The 2008 Potential to Reshape the Electoral Landscape


A whole generation of young Americans may be growing up with the impression that the nation’s electoral map is locked into a rough balance between the Democrats and Republicans, with their states sharply etched in shades of blue and red.

It is an understandable impression. After months of campaigning and the expenditure of hundreds of millions of dollars, only three small states shifted sides from the razor close presidential election of 2000 to the high-stakes shootout of 2004. Iowa and New Mexico moved to the Republicans; New Hampshire switched to the Democrats–a trio that together offered a paltry 16 electoral votes. It was the smallest movement of states from one presidential election to another in almost a century.

But the dramatic success of the Democrats in 2006 may be a harbinger that our familiar red and blue shadings are poised for a perceptible rearrangement in 2008. For not only did the Democrats run well in the party’s strongholds on the two coasts and the battleground states of the Midwest, but they made significant inroads in the Republican heartland as well.

While we have a nearly 50/50 nation in the aggregate, recent elections have shown most of the country to be solidly in one camp or the other. Republicans dominate in the L-shaped interior that includes the South (the states of the old Confederacy plus Kentucky and Oklahoma), the Plains states and the Mountain West (including Alaska). Twenty-six states in all, the Republican “L” gave President George W. Bush all 232 of its electoral votes in 2004.

The Democrats control the two coasts (the Northeast and the Pacific West). Sixteen states plus the District of Columbia, they gave Kerry 194 electoral votes in 2004 to Bush’s five, with West Virginia the lone outlier.

That has left only the industrial Midwest, from Ohio west to Missouri, as a prime regional battleground in recent presidential elections. The eight states in this highly competitive sector broke slightly for Kerry last time–58 electoral votes to 49 for Bush–but not by a margin large enough to give Democrats the White House.

Figure 1. A Virtually Static Map

A total of 29 states voted Republican for president in both 2000 and 2004. Eighteen states (plus D.C.) voted Democratic both times, while only three states switched between parties. It represented the smallest movement of states from one presidential election to another since 1904-08.

Note: Based on the electoral vote tallies in effect for both the 2004 and 2008 presidential elections.

For both parties, the path to victory is comparatively simple. Since their base is a little bigger than the Democrats, the Republicans need merely to protect the “L,” pick off a state or two on the Democratic coasts, and come close to splitting the Midwestern battleground states. George W. Bush did this in 2000 and 2004, registering two narrow Electoral College victories.

For Democrats, the hurdle is a little higher. To offset the deficit in electoral votes in the party’s coastal bastions, they must go well beyond securing their home base, either by dominating the battleground states or by making significant inroads in the Republican heartland. Democrat Bill Clinton did both in the 1990s, twice winning the White House with more than double the number of electoral votes of his Republican rival.

In both 1992 and 1996, Clinton carved so deeply into the Republican “L” that it looked like a piece of Swiss cheese. In 1992, Clinton took nine states within the “L”; in 1996, he won eight. But since then, Republicans have done a masterful job of protecting their base, losing only one state within the “L” in 2000 (New Mexico) and none at all four years later.

That could very well change in 2008. Democrats are not only gearing up to contest the usual hot spots where they fell short the last time–such as Ohio, Iowa, Missouri and Florida, the latter the most highly competitive state of late within the “L.” But they also appear ready to make a run in a number of states that have long been considered part of the Republican base. Many of the Democratic targets of opportunity are in the Mountain West. But an early target list would also include Virginia, where Democrats appear to have found the formula for statewide success by establishing a beachhead in the burgeoning vote-rich suburbs of Northern Virginia.

While the Republicans have regularly carried the Old Dominion in presidential voting since 1964, their margins of victory have been shrinking. When George H.W. Bush won the White House in 1988, he swept Virginia by 21 percentage points. His son’s margin in 2004 was 8 points, marking the fourth straight election that the Republican advantage in Virginia was in single digits.

The trend is also encouraging for the Democrats in much of the Mountain West. Arizona, Colorado, Montana, Nevada and New Mexico all were carried by Clinton at least once in the 1990s. And Democrats came within 5 points of winning Colorado, Nevada and New Mexico again in 2004. Momentum is with the Democrats in the Mountain West. In 2006, they picked up a pair of House seats in Arizona, gained a governorship and an additional House seat in Colorado, and captured a Senate seat in Montana. In Virginia, Democrats followed two successive gubernatorial victories with an upset victory in the 2006 Senate race which gave them control of the U.S. Senate.

To be sure, Republicans have their own targets of opportunity in 2008, led by a quartet of major electoral vote prizes across the industrial Frost Belt including Michigan, Minnesota, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. Each went Democratic last time by a margin of less than 4 percentage points.

Figure 2. ’08 Targets of Opportunity

While current thinking is that 2008 should be a favorable year for the Democrats, both parties will have plenty of targets of opportunity. Following is a list of the states that Republican George W. Bush and Democrat John Kerry carried in 2004 by a margin of less than 10 percentage points. For Kerry, there were a dozen states with 161 electoral votes in this category; for Bush, nine states with 103 electoral votes. BOLD type indicates those states where Democrats picked up a Senate seat and/or a governorship in 2006.

Prime Targets for the Democrats

Won by Bush in 2004 by less that 10 percentage points

Sector of Country Electoral Votes Bush ’04 Margin (pct.) Last Won by Democrats
Iowa Midwest 7 0.7 2000 (Gore)
New Mexico Mountain West 5 0.8 2000 (Gore)
Ohio Midwest 20 2.1 1996 (Clinton)
Nevada Mountain West 5 2.6 1996 (Clinton)
Colorado Mountain West 9 4.7 1992 (Clinton)
Florida South 27 5.0 1996 (Clinton)
Missouri Midwest 11 7.2 1996 (Clinton)
Virginia South 13 8.2 1964 (LBJ)
Arkansas South 6 9.8 1996 (Clinton)

Prime Targets for the Republicans

Won by Kerry in 2004 by less that 10 percentage points

Sector of Country Electoral Votes Kerry ’04 Margin (pct.) Last Won by Republicans
Wisconsin Midwest 10 0.4 1984 (Reagan)
New Hampshire Northeast 4 1.3 2000 (Bush II)
Pennsylvania Northeast 21 2.5 1988 (Bush I)
Michigan Midwest 17 3.4 1988 (Bush I)
Minnesota Midwest 10 3.5 1972 (Nixon)
Oregon Pacific West 7 4.1 1984 (Reagan)
New Jersey Northeast 15 6.7 1988 (Bush I)
Washington Pacific West 11 7.2 1984 (Reagan)
Delaware Northeast 3 7.5 1988 (Bush I)
Hawaii Pacific West 4 8.7 1984 (Reagan)
Maine Northeast 4 9.0 1988 (Bush I)
California Pacific West 55 9.9 1988 (Bush I)

Source: America Votes 27 (CQ Press)

But Republicans have not carried any of these states in presidential voting since 1988. And there were signs in 2006 that in this highly competitive part of the country, the marketability of the Republican brand has reached its lowest point in a generation. The only Senate race that the GOP won last year between the Hudson River and the Great Plains was in Indiana, where Richard Lugar had no Democratic opponent. The only gubernatorial race that Republicans won in this vast sector was in Minnesota, where Tim Pawlenty was reelected by a margin of just 1 percentage point.

It is true that midterm results are not always a harbinger of the presidential election that follows. The Republican takeover of Congress in 1946 was not followed by a GOP presidential victory in 1948. Big Democratic House gains in 1982 did not set the stage for the party’s return to the White House in 1984. Nor was the GOP congressional takeover in 1994 followed by a victorious Republican march down Pennsylvania Avenue in 1996. Yet in each case, there was a politically canny incumbent on the presidential ballot (Harry Truman, Ronald Reagan and Clinton, respectively) who was able to blunt any midterm momentum the “out” party had gained.

That has not been the case, however, in situations similar to this one, where the presidential race is wide open. In each such instance over the last half century–1958, 1966 and 1974 (when there was an “appointed” incumbent in Gerald Ford)–big midterm gains by the “out” party were followed by a presidential election victory two years later, albeit by narrow margins each time.

If the Democrats are to follow this pattern in 2008, they will have to alter what has recently been a virtually static electoral map. But scattered across the Republican “L,” the targets of opportunity are already there for them to redraw the map next year in their favor.

Figure 3. Democratic Gains in 2006 Include Republican Terrain

Democrats picked up six governorships, six Senate seats and 30 House seats in 2006, with success in all parts of the country including the Republican “L.” The “L” has been the GOP base in recent years, covering 26 states in the South, the Plains and the Mountain West (including Alaska). It is a counterweight to the Democratic base on the two coasts (the Northeast and the Pacific West), which encompasses 16 states (plus D.C.). The remaining 8 states are in a swath of the Midwest from Ohio west to Missouri, which has been a prime battleground in recent elections.

’04 Electoral Votes ’06 Democratic Gains
Reps. Dems. Governors Senate House
Republican “L” 232 0 2 (AR, CO) 2 (MT, VA) 10
Midwest Battleground 49 58 1 (OH) 2 (MO, OH) 8
Democratic Coasts 5 194 3 (MD, MA, NY) 2 (PA, RI) 12
NATIONAL 286 252 6 6 30

Source: America Votes 27 (CQ Press)

Note: Republican “L” – South (AL, AR, FL, GA, KY, LA, MS, NC, OK, SC, TN, TX, VA); Plains States (KS, NE, ND, SD); Mountain West (AK, AZ, CO, ID, MT, NV, NM, UT, WY). Midwest Battleground – IL, IN, IA, MI, MN, MO, OH, WI. Democratic Coasts – Northeast (CT, DE, DC, ME, MD, MA, NH, NJ, NY, PA, RI, VT, WV); Pacific West (CA, HI, OR, WA).