 (41st President) had been the eight-year Vice President under a very popular President in Ronald Reagan, the last Republican who was truly able to attract Democratic voters. And Dukakis ran a poor campaign. Since then, these have been the Presidential election results:
Year Democrat Republican
Name Electors Popular Vote Name Electors Popular Vote
19921 B. Clinton 370 43.0% G. Bush 168 37.5%
1996 B. Clinton 379 49.2% B. Dole 159 40.7%
2000 A. Gore 266 48.4% G. W. Bush 271 47.9%
2004 J. Kerry 251 48.3% G. W. Bush 286 50.7%
2008 B. Obama 365 52.9% J. McCain 173 45.7%
2012 B. Obama 332 50.6% M. Romney 206 47.9%
The four Democratic victories have been Electoral landslides, the two Republican victories (both by Bush 43) were Electoral squeakers. Tellingly, none of these elections have been popular landslides, at least not in the FDR, LBJ, Regan sense, indicating that the electorate is rather evenly split. But the Electoral College is all that counts and Republicans are falling behind. The 2000 election was just the fourth time in history that the popular vote winner lost the election and famously, or infamously, depending on your political persuasion, the election was ultimately settled by the Supreme Court in the Republican’s favor. The 2004 election saw Bush get a larger percentage of the popular vote than Obama did this year, yet the Republican had to sweat out the Electoral results as Ohio was a very close contest, one that would have swung the election had it gone for Democrat John Kerry.
This year it seemed that all the focus was on the so-called swing states, which included Ohio, Florida, Virginia, North Carolina, Iowa, New Hampshire, Colorado, and Nevada, and stretching a bit, Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania. A Romney victory seemed to require him to win Florida, Virginia, North Carolina, Ohio, and one or two of the other swing states. That’s an awfully narrow path. Meanwhile, President Obama merely needed to carry one or two of these states to easily keep his job. In the end, Romney was only able to swing North Carolina (and Indiana, where he led easily in polling throughout the run-up to the election).
Every election Republicans face an uphill battle because they trail so far behind in “safe” Electoral votes. To emphasize this Republican dilemma, here’s a list of the nation’s thirteen largest states (accounting for 295 Electoral votes, 55% of the total) and the last election in which they were carried by a Republican:
- California (55) – 1988
- Texas (38) – 2012
- New York (29) – 1984
- Florida (29) – 2004
- Pennsylvania (20) – 1988
- Illinois (20) – 1988
- Ohio (18) – 2004
- Georgia (16) – 2012
- Michigan (16) – 1988
- North Carolina (15) – 2012
- New Jersey (14) – 1988
- Virginia (13) – 2004
- Washington (12) – 1984
George H.W. Bush - the last Republican to win "big"Just three of these states, Texas, Georgia, and North Carolina, were carried by Romney this year for a total of 69 Electoral votes. The other 10 went for Obama (most easily) for a total of 226 Electoral votes. In 2004, Bush was able to carry six of these states (Texas, Florida, Ohio, Georgia, North Carolina, and Virginia) for a total 129 Electoral votes (2012 count). This compares to the other seven states, and their 166 Electoral votes for Kerry. And this is realistically the best that Republicans can currently hope for. A majority of these large states (the seven that went for Kerry in 2004) are very “blue” and haven’t been carried by a Republican since the 1980s, which is now a long time ago. If this Electoral structural reality doesn’t change, the GOP stands little better chance to win in 2016 and beyond. Today, the Republicans virtually cede California, New York, and Illinois to the Democrats. The only “safe” big state for the Republicans is “red” Texas.2
Whatever plans the Republican Party has to regain the presidency in future years, a primary focus must be on reengaging voters in states they’ve largely abandoned, which includes many of America’s largest cities: New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Philadelphia, San Francisco, San Diego, Washington, Minneapolis, Pittsburgh, Seattle, Boston, Baltimore, Detroit, and Portland. The GOP can’t expect results like 2000 or 2004 where almost everything goes right and they eke out a win. If Republicans don’t do better in the “blue” areas, America will settle into a long run of Democratic presidents. This has happened before; from 1932 through 1968 during the New Deal-Great Society era, Democrats controlled the White House in all but eight years (Eisenhower 1953-613). If you’re a Democratic this possibility will seem a good outcome, but in a country where nearly half the electorate voted against the incumbent Democratic President, one-party-domination is probably not a good thing.
The country, I think, benefits from a fairly regular change in presidential party affiliation, perhaps something similar to what we’ve seen over the last generation with a couple of Republican terms (1981-93 and 2001-09) followed by a couple of Democratic terms (1993-01 and 2009-17 – at least). This, in my view, helps to ensure that all viewpoints are heard and all constituencies are considered in the national political debate. In theory anyway (and people more ideologically minded will disagree). But this switching of presidential leadership isn’t likely if the GOP doesn’t perform better in the Electoral College, and this won’t happen until they get back into those “deep blue” parts of the country that have led to the Democratic predominance over the last generation.
1. 1992 was the last election where a third-party candidate, Ross Perot in this case, garnered a significant proportion of the votes. He won no state and zero Electors, but did get nearly 19% of the popular vote. Perot’s presence in the election almost certainly affected the outcome. It’s also the last year that a President failed to win a second term. Perot would run again in 1966 and win more than 8% of the vote, but almost certainly didn’t affect the outcome.
2. I find it ironic that the color red is closely affiliated with both international communism (when that was still as thing, e.g., Red China and that blood red Soviet flag) and the conservative Republican Party. One side is (was) economically collectivist and Godless, the other advocates for the free market and is buttressed by dedicated support from evangelicals.
3.And during Eisenhower’s two terms, the Democrats controlled both chambers of Congress for all but the first two (1953-55) years.