Can Hillary Expand The Electoral College Map In 2016? In An Important Sense, It Doesn’t Matter
An adviser close to Hillary Clinton is talking about expanding the Electoral College map in 2016, but even without such an expansion the GOP faces an uphill battle.
Talking Points Memo’s Dylan Scott that some of the top people in the nascent organization that will likely become Hillary Clinton’s 2016 Presidential campaign believe that they can expand on President Obama’s 2008 and 2012 Electoral College wins, thus increasing the odds that she could win a General Election contest and making it all the harder for any Republican candidate to beat her:
Mitch Stewart, Obama’s 2012 battleground state director who is now an independent consultant advising the grassroots group Ready for Hillary, laid out the electoral math to TPM in a recent interview. Clinton will start with Obama’s map, he said, and can build from there.
There are two buckets of states potentially in play. Arkansas, Indiana and Missouri comprise one bucket. The first is a somewhat unique case, given Clinton’s history there, while the other two were razor-thin in 2008, but the principle is the same: Clinton has a record of appealing to white working-class voters — especially women — and they could be enough when paired with the Obama coalition to pull out a win.
“Where I think Secretary Clinton has more appeal than any other Democrat looking at running is that with white working-class voters, she does have a connection,” Stewart said. “I think she’s best positioned to open those states.”
tewart pointed to Clinton’s sizable 2008 primary wins in Pennsylvania and Ohio, along with the enthusiastic support for her from former Indiana governor and senator Evan Byah, as evidence of her potential competitiveness with that population and therefore in those states.
Those white working-class voters in those states could be “the difference between winning and losing, assuming that we maximize turnout, we maximize voter registration in St. Louis, Indianapolis and northwest Indiana,” he said. “Assuming we do all those things, the fact that would push her over the top is her appeal to white working-class voters.”
The second bucket consists of Arizona and Georgia, two states that Democrats believe are demographically trending toward them, a process that could accelerate with the voter turnout that usually occurs in presidential elections. As Stewart put it, they are “structurally on the precipice of becoming purple states and a presidential campaign can be the catalyzing factor to move those states forward.”
Georgia combines an increasing African-American electorate, Clinton’s appeal to the white working class and northern voters who are moving into the state. Stewart compared the trend to North Carolina, now an established battleground. Arizona can turn blue, Democrats believe, if they mobilize the growing Hispanic population.
None of these states are likely to be the key 270th electoral vote, Stewart emphasized. The electoral tipping point is still likely to be the traditional battleground states: Iowa, New Hampshire, Virginia, Ohio, Colorado and Nevada. But if Democrats can make these other states competitive, it gives them more room for error and forces Republicans to expend resources in places that have traditionally been marked down as wins for them before the campaign even starts.
“If Republicans have to spend resources in Arizona and George to make sure that they win it, that means that they’re spending less resources elsewhere,” Stewart said. “The further we can play into their field, the more money they’re going to have to spend playing defense in places they’ve normally taken for granted.”
The map at the top of this post shows President Obama’s winning map in the 2012 Presidential race, in which he walked away with 332 Electoral Votes to Mitt Romney’s 206. The map from four years earlier, when Obama beat John McCain, was largely similar with the exception of narrow wins by the President in North Carolina, Indiana, and the Second Congressional District in Nebraska, which combined boosted his Electoral Vote win in that election to 365 to 173. Here, on the other hand, is the map showing the states that Stewart claims a Hillary 2016 campaign could put in play shaded in blue and representing an additional 54 Electoral Votes:
If Clinton were able to win all of those states, plus all of the states that Obama won in 2012, then she would walk away with 386 Electoral Votes to her opponents 152, which would be one of the highest Electoral Vote totals for a winning candidate we’v seen since President Bill Clinton’s wins in 1992 and 1996 when he garnered 370 and 379 Electoral Votes respectively. Mrs. Clinton’s wins with such numbers would arguably be more impressive than her husband’s, though, since she would presumably be hitting those numbers without the presence of a strong third-party candidate on the ballot. As noted, though, even if Clinton doesn’t win all of those additional states, if she were able to make them more competitive than they have been in the past then it would make things all the harder for Republicans trying to capture the White House, who already face a tough Electoral College map to begin with, as I will discuss below.
Chris Cillizza, though, isn’t fairly impressed with the contention of Hillary supporters that they can actually expand the map in the way they are projecting:
Arkansas is a good example. It’s easy to assume — and the Clintons almost certainly are assuming — that the former first couple of Arkansas have a special connection to the Natural State. After all, Bill Clinton spent years as the state’s governor and used it as a launching pad for his presidential bid in 1992.
That was a very long time ago. And even in the past six years, Arkansas has moved heavily away from Democrats at the federal level. In 2008, both U.S. senators from Arkansas were Democrats, as were three of its four House members. Following the 2014 elections, all six are Republicans. ALL SIX. President Obama won just 37 percent of the vote in the state in the 2012 general election after watching someone named John Wolfe win 42 percent of the vote in the Democratic presidential primary against him.
Would Hillary Clinton do better than that? Yes. But the idea that the Arkansas that helped push Bill Clinton into the national spotlight has anything in common, politically speaking, with the Arkansas of 2014 is a fallacy. As for the idea that Obama’s race was the fundamental reason for his poor showing among white working-class voters, here are two words for you: Mark Pryor. As in, the two term incumbent senator — and son of a former governor and senator in the state — who just lost badly in his bid for reelection. Pryor took just 31 percent among white voters and won an even more meager 29 percent among whites without a college education. (Theexit poll didn’t break down income level by race.)
Further evidence that the Arkansas of 2014 is not the Arkansas of 1992, 1996, or even 2008 can be seen in the fact that the Pryor loss that Cillizza speaks of, along with the loss of Democratic candidate for Governor Mike Ross came notwithstanding the fact that Bill Clinton himself spent a considerable amount of time down in his old home state campaigning for both men. As you might expect he would, and as both he and Hillary Clinton did during any of their campaign rallies during the 2014 election cycle, the former President drew large crowds at his rallies but they were not enough to put either of the candidates over the top, or even close to it. Ross lost to Governor-Elect Asa Hutchinson by more than 118,000 votes and Pryor lost to Senator-Elect Tom Cotton by some 144,000 votes. This seems to indicate that while the Clinton name still carries cachet in Arkansas more than 20 years after he left the state to become President, it doesn’t necessarily guarantee victory there.
As for the rest of the states on Stewart’s list, Cilizza’s observations strike me as largely correct:
Missouri and Indiana are slightly — emphasis on slightly — less clear-cut as such huge reaches when it comes to Clinton’s presidential prospects. Obama’s successes in both states in 2008 — he won Indiana and lost Missouri by less than 4,000 votes — would seem to provide significant encouragement for the Clinton forces. But subsequent election results in both states make 2008 look far more like the exception than the rule for Democrats.
n 2012, Obama lost Missouri and Indiana by 10 points each. And the successes Democrats have had winning federal races in recent years in both states are, in a word, anomalous. In 2012, Republicans nominated two disastrously poor candidates in Richard Mourdock and Todd Akin; in so doing, they allowed Sen. Joe Donnelly (D-Ind.) and Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), respectively, to be elected. Republicans seem unlikely to follow that blueprint come 2016, meaning that Clinton’s ability to harvest lots and lots of Republican-leaning voters will be greatly reduced. (In Indiana, Republicans control eight of the 11 seats in Congress; in Missouri, it’s seven out of 10.)
Arizona and Georgia, two states where the growth of the Hispanic vote — and Democrats’ continued dominance among that group — is in the process of making both states much more competitive. In Georgia, George W. Bush won 58 percent of the vote in his 2004 reelection race, but four years later John McCain won less than 53 percent in the state. In 2012, Mitt Romney won 53 percent of the vote. Arizona’s trajectory is similar. A decade ago, Bush won it with 55 percent. In 2008, McCain, the home-state senator, got only 54 percent; Romney got that same 54 percent in 2012.
That’s the right trajectory for Democrats. But Georgia in 2014 provides a reminder of why the demographics just aren’t there yet for Democrats to win. Democrats recruited their best possible candidate — Michelle Nunn — for the seat of retiring Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R). Many Democrats (and neutral observers) expected Nunn, at a minimum, to keep Republican David Perdue under 50 percent and force a Jan. 6 runoff. Perdue won 53 percent, an eight-point victory margin.
While Nunn swamped Perdue among black voters (92 percent to 8 percent) and won easily among Hispanics (57 percent to 42 percent), he absolutely destroyed her among white voters (74 percent to 23 percent). That’s instructive. For someone like Clinton (or any Democrat) to win statewide in Georgia, she/he would need to equal Nunn’s margin among black voters while outperforming Nunn significantly among Hispanics and whites. Possible. But not likely — at least in 2016. By 2020 (or 2024) — maybe.
Stewart’s response, of course, is that it isn’t necessarily for Clinton to win all, or even most of these states. The idea, which is one that many Presidential campaigns in the past have tried to do in some way or another, is to expand the number of competitive states in a General Election and particularly to try to open up traditionally Republican states such as Georgia and Arizona so that the GOP would be required to expend resources on defending its home turf in addition to winning on less favorable ground. Although not a perfect analogy, it is similar to the logic behind the effort that both parties made during the recently concluded midterms to make races in states like Georgia, Kentucky, Michigan, New Hampshire, and Oregon more competitive in the hope that it would result in a diversion of resources away from states that the opposition would be more likely to win. In the end, that strategy didn’t work out very well for either party, and to be honest it seldom does —- President Obama’s 2008 efforts in Indiana, North Carolina, and the Nebraska 2nd District stand as notable exceptions here, of course — but it is nonetheless a time honored political tradition. Moreover, having a conversation like this some two years prior to the 2016 General Election is obviously meant to convey a level of confidence to rivals not only within the Democratic Party but also in the GOP. Whether it pays off two years from now remains to be seen.
Even leaving aside this highly confident projection from people close to Hillary Clinton, though, it is a recognition of the fact that a Republican candidate is likely to face an uphill battle in 2016 when it comes to getting the 270 Electoral votes needed to win the Presidency. Republicans, for example have lost four of the last six Presidential elections, and they have lost the popular vote in five of the last six elections. Their highest Electoral Vote total during that time has been the 286 Electoral Votes that President Bush received in 2004. In that same period, Democrats have averaged 361.5 Electoral votes over the four victories they have enjoyed since 1992. In order to win the White House in 2016, a Republican candidate will need to figure out how to do the following:
- Win all of the states Mitt Romney won in 2012, which brings them to 206 Electoral Votes;
- Win Ohio, Virginia, and Florida, all three of which have gone for the Democratic candidate twice in the last two elections, for an additional 60 votes, bringing the total up to 266; and,
- Win at least one other state that Barack Obama won in 2012, New Hampshire’s 4 Electoral Votes would be sufficient, but other possibilities could include Nevada (6), Colorado (9), Iowa (6), or Wisconsin (10). Any one of these would be enough to win the White House assuming the first two steps are satisfied.
There are other potential paths to victory, of course, and you can play with the math yourself to find them, but most of them seem like far less likely paths to victory than what’s laid out above, and even this doesn’t seem too likely. Yes, Republicans did well in Ohio and Florida in the midterms this year, and better than expected in the Virginia Senate race, but the electorate that goes to the polls in all of these states is likely to be far different than it was this year. For example, if Democrats are able to bring out the same kind of minority voter turnout than they have in the last two Presidential election cycles then the GOP’s job in any of these states is going to be just as difficult in 2016 as it was in 2008 and 2012. Additionally, while it’s unlikely that we will see lightening strike twice when it comes to the excitement and interest that Barack Obama’s candidacy created in 2008, the prospect of being able to vote in favor of the first woman to become President in American history is a get out the vote motivator that should not be discounted in its power. In other words, even if Hillary isn’t able to significantly expand the map in 2016, and assuming that she doesn’t somehow become permanently damaged by the problems the Obama Administration continues to deal with, Republicans still appear to have a steep hill to climb in the Electoral College. Stewart’s idea, obviously, is to make the hill even steeper, even if it means just adding one or two more states into the mix of those that the GOP has to worry about holding. If he succeeds in that effort, then the GOP is going to have some trouble in 2016 no matter who their nominee happens to be.