The Old College Try


With less than 18 months to go before Election Day 2004, what does the Electoral College picture look like?

Wait, you say. How could even the Crystal Ball pretend to have a fix on electoral votes this far out? The answer is simple: Because of the polarization of the Red and the Blue. As we argued in Overtime: The Election 2000 Thriller, hot-button social issues such as abortion, guns, and gay rights have separated the American states into Blue “Tolerant America” and Red “Traditional America.” And this polarization gives every sign of persisting. As we showed in our new book, Midterm Madness: The 2002 Elections, the Bush and anti-Bush coalitions continue to drive current American politics.

Is it possible that a strong economic recovery, among other factors, could produce a Bush reelection landslide in 2004? Yes, but such an event would not obliterate the Red and the Blue, merely override those tendencies for one election season. Similarly, a double-dip recession might enable the Democratic nominee to capture several Red states and the presidency, yet the underlying split would persist.

These scenarios aside, let’s assume a middle ground set-up for 2004, a soggy but not disastrous economy (no new recession) plus a mixed outlook on national security (continuing terrorist activities but no new 9/11). Further, let’s propose that the Democrats nominate one of their arguably electable candidates in the 2004 field: in alphabetical order, Dean, Edwards, Gephardt, Graham, Kerry, or Lieberman.

Which Democratic candidate does best in the Electoral College under these circumstances?

First, let’s take a glance at the College outlook generically, in a Bush vs. any strong Democratic candidate in a competitive year. Figure 1 illustrates the essence of it, based on a remarkably stable 2000 pattern that has been sustained in hundreds of state-by-state polls as well as the judgments of perceptive political observers across the country. Bush seems to have 231 solid electoral votes, and the Democrat appears to have 210 solid electoral votes. Adding in the leaning (hatched) electoral votes, Bush gets 47 and the Democrat 50. Remember that Bush has secured a bit of a boost from the 2000 Census; his 271 votes then now translate into 278 votes, assuming he carries again all his 2000 states. Yet the overall GOP margin is still thin, given historic standards.

Now, let’s examine candidate-specific maps for the five Democrats named above. Keep in mind that the Crystal Ball has tried to find a plausible way for each one to win the Electoral College – irrespective of current polls and soundings. Not surprisingly, there is some change, yet what is truly astonishing is how little change we see from map to map, at least at this early juncture. And some of the changes are created with a bit of a stretch. Maybe Lieberman can carry Florida, as he almost did for Gore in 2000 – at which point he can win the general election by 287 electoral votes to 258 for Bush. Graham perhaps can do the same, achieving the very same electoral score. If one assumes that Tar Heels will choose to follow one of their own – a very substantial leap of faith given John Edwards’ current unpopularity in North Carolina – then Edwards could eke out a 275 to 263 victory in the Electoral College. Similarly, should Dick Gephardt be able to capture his home state of Missouri, despite never having stood for election on a statewide general election ballot there before, plus grab the union-rich state of West Virginia from Bush, he would squeak to a 276-to-262 electoral triumph. (Without West Virginia, Gephardt still wins by the Bush 2000 margin, 271 to 267.) The only obvious electoral addition John Kerry could make for the Democrats would be New Hampshire, but Bush would still win, 274 to 264. Kerry’s best bet for the margin of victory might be to ask Bill Clinton to spend the campaign’s final month stumping in Arkansas, whose 6 electoral votes would produce exactly the 270 needed for a White House stay.

The Crystal Ball is the first to admit that we are playing electoral games without a program. Who knows in June 2003 what conditions will prevail at the time of the election in November 2004? Thus, a healthy margin of victory for either party is well within the realm of the possible. We would argue, however, that the 2000 map is more than a good starting point for 2004 analysis. The 2000 state alignment is very likely to define the “parameters of the possible” for George W. Bush and his Democratic opponent. Unless Bush is headed for one of those rare 40-to-49-state landslides due to a favorable alignment of all the stars and planets, it is difficult to see the president winning many more electoral votes than the sum of his solid/leaning states (278) and the blue-hatched states currently leaning Democratic (50). Bush’s likely electoral ceiling, then, might well be 278+50=328. And for the Democrats, their ideal Electoral College outcome would be very unlikely to exceed 307 (260 votes in likely/leaning Democratic states plus 47 votes in hatched-red Republican states).

This electoral analysis is but a starting point for 2004, of course. Nonetheless, the current polarization of American politics into the Blue and the Red – while certainly not as vicious as the separation of the Blue from the Gray – is historically astonishing, and somewhat reminiscent of the lingering, century-long estrangement of the North and the South after the Civil War. The Blue states are tolerant/liberal on hot-button social issues such as abortion, gun control, gay rights, and the like, while the Red states are traditional/conservative on these matters. The nation today is divided as much culturally as politically, and these divisions clearly show up on the electoral map.

Again, the Crystal Ball stresses that there are scenarios and circumstances under which 2004’s map will appear dramatically different than 2000’s. However, if our assumption about a competitive election is borne out, the startling conclusion is that it may not matter very much which Democrat among the five clearly electable candidates is chosen to run. Arguably, they all do about as well electorally, not because they are alike in experience and temperament but because they are captives of the Blue and the Red. The continuing political polarization of the 21st century may make the political party label as vital or more vital than the identity of the candidate! With apologies to David Broder, the “party” is not over.