Is an Electoral College Sweep even Possible?

Sunday afternoon musings on an electoral college sweeps.

The comment thread in Doug Mataconis’ post on the Iowa Caucus polls raised the question of whether a 50-state sweep of the electoral college could take place if Michelle Bachman was nominated (and leading to an Obama sweep).  Before I get into the broader issue, I am of the opinion that Bachmann could win a number of states if she were nominated, although I do think a Bachmann nomination would guarantee an Obama re-election.  This, however, is not the point of this post.

The question of a 50-state sweep got me to thinking (because of the politics/elections geek that I am):  is there a viable scenario wherein a candidate could get an EC sweep?

It is true that we have come pretty close in recent memory:  in both 1972 and 1984 the winner won 49 states (with the loser winning 1 state plus the District of Columbia).  As a point of comparison, even FDR, who won four EC landslides, failed to complete a sweep, losing six states in 1932, two states in 1936, ten states in 1940, and twelve in 1944.

My hypothesis in regards to a scenario in which a candidate could actually win all 50 states (I will get to DC in a minute) is that the only candidate who could win such a contest would have to be a Republican in a period of serious economic prosperity as well as general peace.

Part of my reasoning in based in the fact that Republicans, at the moment and for the foreseeable future, have an extremely strong base in the deep south to the degree that one finds it rather unlikely that even in times of extreme prosperity that the entire southeast would vote Democratic.  However, there does remains some examples of Northeastern states voting Republican (although one acknowledges that Democratic numbers run deep in some of those states).  The fact, however, that even deep-blue states like NY and MA have had Republican governors and/or Senators in recent memory (or, in the case of MA, a GOP Senator right now) suggests at least the possibility of a GOP EC win in those states in ways that seem far less likely for the converse in places like Alabama, Mississippi, or Texas.  If one takes the 1984 outcome it is not impossible to see a GOP 50-state sweep under the right conditions (although I would count it as an unlikely outcome).

However, beyond all of that, I would argue that a Democratic 50-state sweep is especially unlikely, even if there was a popular Democrat in the White House during an era of extreme prosperity.  My basic evidence is detailed in table below.  I looked up the percentage of the vote for Democratic candidates in three states since 1980 and the trend is pretty obvious:

image

I went with percentage of the Democratic vote because in 1992 and 1996 the Perot vote comes into play, and Perot clearly siphoned votes from the GOP in these states far more than from the Democrats (indeed, Utah was the only state in which Perot came in second in 1992). So, if I had just gone with GOP percentages, 1992 and 1996 would have dropped the percentages and averages in a misleading fashion (since the question on the table is the likelihood of a Democratic sweep, which would require winning these states).   The table demonstrate that it is pretty clear that these electorates are rather profoundly anti-Democratic.  The averages for the elections in question are 36.08% for Oklahoma, 27.73% for Utah, and 31.81% for Wyoming.

These are states highly unlikely to go Democratic under any circumstance (barring substantial demographic shifts over time in ways that at the moment would require fantastical scenarios*).  As such, a Democratic 50-state sweep would appear impossible under any scenario that doesn’t involve aliens, mind-control, or other tropes from bad SF movies.

An total electoral college sweep, btw, is likely impossible under any scenario.  If the above analysis is correct about the probabilities of a 50-state Dem sweep, one could ask if a 50-state GOP sweep + DC is possible.  Even if a Republican could manages a 50-state EC sweep, winning DC just isn’t in the cards.  From 1980-2008, DC averages 84.57% of the popular vote for the Democratic candidate, including 85.38% for Mondale in the 1984 Reagan landslide.  Somehow I cannot see any reasonable scenario in the foreseeable future where DC goes for the GOP.

To summarize my basic point:  I think (building on 1972 and 1984 as example, amongst other factors) that it is at least conceivable for a Republican to sweep the 50 states in the electoral college (but not DC), but that it is nearly impossible to conceive of a Democrat doing the same.

The 2012 application of this hypothesis is that even if the Republicans were to nominate the most extreme candidate possible, they will still win some states in the election (at least OK, UT and WY and likely several more).

____

*I am thinking, for example, of a scenario in which Utah is inundated with non-Mormons in massive numbers.   This strikes me as unlikely for the foreseeable future.

FILED UNDER: Campaign 2012, Politics 101, US Politics
Steven L. Taylor
About Steven L. Taylor
Steven L. Taylor is a Professor of Political Science and a College of Arts and Sciences Dean. His main areas of expertise include parties, elections, and the institutional design of democracies. His most recent book is the co-authored A Different Democracy: American Government in a 31-Country Perspective. He earned his Ph.D. from the University of Texas and his BA from the University of California, Irvine. He has been blogging since 2003 (originally at the now defunct Poliblog). Follow Steven on Twitter

Comments

  1. PD Shaw says:

    Since it’s never happened, safe bet is that it won’t. Closest:

    James Monroe’s 231 electoral votes to John Quincy Adams’s 1 electoral vote in 1820. (99.1% margin)

    Franklin D. Roosevelt’s 523 electoral votes to Alf Landon’s 8 electoral votes in 1936. (97% margin)

    Richard Nixon’s 520 electoral votes to George McGovern’s 17 electoral votes and John Hospers’s 1 in 1972. (93.3% margin)

    Ronald Reagan’s 525 electoral votes to Walter Mondale’s 13 electoral votes in 1984. (95.2% margin)

  2. Trumwill says:

    I think the way you have to look at it is to look at the most extreme states and determine which ones are most and least likely to be picked off. The Republicans have a strong hold on a number of states, but they also tend to be states with small populations. Meanwhile, the Democrats hold on New York (as far as presidential politics go) is unseen in conservative states. This is important because states like Wyoming and Vermont could be flipped with migration in a way that it would be harder for New York to.

  3. Michael says:

    This is all nonsense. The Republicans are not going to nominate the most extreme candidate, they are going to nominate the one who can take down the moron currently occupying the White House.
    It is scary that lawyers have nothing better to do than speculate in silliness.

  4. PJ says:

    Winning all 50 states + DC isn’t an automatic electoral sweep, there’s always the chance for faithless electors.

  5. PJ says:

    Michael, Romney might be found with a dead girl/live boy, or mind-controlling aliens might have taken over the Democrats. (I hear that Obama was actually born on Phobos…)

    Besides that, this is an interesting post, and well, if you don’t like what people write about then don’t read it. Just think of the time you wasted writing that comment, you surely must have had something better to do…

  6. @PD: This is almost certainly the case. However, the Reagan victory does at least indicate that maybe it could be done (Nixon, also, as noted in the post).

    I would pout it this way: while highly unlikely, I think a plausible scenario could be constructed in which a Rep does it. A Dem, not so much (which the thought experiment that inspired the post in the first place). There are some pretty deep blue states, but none as consistently deep blue in all way as Utah and Wyoming are deep red.

    @PJ: True about unfaithful electors, but they are actually pretty rare. I am pretty sure that there were only 3 total in the 1980-2008 period (one each in 1988, 2000, and 2004).

    @Michael: Fist, who you calling a lawyer? 😉 Second, it is just a bit of fun (IMHO) speculation. Please take it as such. Third, the deployment of the phrase ” they are going to nominate the one who can take down the moron currently occupying the White House” doesn’t exactly lead to the likelihood of being taken seriously in any event.

  7. James Joyner says:

    The short version of this post is that it’s virtually inconceivable that any Republican could win DC or any Democrat Utah.

  8. PD Shaw says:

    Prof. Taylor (and Trumwill), what about D.C.? I don’t believe any Republican can win D.C. I’m too lazy to look all of the votes up, but in the ’84 “landslide,” Reagan got 13.73% of the vote in D.C.

  9. @PD:

    Like I noted in the post:

    Even if a Republican could manages a 50-state EC sweep, winning DC just isn’t in the cards. From 1980-2008, DC averages 84.57% of the popular vote for the Democratic candidate, including 85.38% for Mondale in the 1984 Reagan landslide. Somehow I cannot see any reasonable scenario in the foreseeable future where DC goes for the GOP.

  10. Trumwill says:

    The short version of this post is that it’s virtually inconceivable that any Republican could win DC or any Democrat Utah.

    Jim Matheson is positioned to possibly with the governorship. If he ran for president and got the nomination, it’s conceivable that he could take the state. Maybe the Mormon vote in Idaho could put him in a position to win there. But… the same Mormonism and native-son status that might help him out there would kill him in the south. And he’d be unlikely to get the nomination in any event.

  11. PD Shaw says:

    Sorry, I overlooked the mention of D.C.

  12. The short version of this post is that it’s virtually inconceivable that any Republican could win DC or any Democrat Utah.

    And OK and Wyoming as well (and that there does not appear to be a Dem state that is as Blue as UT, OK and WY are Red).

  13. Trumwill says:

    And OK and Wyoming as well

    Don’t forget Idaho! Redder than Utah in 2000 and almost always redder than Oklahoma.

  14. @Trumwill:

    Good point. Idaho’s 1980-2008 Dem average is 30.43% (which is higher than Utah and lower than WY).

    We can also add Alaska, where the average is 32.15%.

  15. superdestroyer says:

    If for some insane reason that the Republicans nominate Bachman (conceivable if Bachmann wins the Iowa caucuses and the South Carolina primary with the media help) does Bachmann win more electorial votes than Jimmy Carter received in 1980 (49).

    I think that as the daily tracking polls show that Bachmann would lose in a rout, that many of those Republicans in Utah or Wyoming would lose interest in Bachmann and would not want to embarass themselves by supporting such a loser candidate.

  16. Trumwill says:

    I think that as the daily tracking polls show that Bachmann would lose in a rout, that many of those Republicans in Utah or Wyoming would lose interest in Bachmann and would not want to embarass themselves by supporting such a loser candidate.

    You apparently don’t know Utahns or Wyomingans very well. Particularly Wyomingans. They would take pleasure in such a vote. Idahoans and Montanans, too. Bachmann would probably outperform McCain in Montana.

  17. An Interested Party says:

    The Republicans are not going to nominate the most extreme candidate, they are going to nominate the one who can take down the moron currently occupying the White House.

    Oh, in other words they are going to nominate someone many conservatives would think of as a RINO…

  18. superdestroyer says:

    Trumwill,

    The junior senator and the governor of Montana are Democrats. Voters in Montana are very willing to vote for Democrats.

    You may have a point with Idaho or Utah.

    However, I think people are forgetting how badly Bachmann would perform in the presidential debates and it is a certainty that Bachmann would commit at least one major gaffe that she would refuse to either acknowledge or correct.

    People hate voting for massive losers. That is why Bachmann would lose in such a rout.

  19. OzarkHillbilly says:

    Is an Electoral College Sweep even Possible?

    Get real, No.

  20. Trumwill says:

    The junior senator and the governor of Montana are Democrats. Voters in Montana are very willing to vote for Democrats.

    Both senators, actually. But the state has an ornery streak. They don’t care about coastal respectability and a Bachmann or even a Palin that is positioned against such will actually do pretty well there, most likely. The state doesn’t have a soft spot for Ron Paul because he’s not embarrassing. It’s the sort of state where people like to put “Don’t blame me, I voted for…” bumper stickers on their car.

    Another factor is the goings-on with wolf hunting, which produced an anti-Washington sentiment in both Montana and Wyoming that a Bachmann is better able to exploit than a Romney.

  21. Peter says:

    I figure that Obama doesn’t have a prayer of re-election no matter who get the Republican nomination because:

    1. Unemployment is too high.
    2. Gasoline is too expensive.
    3. Houses are too cheap.

  22. Neil Hudelson says:

    Not to be a thread breaker, but since it happened on this page…

    The advertisement widget on the right hand side that automatically plays video ads at fairly high volume is incredibly annoying. Especially when you open multiple article tabs from this site like I do.

    Now back to your regularly schedules Electoral College discussion.