The Fickle Electorate

The fickleness of the electorate is due mainly to what I call its “squishy center“. The squishiness has often spread far beyond the center, to engulf huge chunks of the electorate.

The maps below illustrate this by contrasting electoral-vote outcomes for successive elections in which electoral-vote outcomes swung wildly. The maps are borrowed from Dave Leip’s Atlas of U.S. Presidential Elections. Leip uses red for Democrat, blue for Republican, and green for third-party candidates. The color for each State indicates the party affiliation of the candidate who won the State’s electoral votes. The shading (from darker to lighter) indicates the width of the candidate’s popular-vote victory in the State (from landslide to squeaker).

1. William Howard Taft (R) won convincingly in 1908 — taking most of the States outside the “solid (Democrat) South“, but went down in flames in 1912. That election was won by Woodrow Wilson (D), mainly because of the Progressive Party candidacy of Theodore Roosevelt. TR took won more States (those in green) than did WHT.



2. Wilson easily won re-election in 1916, but disillusionment set in and Warren G. Harding (R) coasted to victory in 1920, losing only the “solid South” (minus Tennessee).



3. Another eight years and another romp, this time by Herbert C. Hoover (R) in the election of 1928. Hoover took a chunk out of the “solid South” because his main opponent was Alfred Emmanuel Smith (D), a Catholic New Yorker. Hoover, in turn, was trounced by Franklin Delano Roosevelt (D) because of the onset of the Great Depression during Hoover’s term  of office. (It is a widely ignored fact that FDR’s policies only prolonged the depression.)



4. Harry S Truman (D) won the 1948 election by a comfortable electoral-vote margin. It would have been more comfortable had not four States of the “solid South” succumbed to Strom Thurmond’s “Dixiecrat” (segregationist) allure. Dwight D. Eisenhower (R) turned the tables in 1952 by sweeping the electoral map outside of the “solid South” and even encroaching on it.



5. The election of 1964 pitted Barry M. Goldwater (R) against the incumbent-via-murder, Lyndon B. Johnson (D). LBJ’s incumbency and scare tactics were repaid by the electoral votes of all but Goldwater’s home State (Arizona) and some States of what was by then becoming the “solid (Republican) South”. You know the rest of the story: The rancor ignited by the Vietnam War and urban (black) riots led to a convincing defeat for Hubert H. Humphrey, the Democrat who ran when LBJ turned tail for Texas. The winner, Richard M. Nixon (R), would have won even more handily had it not been for the segregationist candidacy of George C. Wallace.



6. The electoral whipsaw effect intensified in the elections of 1972, 1976, and 1980. Nixon won the first of them in the most lopsided electoral-vote victory since FDR’s near-sweep in 1936. Dreams (or nightmares) of a Republican era were dashed by the Watergate scandal and Nixon’s resignation. In the aftermath, James E. (Jimmy) Carter (D) handily beat Gerald R. Ford (R). Carter’s victory was due in large part to Southern voters who temporarily returned to the Democrat fold because Carter (a Georgian) was perceived as “one of them”, even though he wasn’t (by a country mile). Carter’s ineptness as president was duly rewarded in 1980 when Ronald W. Reagan (R) came close to sweeping all of the States. (He came even closer in 1984, when he lost only Minnesota, the home state of his Democrat opponent, and D.C. — of course.)




7. The last of the wild swings (thus far) occurred in the elections of 1988 and 1992. George H.W. Bush (R) handily won the former election. He might well have won in 1992 but for the intervention of H. Ross Perot, whose third-party candidacy tipped the scales to William J. Clinton — in an eerie re-run of the election of 1912. Clinton, like Carter in 1976, was also helped by the perception that he was a Southern boy — thus his inroads into what by then had become the “solid (Republican) South”.



What will 2020 bring? I made a guess soon after the election of 2016.

All the business of war, and indeed all the business of life, is to endeavour to find out what you don’t know by what you do; that’s what I called ‘guessing what was at the other side of the hill’.

Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington

The next presidential election is just on the other side of the hill. God save America from a reversal of the last one.

What Blue Wave?

Are Democrat spinmeisters or the mainstream media (pardon the redundancy) correct in believing that Roy Moore’s loss in Alabama means that 2018 will see a “Blue Wave”, in which Democrats retake one or both houses of Congress? Wasn’t Moore’s loss a continuation of the Dems’ “stunning” sweep of statewide offices in Virginia? Doesn’t all of that portend a repudiation of Trump in 2020?

The answers are “no”, “no”, and “no”. Moore’s loss was a one-off event that had everything to do with Roy Moore and nothing to do with the political leanings of Alabamans. It is ludicrous to believe that Alabama has suddenly become a Purple State when Trump’s 64-percent share of the two-party vote surpassed the share received by any GOP candidate since Richard Nixon in 1972.

It is similarly ludicrous to believe anything about the elections in Virginia other than their consistency with that State’s burgeoning blueness. Bush II, for example, took 54 percent of Virginia’s two-party vote in 2000 and 2004, but McCain, Romney, and Trump won only 47-48 percent in 2008-2016. The Old Dominion is increasingly dominated by the rapidly growing cities and counties of Northern Virginia that are political appendages to Washington DC. (The same is true of Maryland and its rapidly growing appendages to DC.)

The 2018 elections will hinge manly on how voters feel about what the GOP-controlled Congress has done for them. And by election day 2018, most of them will be feeling a lot better because the government is taking a lot less from their paychecks. Continued revival of the economy will also help to buoy voters’ spirits. Unless something very bad happens between now and election day, a pro-incumbent mood will sweep most of the land. There will be exceptions, of course, as this or that Representative or Senator is exposed as a philanderer, swindler, or something else unseemly. But those exceptions tend to affect Democrats just as much as Republicans.

What is actually happening, in the grand scheme of things?

A naive forecast of the 2016 presidential election, based on State-by-State trends between 2008 and 2012, produces 245 electoral votes for Trump. The naive forecast doesn’t predict a Trump win in any State that he lost. Moreover, it under-predicts the extent of the pro-GOP movement in Iowa, Michigan, Ohio, and Pennsylvania — States that Trump won, and the electoral votes of which put Trump over the top.

A naive forecast of the 2020 outcome,  based on State-by-State trends from 2008 through 2016, produces 329 electoral votes for the GOP candidate. Iowa, Michigan, Ohio, and Pennsylvania will be joined by Maine, Minnesota, Nevada, and New Hampshire as Red States.

As an old saying (of mine) goes, trends are made to be broken. But the betting here is that the 2018 and 2020 elections are the Republicans’ to lose.

Speaking of trends, here are some relevant graphs:

The first graph covers 10 States that were Red in 2000 and have led the way in becoming Redder since then. Note that all 10 have rebounded from the Obama effect in 2008, which was the occasion of temporary insanity among many voters who usually pull the lever for GOP candidates.

The second graph covers the 10 States that have led the way in turning Blue or Bluer since 2000. You will note that even among some of these States Obama-mania shows signs of wearing off. Only California and DC seem determined to plunge deeper into political madness.

California, by the way, more than accounts for Clinton’s popular-vote “victory” over Trump. (Clinton won California by 4.3 million votes, as against her meaningless nationwide margin of 2.9 million votes.) This is further proof, if proof were needed, of the Framers’ wisdom in creating the Electoral College. It is also a big point in favor of my fearless forecast for 2020.

Related posts:
“Blue Wall” Hype
Polarization and De-facto Partition
The Midwest Is a State of Mind

Big Losers and Donald Trump

Republican William Howard Taft lost his bid for re-election in 1912 to Democrat Woodrow Wilson , thanks to the candidacy of former Republican president Theodore Roosevelt, who ran on the Progressive ticket. Because of TR’s entry into the race, Taft won only 23 percent of the popular vote (he took 52 percent in the election of 1908), against Wilson’s 42 percent and TR’s 35 percent. Taft’s reverse coattails helped the GOP lose ground in the House and Senate. The GOP, which had won 41 percent of House seats in the election of 1910, dropped to 31 percent in 1912. And in the Senate the GOP went from 54 percent to 46 percent.

The next big loser was Democrat James Cox, who took only 34 of the popular vote in 1920, while Republican Warren G. Harding took 60 percent. With Harding’s big win, the GOP ran its House majority from 55 percent to 69 percent, and its Senate majority from 51 percent to 61 percent.

Democrat Franklin D. Roosevelt won re-election in 1936 with 61 percent of the popular vote. FDR’s Republican opponent, Alfred Landon, won only 37 percent. The GOP’s share of House seats dropped from 24 percent to 20 percent. In the Senate, the GOP went from 26 percent to 17 percent. Both results are low-water marks for Republican representation in Congress.

Democrat Lyndon B. Johnson duplicated FDR’s feat by winning in 1968 with 61 percent of the popular vote. Republican Barry Goldwater garnered only 38 percent. The GOP’s shares of House and Senate dropped by 8 percentage points (from 40 percent to 32 percent) and 2 percentage points (from 34 percent to 32 percent).

Republican Richard Nixon won re-election in 1972, taking 61 percent of the popular vote to Democrat George McGovern’s 38 percent. Nixon’s win led to a mild GOP resurgence in the House, from 41 percent to 44 percent. But the GOP lost ground in the Senate, dropping from 45 percent to 43 percent.

The  most recent election that resembled a landslide victory was in 1984, when Republican Ronald Reagan won re-election with 59 percent of the popular vote. Democrat Walter Mondale managed 41 percent. Reagan’s big win helped the GOP increase its share of House seats from 38 percent to 42 percent. But the Senate went the other way, with the GOP share dropping from 55 percent to 53 percent.

It seems that ticket-splitting has become more usual. And that’s a good thing if, as expected, Donald Trump loses to Hillary Clinton in November. It doesn’t seem, as of now, that Trump will be a loser on the scale of Taft, et al., but a loser nonetheless (in two meanings of loser). The only thing that will keep Trump from joining the really big losers is the identity of his opponent, who in saner times would already be in jail — with her husband.

There’s still hope that the Republican convention will yield a nominee other than Trump, but that’s a faint hope at this point.

The Name Game

With the Social Security baby-name database, one can find the popularity* of a newborn’s name in any year from 1880 through 2011. Armed with the database, I set out to determine whether the relative popularity of presidential candidates’ names had any bearing on the outcome of the 33 elections of 1880-2008. Here is what I learned from an analysis of the names of the two leading candidates** in each of the 33 elections:

  • The candidate with the more popular name — in the year of the election — won only 15 times out of 33.
  • Ten of the winners with the more popular name were Republicans.
  • Ten of the 18 winners with the less popular name were Democrats.
  • The Democrat had the less popular name in 20 of the 33 elections.

The moral of the story: It is a slight disadvantage to have a popular name. Democrats are more likely than Republicans to have weird names. This latter tendency confers a slight advantage on Democrat candidates.

What about 2012? Willard (Mitt Romney’s first name) has not been in the top 1,000 since 1989, but it was in the top 1,000 in every year before that — ranking as high as 58th in 1915. Barack, needless to say, has never been in the top 1,000. It seems likely that Willard is somewhat more popular than Barack, even now.***

But Mitt — like Grover, Woodrow, and Calvin — is the name in the political arena. And I have no reason to believe that Mitt is any more popular than Barack. If Barack is the less-popular name, that might count as an advantage for Obama. But a less-than-dismal performance in a debate would do him more good than his weird name.

* Restricted to the top 1,000 boys’ names and the top 1,000 girls’ names in each year.

** All of them Republicans and Democrats, except in 1912, when Theodore Roosevelt ran on the Progressive ticket and was the runner-up to Woodrow Wilson.

*** It does not seem that presidents’ first names become more popular during their time in office. The rank of Grover (Cleveland) went from 20 in 1884 (when Cleveland was first elected) to 47 in 1892 (the year of Cleveland’s second victory). Benjamin (Harrison) dropped from 25 in 1888 to 42 in 1892. Woodrow (Wilson) barely budged, going from 192 in 1912 to 190th in 1916. Herbert (Hoover) was 25 in 1928 and 44 in 1932 (another victim of the Great Depression, no doubt). Franklin (Roosevelt) went from 66 to 65 to 87 to 112 (in 1932, 1936, 1940, and 1944, respectively). Dwight (Eisenhower) was 123 in 1952 and 139 in 1956. (And, lest you think that Dwight should have been a Democrat, remember that his opponent was the more weirdly named Adlai — or Adelaide, as some wags called him.) Richard (Nixon) fell from 8 in 1968 to 14 in 1972 (and, unsurprisingly, kept falling steadily thereafter, to 127 in 2010-2011). Ronald (Reagan) went from 58 in 1980 to 67 in 1984. George (Bush I and II) declined from 78 (1988) to 95 (1992) to 130 (2000) to 146 (2004). George has come a long way (down) since Washington was first in the hearts of his countrymen.

A Long Row to Hoe

In “A Welcome Trend,” I point to Obama’s declining popularity and note that

the trend — if it continues — offers hope for GOP gains in the mid-term elections, if not a one-term Obama-cy.

Of course, it is early days yet. Popularity lost can be regained. Clinton succeeded in making himself so unpopular during his first two years in office that the GOP was able to seize control of Congress in the 1994 mid-term elections. But Clinton was able to regroup, win re-election in 1996, and leave the presidency riding high in the polls, despite (or perhaps because of) his impeachment.

Focusing on 2012, and assuming that Obama runs for re-election, what must the GOP do to unseat him? In “There Is Hope in Mudville,” I offer this:

What about 2012? Can the GOP beat Obama? Why not? A 9-State swing would do the job, and Bush managed a 10-State swing in winning the 2000 election. If Bush can do it, almost anyone can do it — well, anyone but another ersatz conservative like Bob Dolt or John McLame.

Not so fast. A closer look at the results of the 2008 election is in order:

  • Based on the results of the 2004-2008 elections, I had pegged Iowa, New Hampshire, and New Mexico as tossup States: McCain lost them by 9.5, 9.6, and 15.1 percentage points, respectively.
  • I had designated Florida, Ohio, and Nevada as swing-Red States — close, but generally leaning toward the GOP. McCain lost the swing-Red States by 2.8, 4.6, and 12.5 percentage points, respectively.
  • Of the seven States I had designated as leaning-Red, McCain lost Viginia (6.3 percentage points) and Colorado (9.0 percentage points). (He held onto Missouri by only 0.1 percentage point.)
  • McCain also managed to lose two firm-Red States: North Carolina (0.3) and Indiana (1.0).

The tossups are no longer tossups. It will take a strong GOP candidate to reclaim them in 2012. The same goes for Nevada, Virginia, and Colorado. Only Florida, Ohio, North Carolina, and Indiana are within easy reach for the GOP’s next nominee.

McCain did better than Bush in the following States: Oklahoma, Alabama, Louisiana, West Virginia, Tennessee, and Massachusetts. The first five were already firm- and leaning-Red, so McCain’s showing there was meaningless. His small gain in Massachusetts (1.7 percentage points) is likewise meaningless; Obama won the Bay State by 25.8 percentage points. In sum, there is no solace to be found in McCain’s showing.

The GOP can win in 2012 only if

  • Obama descends into Bush-like unpopularity, and stays there; or
  • Obama remains a divisive figure (which he is, all posturing to the contrary) and the GOP somehow nominates a candidate who is a crowd-pleaser and a principled, articulate spokesman for limited government.

The GOP must not offer a candidate who promises to do what Obama would do to this country, only to do it more effectively and efficiently. The “base” will stay home in droves, and Obama will coast to victory — regardless of his unpopularity and divisiveness.

I hereby temper the optimistic tone of my earlier posts. The GOP has a long row to hoe.