Politics & Policy

Red States and Blue States Are a Myth

Trump speaks at a campaign rally in Wilkes-Barre, Pa., in April. (Reuters photo: Brendad McDermid)

On Election Night 2016, I found myself at BuzzFeed’s offices in New York City.

They had embarked on a bold live streaming show with the aim of mocking traditional network coverage and providing a fun, straight-to-the-point program of returns, tweets, and Millennial-centric fare. Behind the scenes, this meant practice runs of the night.

Our first trial rehearsal involved a scenario many at the time thought unlikely, if not impossible: a Trump win.

And the trial we ran, in fact, turned out to be closer to the reality of the night than any publicized election whiz’s projection.

His victory wasn’t out of the blue: The New York Times’ Nate Cohn had written about his potential to tap white blue-collar voters north of the Mason-Dixon line, I’ve spilled ink here and at The Federalist describing the changing registration patterns and untapped voters, and the Cook Political Report’s Dave Wasserman waxed about Pennsylvania’s value back in June. But it was still a shock that, after the Keystone State had tempted and ensnared so many Republicans, it was Donald Trump and his team who took it home.

Pennsylvania’s intransigence, and then substantial shift into the red column, symbolizes this year’s surprising lesson:

It is foolish to look at the national map as a collection of red and blue states. Over the long march of time, all of them are purple.

Utah voted for Johnson. Georgia voted for Clinton. Texas for Carter. New York for Reagan. California for H.W. Bush. Minnesota for Nixon.

States may favor, for a variety of reasons, one party, but they are not permanently locked in — crackpot conspiracies of deliberate demographic changes through immigration and equally crackpot proclamations of demographics-driven eternal victories be equally damned.

It is foolish to look at the national map as a collection of red and blue states. Over the long march of time, all of them are purple.

It is much better to think of the states as giant continental plates, always slowly moving across a mantle of voter restlessness. This continues until a candidate, event, or some combination forces a political earthquake — like 2016. The changes are constant, and are almost always evident if you look carefully enough.

A clear example of this was the Republicans’ red wall in the Electoral College. Wait, you say, I thought the Democrats had the blue wall?

But in fact Republicans had a set of states that faithfully provided them over 200 electoral votes consistently from 1968 through 1988. A coalition of Western voters, suburban bastions in Illinois, New Jersey, and California, and migrants to the Sun Belt seemed impenetrable.

But, even before the map shifted, changes were evident as early as the 1980 election. Moderate Republican John Anderson performed strongest in many states that would leave the red bloc, like Vermont, Maine, Oregon, and Washington:

States by Share of Vote for John Anderson

Michael Dukakis’s strategy of campaigning for just 18 states, in fact, was based on trying to win many of these weaker states.

It proved to be a Hail Mary in 1988, but the states he tried to win became durable Democratic states for the next two decades:

1992–2012 Presidential Preference of Dukakis’s 18-State Strategy States

But again, even as Democrats enjoyed win after win, frustrating Republican strategists and fueling (disillusioned) fears of permanent minority status, changes were occurring within this backbone of Democratic strategy.

Long-term changes in the political leanings of states serves as a much better predictor of results than early-vote tallies or endorsements. Dating back to 2015 primary polling, Hillary Clinton had troubling numbers in the Upper Midwest; she saw disproportionate drops in primary votes in large pockets of Pennsylvania, including Lackawanna, Luzerne, and Philadelphia Counties; and Trump was polling strongly in Maine’s 2nd Congressional District and Iowa.

In 2013, I penned an article about the bizarre electoral strategy of Mitt Romney, and in it, insisted that certain states that leaned towards the GOP commanded attention — Pennsylvania prominent among them — while others needed to be let go. Watching changes in how states leaned relative to the national vote, clear areas of weakness had presented themselves, and Republicans weren’t paying attention. These ideas were frequently scoffed at: Nate Cohn’s suggestion that there were more white voters out there than we thought, and that Barack Obama had actually done pretty decently among them in the North, got far too little attention. Trump’s team drew jeers by regarding these voters as their path to victory.

And  yet, they existed in large enough concentrations for him to pull off the upset. There was no better example of this than that supposedly blue cache of electoral votes, and my white whale, Pennsylvania.

Throughout the cycle, I assumed ultimately that Clinton would still win Pennsylvania, and with it, the presidency. That was based on the assumption that the Trump campaign we were seeing publicly — limited ground game, low on funds — would ultimately fail to capitalize on the opportunity. The polling, too, showed a small but consistent lead for her there. Much of the public data was telling me, “brace for the Moby Dick jokes after Election Day.”

Still, with my strong devotion to the idea that the state was bound to move, and my stronger desire not to be wrong, I watched Pennsylvania’s weekly registration updates. I saw Republicans continue to outpace Democrats in registration growth, well after the primary had finished.

This didn’t seem like just smoke: How could Trump be doing so well in Iowa, but not better than expected in Pennsylvania? I remember 2012 well, and didn’t want to be wrong disbelieving the polls.

As the days ticked down, polling activity was increasing in the state. That many polls couldn’t be off. But what if they were missing a mass movement of voters?

Well, they did.

Remember: Politically, no state ever stands still.

Trump’s victory in Pennsylvania – and Wisconsin and Michigan – was a real shock for many. A still-wider view, county by county, reveals a whole region in flux that was moved considerably by his campaign. Minnesota still went for Mrs. Clinton, but its lean relative to the national vote was Republican for the first time in six decades. Trump won a majority of counties in New Hampshire, a clear majority of townships, fared well in its more populated areas, and barely lost the state. It too voted more Republican than the country as a whole.

When you look at how many electoral votes leaned to the left or right of the national vote (for example, Pennsylvania was about 1.5 points more Democratic than the national popular vote), the partisan slant of the Electoral College changed sizably. Democrats enjoyed it in 2012, when only 253 electoral votes fell to the right of the national result. In 2016, it swung  dramatically to the Republicans: 32 states and a congressional district in Maine worth 320 electoral votes landed to the right this time.

Many Democrats and detractors are now hoping for a total disaster from the Trump presidency and banking on 2016 as an aberration.

But their situation is much more serious than that. The Democrats are in a talent hole, whether they accept it or not, thanks to a massive hollowing out of the farm teams we call state legislatures. In the event Trump’s four years aren’t perceived as disastrous, and with a bench about as thin as they had this time around, what would things look like, electorally, if he wins reelection? Would there be any bright spots for Democrats, any subtle shifts in a now dominant-looking Republican map?

It’s always fun to speculate and imagine the next map, at least for me: Revisiting these predictions some time hence can help keep us honest.

So, let’s play out a scenario where Trump wins reelection. I imagine that if he is successful enough to do that, he persuaded weary suburbanites from 2016 to pull for him, in addition to holding onto most of his white-working-class base. That one-two combination wins him the popular vote (as Republican-leaning suburbanites well beyond the swing states move into his column), very likely hands him New Hampshire, most of Maine, Nevada, and Minnesota, and will yield some surprisingly close states in the Northeast: a four- or five-point loss in Delaware, New Jersey, and Connecticut, and a ten-point deficit in New York, certainly wouldn’t be off the mark here.

#related#For the out-party, of course there are, and would be, a few bright patches. Remember: No state stands still. Democrats have been whittling away at Arizona, Georgia, and Texas slowly, and have put Colorado, New Mexico, and Virginia rather convincingly into their column (at least for now). We could see a reelected Trump do relatively worse in the first three, and probably lose the latter three, so there will still remain some sort of path forward. Democrats will also continue to fight hard in Nevada, North Carolina, and Florida, states where changing demographics can give them a boost.

Democrats failed to rewrite the map in their favor this year: They invested in Arizona or Georgia but still came up short, and are still a long ways off in Texas. But those states have been gradually moving in their favor — just as the Upper Midwest, Pennsylvania, and pockets of the Northeast shifted Republican in a way unthinkable just eight years ago.

Ultimately, the political map is like the weather: if you don’t like it, just wait a while.

— Brandon Finnigan is the founder of Decision Desk HQ, the only national election-night-results reporting site completely independent from the wire services. His bipartisan team also provides election analysis of congressional, gubernatorial, and presidential races. You can subscribe and support their work at daily.decisiondeskhq.com.

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