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Thinking Clearly About Population Shifts and Electoral Change

That’s something we should all aspire to, but you won’t be helped by Katherine Seelye’s front-page artice in The New York Times today, “Shifts in States May Give Bush Electoral Edge”. Here’s the basic idea of the article: because of population growth patterns that favor “red states”, those states will have seven more electoral votes in 2004 than in 2000, and “blue states” will have seven less.

True enough, as far as it goes–but we’ve know this to be true for a couple of years, ever since the initial results of the 2000 Census were released. So what’s the excuse for putting this very old news on the front page of the Times? Perhaps because Seelye presents this shift as unambiguously beneficial to the GOP, thereby making--or trying to make--old news into big news.

But the shift in electoral vote totals by state is only one part of the story, as accurately pointed out today in The New Republic’s blog, &c. That’s because the very same factors that may be making a red state grow relatively fast (and gain electoral votes) may also be factors that are making it more accessible to Democrats over time. In other words, a GOP state may be gaining electoral votes even as its probability of going Republican is declining. That means that you can’t assume that, simply because a red state is gaining electoral votes, the overall political effects of population change are unambiguously good for Republicans.

Take Arizona, which gains two electoral votes in 2004. The Democrats in Arizona have done particularly well in the growing Tucson metro area and have been benefitting from the rising Hispanic population, which went from 19 to 25 percent of the state in the 1990s. In addition, the Democrats have been bolstered by a continuing pro-Democratic trend in Maricopa county, the largest county in Arizona and the county with the largest growth in the nation. In 1988, Bush senior carried Maricopa by a 65 to 34 percent margin; in ‘00, his son’s margin was down to just 53-43, a swing of 21 points toward the Democrats.

These trends continued in the 2002 gubernatorial election with Democrat Janet Napolitano carrying Pima county, around Tuscon, by 14 points and only losing Maricopa narrowly to Republican Matt Salmon by 2 points.

So, Arizona gets two more electoral votes in ‘04, even as it is becoming more accessible to the Democrats with every passing year. How does this net out politically for the upcoming election and thereafter? That’s the interesting question for Arizona and most other states Seelye mentions in her article. Maybe she’s saving that analysis for her next article on this topic. But somehow DR doubts it.


this all makes prima facie sense, but what about the other states where the GOP gained and Democrats lost?

Thanks for pointing this out--I saw this article and was pretty annoyed by it, too.

And doesn't it just plain stand to reason that if Bush wins all the states he won in the last election he'll win again, too? No shit, sherlock. It seems to me that this is meant to deflate Democratic hopes but all it does is reinforces a fact we've already known: Whatever Dem is nominated needs to keep all the Gore states and pick up a relatively sizable battleground state like Missouri or even Ohio. Surely not an impossible task...

I find these claims about whether the Republicans or Democrats have an advantage based on the distribution of electoral votes basically beside the point.

The basic fact is this: given the number of states in play, it's virtually impossible for a candidate to have a sizable lead in the popular vote and lose the electoral vote. So if a candidate can manage to win the popular vote by any reasonable margin -- certainly 2% would seem to do -- he will win the electoral vote. A disconnect between the electoral vote and the popular vote will be an issue only in elections so close that they represent an extremely narrow range of likely outcomes. That is, the number of cases in which that disconnect will occur is so small compared to the distribution of likely election outcomes that it can for all practical purposes be ignored.

Fretting about which states have how many electoral votes is mostly just foolishness.

We should also consider the effect on state A when a voter moves to state B. Much of the growth in Florida and Arizona is from immigration from outside the country, but some of it is people moving from Ohio, West Virginia, Pennsylvania, and other northeast/midwest states. Some of those people may have been moderate Republican-leaners, but find in their new environment that the Republicans are much more conservative, and the Democrats less liberal.


We don't even need Ohio or Missouri. Arizona would put us at 270. So would any two state combination of New Hampshire, West Virginia, and Nevada And those states are totally doable.

Jordan in Minnesota: Actually, the Gore states (260EV after the last census) plus New Hampshire (4EV) and either West Virginia (5EV) or Nevada (5EV) would give us only a 269-269 tie, and send the election to the Republican Congress.

I wonder whether Presidential campaign strategies are not significantly hampered by attending way too much to the Electoral vote issue.

The problem with focusing too much on the state by state voting is that it fragments the campaign, and the perception of the candidate, who should, after all, appear to be unified and coherent in his underlying policy goals. When many sops are thrown the way of constituencies in swing states, it compromises the simplicity and appeal of the candidate's message to the great majority of voters.

Given that it is a truly extraordinary occurrence that there is a disconnect between the electoral vote and the popular vote, why should campaign strategy regard as basic addressing the electoral vote issue?

This perception of importance strikes me as being more CW than the product of sound thinking. My own view is that if one strives only to win the popular vote then the electoral vote will, in the vast majority of cases, take care of itself.

I think that people are really fixating on the electoral vote business because of what happened last time. Also, this country is more geographically polarized than it has been for a while, and people can use the red state/blue state shorthand to talk about that.

In fact, if you look at the county level rather than the state level, the polarization is urban/rural rather than state to state. As 'red states' become more dominated by their urban centers, they will become less red (as Mr. Teixeira implies). The demographic question is not just who is moving from state to state, or from outside the US to which state, but where within the states are they moving.

Or so it seems to me.

Redintegro Iraq,

we win arizona (which doesn't have a pretty approval rating for bush), and we win

we're gonna win new hampshire for sure, which will make up for the loss of pennsylvania (more republican since 2000) for ohio (more democrat since 2000). other than that, while we may not win iowa again, or michigan again, or new mexico again, or wisconsin again, or pennsylvania again, but the following "red" states look more like battleground states today:

-new hampshire
-west virginia