Thursday, September 26, 2013

States of Change

Not long after the 2012 election some observers noted an increasing Democratic "lock" on the Electoral College. Although Republican nominee Mitt Romney's campaign took a lot of heat for losing election, there has developed a general sense that changing demographics in key states are setting the stage for continued Republican difficulties in years to come. By this account, increasing numbers of Latino and Black voters--both heavily Democratic groups--in some areas have moved enough states to the Democratic column that Republican presidential candidates face an uphill battle in anything other than a bad Democratic year.   And there is every reason to expect this demographic trend to continue. This idea has gained enough currency that some Democrats even see Texas, with its increasing Latino population, turning blue at some point in the future.

My interest here is in documenting the changes party fortunes in the states and trying to get a sense of which changes are of greatest consequence to the race to 270.  Of course, I am not only interested in where Democrats have strengthened their position but also where they have lost ground to Republicans; for there are clearly parts of the country where Democratic prospects have dimmed appreciably over time.

I use state-level presidential election returns from 1972 to 2012 to document the trends in party support. The starting date for this type of analysis is somewhat arbitrary, but using 1972 puts us on this side of the beginning of partisan changes in response to party strategies related to civil rights.  I focus on the trend over time in the centered (around the fifty-state mean) Democratic share of the two-party vote, separately for each state.  Centering the vote allows me to focus on each state relative to all other states without worrying about overall swings in party fortunes from one election to the next.  So the focus is not on which party wins or loses a state, but on support for the Democratic party over time in a given state,  relative to all other states.  To gauge the trend over time I regress vote share on year, separately for each state, and also included dummy variables for presidential and vice-presidential home state advantage, as well as one for southern states in 1976 and 2000.  The southern dummy variable is necessary to capture the unnaturally high level of support for the Democratic ticket in the south in response to the candidacy of former Georgia Governor Jimmy Carter.  I then used the results from the state-by-state regression models to estimate the trend in Democratic support over time.  In doing this I set the values for the dummy variables to zero so the "predictions" reflect the trend over time exclusive of these transitory perturbations.

The figures below document the changes in Democratic fortunes.  In each figure, the solid straight line represents the estimated trend in Democratic support over time, and the points represent the actual election outcomes.  It is important to recall that in some cases the trend line does not appear to fit the scatter plot as well as it "should" because it excludes the effects of home state advantages and the southern advantages in 1976 and 1980 (see MS and GA as exemplars of this phenomenon).  It is also worth pointing out that the observations above the zero point (dashed line) are not necessarily cases in which the Democratic candidate won the state; instead, these are cases in which the Democratic candidate fared better than he did, on average, across the fifty states.

The panel of graphs below displays the pattern of partisan change among those twenty-five states in which the Democrats have seen their greatest gains, ordered by magnitude of gains from upper left (across rows) to lower right.  These states generally fall into four different categories.  First there are those states that moved from somewhat competitive to favoring the Democratic candidate: California, Delaware, Connecticut,  Hawaii, Illinois, Maine, Maryland, New Jersey, New Mexico (very slightly), New York, Vermont, and Washington.  Some of these states leaned slightly Democratic in the early 1970s while others were truly toss-up states; but almost all of them have moved comfortably into the Democratic column.  These changes represent an important net gain for the Democratic party. As a group, these states comprise 166 electoral votes that the Democrats can count on now much more confidently than they could forty years ago.

Twenty-Five States with the Greatest Democratic Gains 
in Presidential Elections from 1972 to 2012

Another important group consists of those states that moved from tilting Republican to being truly competitive: Colorado, Florida, New Hampshire, Nevada, and Virginia.  To be sure, these are not states that the Democratic candidate can count on--they are, after all, competitive--but they are states that used to be much farther out of reach for the Democrats and now are up for grabs.  Together these states comprise 61 additional electoral votes in states that have moved toward the Democratic party.

Finally, we have states that were strongly Democratic and became even more so (Massachusetts and Rhode Island), and several states where the change was either very slight and didn't alter the general outlook for either party (Arizona, Georgia, and Mississippi), or that can best be described as flat-liners, impervious to whatever process has driven the changes in other states (Michigan, Oregon, and South Carolina).  Technically, there has been some change in this latter group of states but it is so slight that it is barely discernible in these plots.

Of course, not all states have trended so favorably toward the Democrats.  The panel of graphs below illustrates the pattern of party change in the remaining states, where Democrats either lost  ground to Republicans or just managed to hold their own.  One state that stands out here is West Virginia, which has shifted from a place where the Democratic candidate typically ran ahead of his performance across the other forty-nine states to a place that now appears to be a long shot for Democratic candidates.   Minnesota is another interesting state.  Although the Democratic candidate continues to fare slightly better in Minnesota than in the rest of the country, there has been a very gradual decline in that advantage.  Democrats continue to win there, but Minnesota is somewhat more competitive now than it was thirty or forty years ago.

Probably the most consequential set of states in this figure are those that have moved from being somewhat competitive to being out of reach for the Democratic candidate: Arkansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Montana, South Dakota, Tennessee, and Texas (so much for Texas turning Blue--see above).   In strong Democratic years, they were once possible pickups for the Democrats, but they now appear to be out of reach.  As a group these states, along with West Virginia and Minnesota,  constitute 92 Electoral Votes. 

Twenty-Five States the Greatest Democratic Losses (or smallest gains)
in Presidential Elections from 1972 to 2012

Of course, there are a number of states that were fairly Republican in the early 1970s and have become more so over time: Alabama, Alaska, Idaho, Kansas, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Utah, and Wyoming.  And there is also another group of flat-liners, which includes states with very, very slight Democratic decline (Indiana, Missouri, Nebraska, North Carolina, and Wisconsin), and a group with almost imperceptible Democratic gains (Iowa, Ohio, and Pennsylvania).   These states (flat-liners and Republican states that became more Republican) don't really have much of an impact on the on the partisan advantage in the Electoral College.

While the figures above provide a lot of state-by-state detail, the same information can also be summarized using a heat map and the by-now-familiar Red/Blue schema.  The interactive map pasted below shows how states have changed over the the last forty years. 

Changes in the Centered Democratic Share of the Two-Party Vote in U.S. 
Presidential Elections, 1972-2012
(Blue=DemocraticAdvantage, Red=Republican Advantage)

In keeping with data already presented, the dominant patterns over time are purplish states turning blue, followed by fewer purple states turning red, some reddish states turning even redder, and a number of reddish states turning purple.1

The movements over time have clearly favored the Democratic Party. Those states that have moved from somewhat competitive to Democratic, or from leaning Republican to fairly competitive, combine for a total of 227 electoral votes. Among those states that have made similar shifts toward the Republican Party (other than those that were in the Republican column to begin with), the electoral vote count is only 92. Perhaps the worst news for the Republican party is that there is only a single large state that has moved in their direction: Texas, which has gone from leaning slightly Republican to being a strong Republican state. Contrast that with the Democrats, who have seen California, Illinois, New Jersey, and New York move from somewhat competitive to strongly Democratic, and Florida has moved from leaning Republican to very competitive.

Still, there is nothing resembling a "lock" on the Electoral College.  A clear trend toward the Democratic Party, yes, but hardly a lock on anything.
Erratum (September 2014):  There was an error in estimating the slope for North Carolina (control for Carter's southern advantage in 1976 and 1980 was not included).  When that error is corrected, North Carolina emerges as another state in which the Democrats have made smallish gains.  See the updated figure here.
1I think. I'm color blind, so this may look a bit different for you.


  1. Your math is suspect. States that have gone Democratic in the last six elections, plus states that have gone Democratic in 5 of the last six elections give the Democrats 257 electoral votes. Not a lock but a lot closer to 270 than the Republicans are.

    1. I disagree Alan, the math is very accurate. Yes states like Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Pennsylvania have gone Democratic in many of the previous elections, but not to the extent that Democrats have a "lock" on the electoral college. As the post clearly shows Minnesota is clearly more competitive now than it was several years ago, if the trend continues Republicans could win it soon.

    2. Anon: WI, MN, and PA haven't gone Democratic in many of the previous elections, they've gone Democratic in elections over the past 20 yrs. Republicans have very little chance of winning those states, and if they're counting on losing MN by 8 points instead of 16, well, they're getting crushed anyway.

  2. I think your math is abut right. The bad news is that we have reached the tipping point where the republicans cannot win a Presidential election, barring some huge disaster. This is strange because polls show that the public favor most republican policies by a wide margin.

    The really bad news is that future democrats in the White House will follow the lead of President Clinton and President Obama by crystallizing power in the executive branch (e.g. ignoring portions of laws they don't like and expanding the powers of the State to control discourse).

    1. "Bad news", "polls in which the public favors Republican policies"; lol.

    2. "(e.g. ignoring portions of laws they don't like and expanding the powers of the State to control discourse)."
      Really, who did all of those signing statements saying what part of the law "his government" would follow? Hint, think of a shrub.

  3. I'm not sure what polls this Kevino is referring to where he says the public favors Republican policies by wide margins? What have you been smoking??? The GOP is terribly out of favor, and on almost all issues....take your pick. Today's Republican party is a very damaged brand among the public at large, but not hard to see why. They are a rotten, mean, hollowed out and empty party bankrupt of any ideas whatsoever....they have become the party of no, f you, and "unless you are rich, we don't give a damn"....and the public knows it. The GOP today has been totally hijacked by the most extreme and maniacal of the right wing tea bagger set....and it is hurting them. They ONLY reason they even control one branch of Gov., the house, is because of their success in the contorted and often times non-logical re-drawing of district lines in 2010.....if it were not for that, they would not have the house either. They can't even win the senate in years that strongly favor them....2010, 2012...and actually lose seats. 2014 offers their best chance to take the senate...and even here, bank on them not picking up enough seats to win it...and 2016 favors the Dems in senate races...bleak for the GOP...but, again, richly and deservedly so...they have no ideas, and their total lack of concern for anyone not very wealthy is breathtaking. Sorry, your polls that show the public "favoring" GOP policies don't exist.

    1. I think you're equating "favoring GOP policies" with "favoring the GOP".

      I can see where kevino is coming from, on the debt ceiling for example ( There's not a ton of examples with as wide a margin as this one, so I'd leave it to kevino to demonstrate what other policies he's referring to.

      Point being, you can agree in principle with someone and still distrust their execution. I think that's often where the GOP is with the public today.

    2. I think that poll mostly shows that Americans don't understand the debt ceiling. Raising the debt ceiling allows congress to pay the money they've already spent. The time to object to debt is before you spend the money.

      The American public is in favor of most of the larger Democratic positions; gun control (at least to the extent of expanded criminal background checks), legal abortion, gay marriage, and depending on how the question is phrased single payer health care.

    3. Not to mention that most of the polls on the debt/funding showdown have shown a negative view of Republican positions by about three to one. But hey, if we go ahead and ignore that....

  4. I agree with the basis of the article, but I have some concern about some single case like MS, GA and SC. Looking at the numbers it is not clear to me that these states have a positive trend for the Democratic Party in the last 40 years. It seems like wrong to me. I see not why this regressions take not the same way that NC (even a little worse).

    1. With respect to MS, GA, SC, the white voters in those states abandoned the Democrats in Presidential voting pretty rapidly and dramatically after Civil Rights laws were enacted. Jimmy Carter being from Georgia recovered some of that mainly because of favorite son status. Bill Clinton did that to a certain extent, mostly though with the Upper South (although he did win GA in 1992 in a squeaker). What is happening now, is that, at least in GA, and just a wee bit in SC, is influx of new populations in those states plus a relative rise in % of minorities. So Georgia is going to be competitive in the future not because native Southerners have had a change of heart, but because they constitute a smaller portion of the electorate. In other southern states like AL, MS, LA, etc. where there has not been a significant demographic change, the old rules still apply. North Carolina (where I live) is somewhat of a unique situation in that: A) It is in the Upper South; B) Always had been slightly more progressive than other southern states; C) Has experienced an influx of new people; D) Has significant urban areas that are Democratic. Which is why both the 2008 and 2012 Presidential elections were just about even.

  5. I understand that the purpose of this is to see which states are trending more or less Democratic, compared to the national trend.

    However, there has been a change in the national trend in presidential elections since 1972 that is worth commenting on. The Democratic presidential candidate that year received the lowest percentage of the popular vote of any Democratic candidate running since 1924, around 38%. Since then, the percentages were 50%, 41%, 41%, 46%, 43%, 49%, 48%, 48%, 53%, 51% (I may be off by a percentage or two). Carter broke 50% just barely in 1976, then no one else accomplished this until Obama did so in the the last two elections. The two Obama percentages are the highest received by any Democratic candidate since 1964, and the second and third highest since FDR was the Democratic candidate.

    Republican candidates won the popular vote in five of the six presidential elections between 1968 and 1988. Democratic candidates won the popular vote in five of the six presidential elections between 1992 and 2012.

    I find discussions of "electoral college locks" frustrating. It looks like you have a lock when you keep winning the popular vote. On the presidential level, the nation as a whole moved from a Republican era following the civil rights legislation to a slight Democratic era following the end of the Cold War. When the national vote favors your party, you are going to win alot of states.

    Two potential changes of greater interests are the decline in the number of states whose popular vote percentages simply mirror the national popular vote percentages, and the increasing way the national map is starting to look like the late nineteenth century map, with the Democrats as the party of McKinley and the Republicans as the party of Bryan. The increased standard deviation in the states from the national vote has been creating the "Red State/ Blue State" pattern. As recently as 1988, Bush won 40 states on a 7% popular vote margin (this margin is about average for post WW2 presidential winners). Clinton got the same popular vote percentage margin in 1996 and actually lost a few states he had carried on a smaller national popular vote margin in 1992. The other change I am not so sure about, but it is striking to compare county level maps from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

    1. I generally agree with this. Most of what you are discussing has come about due to polarization. In years past, most states generally all moved in one direction depending on the national mood. The winning candidate saw their % increase even in states that they did not carry, and the opposite was true with the losing candidate. Now since Bill Clinton, and especially with Obama, states have diverged.

      Another thing that was unique from the 1960s until recently was the broad swings of the electorate as a whole. In just one or two election cycles who groups of states would go back and forth. I think what this "lock" is referring to is that many states, since the 1992 election, are no longer "swingable." They may be close, but changing more than a % or two isn't going to happen. It would have to be a monumental election of epic proportions for me to see many states change allegiances.

  6. The demographic trend has been running about 1% annually in favor of the Democrats nationwide, with significant variation by state. I am pleased to see this analysis, which begins to quantify that variation. I am further pleased to note that of the states that are flat overall since 1972, most have been trending a bit more Democratic in more recent years.

    There are other important factors in play that are not captured in Presidential voting totals. Gerrymanders are critical in local, state, and House politics. In addition to demographic changes in the population, the rate at which various demographic groups vote is changing in different ways in Presidential and off-year elections, affecting politics at every level. Battleground Texas is a new factor in Texas politics. Its effect cannot be predicted from past data. The evolution of the public and the parties on the issues is also not readily predictable simply from Presidential election data. Some of us think that the increasingly shrill and nasty Republicans may well implode completely and vanish away, in the manner of the Federalists (the original Party of No) during and just after the Jefferson Administration, by putting themselves firmly on the wrong side of every issue.

  7. Republicans are at this moment working to change the electoral college rules in Virginia, Wisconsin, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Michigan. Their goal is to eliminate the winner-takes-all approach - BUT only in states that may go to Democrats (never in states that probably will go Republican). Let's presume they accomplish this very callous objective. Will it really help them? Let's test that.

    Wisconsin is trending in their direction anyway, so apportioning the vote there might actually hurt them. But Virginia is definitely trending towards Democrats and apportioning the electoral votes there (particularly after gerrymandering the districts) will definitely help Republicans. Those states have similar votes (10 vs. 13), so they almost cancel out. Ohio and Pennsylvania are flat liners - no real trend toward either party. They are true tossup states, so in some elections they might go Democrat and some they might go Republican. For tossup states, apportioning the electoral votes vs. winner-takes-all probably is not much different over time. And that leaves Michigan. It's a Democratic state now, not trending in any direction, and it has 16 electoral votes - currently going generally to Democrats. If apportioned, that means 7 or 8 of those votes now go to Republicans.

    So, in total what do Republicans get? About 7 to 10 more electoral votes. In addition they get labeled as the party who will do *anything* to win an election regardless of how clearly biased their methods (remember, they are ONLY doing this apportioning in blue-leaning states).

    Of course this goes hand in hand with Republican efforts to gerrymander and restrict voting among minorities and students. Their methods have nothing to do with convincing Americans of their value and everything to do with rigging the mechanics of voting.


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