Obama’s Landslide in Perspective

In the discussion on Obama’s apparent 365-173 Electoral College victory, Rodney Dill asks, “How close is this, historically? The popular vote difference seems like it was pretty big by modern standards, but usually that would result in an even more lopsided electoral vote.”

It’s an interesting question. Dave Leip’s Atlas has the results for every election.

  • In 1980, the first election I seriously paid attention to, Ronald Reagan’s 50.75% of the vote gave him a 9.25% margin over Jimmy Carter, with 41.01%, with Republican sore loser John Anderson getting 6.61%. That translated into an Electoral College landslide of 489-49.
  • In 1984, Reagan beat Walter Mondale 58.77% to 40.56% to get an Electoral College landslide of 525 to 13, with Mondale winning only his home state of Minnesota and the District of Columbia.
  • In 1988, George H.W. Bush beat Michael Dukakis 53.37% to 45.65% and won the Electoral vote 426 to 111.
  • In 1992, Bill Clinton beat Bush 43.01 to 37.45, with Ross Perot getting 18.91% and finished with an Electoral College margin of 370 to 168.
  • In 1996, Clinton beat Bob Dole 49.24 to 40.72, with Perot pulling 8.4% — comparable to Reagan’s margin over Carter — and won 379 to 159.
  • In 2000, George W. Bush beat Al Gore in the Electoral College 271 to 266 (one Gore Elector from DC abstained) despite losing the popular vote 47.87% to 48.38%.
  • In 2004, Bush beat John Kerry 50.73% to 48.27% and took the Electoral vote 286 to 251.
  • In 2008, Obama beat John McCain 52.34% to 46.31% — roughly Bush 41’s margin over Dukakis — to get a much smaller Electoral College margin.

I suppose I should do some sort of sophisticated social science statistical analysis of these data but one presume’s it’s been done already.  Eyeballing it, though, it seems that there’s very little correlation between popular vote margin and Electoral vote margin.

One thing to keep in mind with the foregoing analysis, too, is that it’s very much skewed by California.  In the first three of these elections, it was a reliable Republican state; since then, it’s been reliably Democratic.  (Obama won 2/3 of the vote this year; Reagan won by a 17 point margin in 1980 and 16 points in 1984.)  Presidential candidates don’t bother to campaign there, except for fundraising purposes.   Regardless, its 55 Electoral votes grossly distorts the picture.

Typos fixed.

FILED UNDER: Campaign 2008, US Politics, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is a Security Studies professor at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Grewgills says:

    In the discussion on Obama’s apparent 265-173 Electoral College victory

    It is 365-173 not 265.

    In 2000, George W. Bush beat Al Gore in the Electoral College 371 to 266In 2000, George W. Bush beat Al Gore in the Electoral College 371 to 266

    This one was 271-266 not 371.

    In 1988, George H.W. Bush…won the Electoral vote 426 to 111.

    In 2004, Bush… took the Electoral vote 286 to 251.

    Where did the missing 1 EV go in 1988 and 2004? The totals for all others are 538 and those two only total 537.
    Why were both odd EVs for a Bush? I smell a conspiracy!

  2. rodney dill says:

    This site is another site of all the presidential election results.

  3. rodney dill says:

    When it came to mind I think I must’ve remembered some of the Reagan and Bush-41 lopsided EV victories. The McCain-Obama result seems in line with the Clinton wins and some of the past elections. As you mentioned, the correlation between popular vote and EV varies widely.

  4. Bithead says:

    For the most part, the votes state by state were far closer than the EC would suggest, and which is why we said it wouldn’t have taken much to get the thing to go the other way.

    What caused it to go the way it did? Conservatives staying home.

  5. Where did the missing 1 EV go in 1988 and 2004? The totals for all others are 538 and those two only total 537.
    Why were both odd EVs for a Bush? I smell a conspiracy!

    In 1988 a Dukaksis electoral cast his ballot for Bentsen (the Dem VP nominee)–I forget which state the vote came from. In 2000 a Gore elector from DC abstained in protest of the ruling in Bush v. Gore.

    One of the problems with the EC is what is called the “unfaithful elector” problem, as the constitution does not bind the electors to vote as their states vote (although many states make electors pledge to do so).

    For the most part, the votes state by state were far closer than the EC would suggest, and which is why we said it wouldn’t have taken much to get the thing to go the other way.

    What caused it to go the way it did? Conservatives staying home.

    No, it is a basic mathematical function of the EC. Even if one wins a narrow victory in a state, one gets all the EVs (except in Nebraska and Maine). As such, one can rack up popular votes and get zero EVs. The closeness of the EV in 2000 and 2004 are more a historical anomaly than the norm.

    The EV almost always exaggerates the winning margin of the victor.

  6. Bithead says:

    No, it is a basic mathematical function of the EC. Even if one wins a narrow victory in a state, one gets all the EVs

    Correct, wherein lies my point. A bradband shift of 4 points in the opposite direction would have resulted in the exaggerated EC going to McCain…

  7. anjin-san says:

    What caused it to go the way it did? Conservatives staying home.

    So much for Palin getting the base out. The one supposed asset she brought to the ticket…

  8. Bithead says:

    So much for Palin getting the base out. The one supposed asset she brought to the ticket…

    And she did bring hem out, in far greater number than with McCain alone. McCain lost the election not because he is a conservative, but because he isn’t.

  9. Bithead says:

    And, I should add, there was only so much McCain caused damage that Palin could undo.

  10. anjin-san says:

    McCain lost the election not because he is a conservative, but because he isn’t.

    Actually, he lost the election because he was a poor candidate who chose a worse candidate for VP and then ran a terrible campaign, running against an excellent candidate who ran a fantastic campaign, but if you want to play Catherine II, don’t let me stop you.

  11. James Joyner says:

    McCain lost the election not because he is a conservative, but because he isn’t.

    Actually, he lost the election because he was a poor candidate who chose a worse candidate for VP and then ran a terrible campaign, running against an excellent candidate who ran a fantastic campaign, but if you want to play Catherine II, don’t let me stop you.

    Actually, these explanations overstate the impact of both ideology and campaign strategy.

    Yes, McCain could have done a better job appealing to conservatives and moderates. Yes, Obama ran one of the great campaigns in memory. At the end of the day, though, it was always the Democrats’ election to lose.

    The incumbent Republican president is epically unpopular. We’re embroiled in a long and unpopular war. The world financial system came apart just as the conventions were ending and McCain was getting a bounce.

  12. tom p says:

    The incumbent Republican president is epically unpopular. We’re embroiled in a long and unpopular war. The world financial system came apart just as the conventions were ending and McCain was getting a bounce.

    McCain was getting the typical post convention bounce that never lasts. The polls began to turn with the C Gibson interview and other revelations of SP (troopergate, the bridge to nowhere, etc) As an Obama man, I always had to admit that the “experience” arguement had some bite… Until the SP pick. All I could say before that was judgement, and then suddenly, experience didn’t matter. McCain threw his own best arguement away, and then came the KCouric interview…where she proved how totally unprepared she was for the job (of being President, which is her only requirement as Vice)

    I bring it up because, as one who canvassed for Obama (in a very red part of MO), whenever a McCain supporter said “experience” all I had to say was “Sarah Palin” and they got this dreamy, doubtful look on thier face…

    James, you are correct to say it was the DEMS to lose, and that the economic crises ended whatever chance McCain had, but remember, he threw away his best arguement when he picked Palin.

    And when it comes to “I probably won’t suvive and my back-up has no experience v. the economy sucks”… well, MO still hasn’t picked, and I have to say, as racist as this place is, that says a lot.

  13. steve says:

    The election was the Dems to lose. However, if Palin had just read the WSJ everyday, she would have been able to give credible answers, held press conferences and not been a laughing stock. She could have excited the base and held onto some of the middle. The post convention bounce would have been prolonged. Enough to make a difference? Probably not. Sure scared off us independents who place foreign policy issues first.

    Steve

  14. Correct, wherein lies my point. A bradband shift of 4 points in the opposite direction would have resulted in the exaggerated EC going to McCain…

    It actually would’ve taken more than 4 points, but aren’t you basically saying that McCain would have won if he had, well, won?

  15. Bithead says:

    Steven;
    All I’m saying is the EC numbers are deceiving, and it was far closer than the numbers suggest..

    James;

    I’ve no argument with your causals, but I add conservative apathy toward McCain after decades if that apathy going the other way.

    I back the addition with two points that nobody has disputed;

    1: Despite the supposedly huge numbers of new voters, the numbers of people overall at the polls aren’t all that different than they were in 04. The only way to explain both those situations is a lower number of right-of center voters.

    2: Palin drew far larger crowds than did McCain. That of itself is a highly unusual situation, and I see that as further indication of conservative dissatisfaction with McCain.

    I said back last February, that McCain wasn’t likely to get elected specifically because of the relationship problems with the base. Palin was an attempt to overcome that. Was it not for the economic issues, it might have worked, since we’re only talking a few points. AS I said, however, there was only so much she could undo.

  16. anjin-san says:

    and it was far closer than the numbers suggest..

    Guess that explains why a Democrat won Indiana and North Carolina. That had not happened since what, 1964? Oh, yea, it was a squeaker.

  17. anjin-san says:

    Bit why don’t you link to your post where you said that energy was the last nail in Obama’s coffin?

  18. Bithead says:

    Guess that explains why a Democrat won Indiana and North Carolina. That had not happened since what, 1964? Oh, yea, it was a squeaker.

    By how much did he win each state?

  19. anjin-san says:

    By how much did he win each state?

    Bit, do us all a favor. Tell yourself anything at all that makes you feel better. Guys like you are exactly the reason why the GOP and the “conservative” movement are now marginalized. So let your imagination run free. Keep an eye out for black helicopters. It will make it much easier for Democrats to further build their majority.

    The rest of us have a lot of work to do cleaning up the frigging disaster you created.

  20. James Joyner says:

    Until the SP pick. All I could say before that was judgement, and then suddenly, experience didn’t matter. McCain threw his own best arguement away, and then came the KCouric interview…where she proved how totally unprepared she was for the job (of being President, which is her only requirement as Vice)

    Agree fully. Indeed, that was my reaction the moment I heard about the Palin selection.

    Aside from being young and hot-for-a-politician, though, Palin undercuts McCain’s entire campaign theme. She’s got less political experience and less foreign policy experience than Obama.

    […]

    I’d never heard of Palin before the VP buzz started on the blogs a while back. She’s supposedly an excellent campaigner. And, obviously, her youth and gender make her a bold pick. Ultimately, though, I think she doesn’t make sense. If you’re running on “the country’s security is too important to be run by neophytes,” you can’t have one as next in line.

    While Joe Biden was, twice, an awful presidential candidate, he’s a plausible president. Sarah Palin is not.

    […]

    She’s going to make us pine for the days of Dan Quayle, methinks.

    […]

    We’ll see what the reaction turns out to be. I’m certainly not the target audience. But McCain’s first big decision is, in my mind, a truly awful one. Obama went traditional but steady in Biden. It wasn’t a bold pick but it was one that butressed his claim that he has judgment even though he lacks experience. McCain has done the opposite here.

    The fact that McCain felt he needed a Hail Mary pass to begin with, though, would indicate to me that Palin wasn’t the main issue.

  21. odograph says:

    You know, I saw “it’s very much skewed by California” and I thought what, we’re not Real Americans?”

    But I decided to be fair, and clamp down on that thought … until I saw “its 55 Electoral votes grossly distorts the picture.”

    Well James, that’s the problem with this democracy stuff … people get votes, and a lot of people live in California.

  22. James Joyner says:

    Well James, that’s the problem with this democracy stuff … people get votes, and a lot of people live in California.

    Yes, but a lot of people who live in California vote Republican. Their votes don’t count under the current system, just as those of Texas Democrats don’t.

    Any way you slice it, Obama won this election. My point is that the Electoral College — specifically the winner-take-all model that every state but Maine and Nebraska use — distorts the outcome. Obama won the national popular vote 52.6 to 46.1 but the Electoral College 67.8 to 32.2. (Ironically, in this case, about the margin he got in California.) He took several states by razor thin margins, not 100-0.

  23. odograph says:

    Thank you for the clarification. I don’t get animated by the Popular vs. Electoral thing. On the one hand the Electoral result seems to magnify every win, but on the other people have always been free to report and argue from the Popular result.

    FWIW, after about 30 years as a Republican I’ve decided to de-register to an independent. The interesting question might be how the Republicans should re-invent to get me back – if they want me! They might not, because I make things like a respect for science a condition.

    I stopped by here this morning because I remembered discussions I had with other Outside the Beltway commentators on what was ‘real’ conservatism in the old days … and I thought I remembered people here buying Bush and his Congress (2000-2006?) as the real thing.

    Got any “Republican Reinvention” threads planned?

  24. Bithead says:

    The rest of us have a lot of work to do cleaning up the frigging disaster you created.

    Aha.

    It was the Republicans who failed to respond correctly to the threats posed by Extreme Islam?

    Oh, wait.. wasn’t Clinton in office, there?

    And as for F&F, wasn’t Frank Raines Gliespie and that crowd, all Democrat appointees? And whose idea was it to force banks into providing loans to people who couldn’t afford it?

    Who brought this disaster again? You’re about to relearn that lesson. Sad part is that so many have to have their lives destroyed to get there.

  25. Bithead says:

    Oh… and here’s some recommended reading…

  26. odograph says:

    No one ever forced banks to loan money to people who could not afford it. They realized that they could do that on their own, and still make money … as long as they passed along the loan as a Collateralized Debt Obligation (CDO) like a hot potato before it hit the fan.

    Available from a variety of sources:

    Appearing before the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, the man once dubbed “The Maestro” said he had found a flaw in the “critical functioning structure that defines how the world works”. “I don’t know how significant or permanent it is but I have been very distressed by that fact,” Mr Greenspan said.

    “I made a mistake in presuming that the self-interests of organisations, specifically banks and others, were such that they were best capable of protecting their own shareholders and their equity in the firms.”

    Asked by committee chairman Henry Waxman if he was saying his world view was “not working”, Mr Greenspan said: “Absolutely, precisely. You know, that’s precisely the reason I was shocked, because I have been going for 40 years or more with very considerable evidence that it was working exceptionally well.”

  27. anjin-san says:

    It was the Republicans who failed to respond correctly to the threats posed by Extreme Islam?

    Oh, wait.. wasn’t Clinton in office, there?

    “Ok, you’ve covered your ass”

    President Bush to the intelligence briefer who warned him “Bin Laden determined to strike inside the US”. on Aug. 6, 2001. The President was vacationing at his ranch in Crawford. He decided to stay on vacation for the rest of the month.

    The memo warned that al-Qaida terrorists were in the United States and possibly making “preparations for hijackings and other types of attacks.”

    Here is a link to the memo:

    http://fas.org/irp/cia/product/pdb080601.pdf

    Asked and answered…

  28. Bithead says:

    No one ever forced banks to loan money to people who could not afford it.

    That defense has been debunked so damned often, it’s not worth my time to go into it.

    By how much did he win each state?

    Bit, do us all a favor. Tell yourself anything at all that makes you feel better.

    Translation: “I have no argument to that point.”

    Epic fail, anjin.

    President Bush to the intelligence briefer who warned him “Bin Laden determined to strike inside the US”. on Aug. 6, 2001.

    Yep. And that’s been debunked, also, but since you clearly need the help, I’ll make an exception… That was one report of many… all of which contradicted each other, and none of which were actionable. And guess who ignored the threat for years prior? Well, ignored, is perhaps over-brad… he did treat the first attack as a criminal matter… We see how well that worked.

    Back to watching your Olberman reruns.

  29. odograph says:

    Ah well, that kind of madness worked for you Bit, back when GWB ruled the world. His approval rating, and that kind of fact-less thinking, have been declining for about 4 years though.

    You have a higher burden now. You can’t just insist crap, if you actually want to win back the country. You can’t just pretend “Real Americans” outnumber .. ah, real Americans.

    (For anyone interested, an economic analysis: CRA and Fannie and Freddie as betes noire

  30. anjin-san says:

    Nicely put odograph. Bit looks a little like a bug spat on the windshield in today’s world. Welcome to the age of reason everyone 🙂

  31. I don´t know if Obama´s campaign was so good. They made several errors and the low results that he got in states where the economic problems are less visible(Kentucky, Tennessee) shows that without the economic crisis the things would be different.

    And there are deeper problems. For instance, the Hispanic vote. McCain got low number among Hispanics(He was the favorite son of a state with heavy Hispanic population, so the numbers could be even lower). McCain got trounced in Southern California, and worst, he got horrible results in the Rio Grande Region in Texas(There are counties there where Obama got more than 80% of the vote) and he lost the major cities of the state(San Antonio, Dallas, Houston, Austin, El Paso), with the exception of Fort Worth.

    Without Texas, Florida, New Mexico, Colorado, Arizona, California and others states with heavy Hispanic population you have zero chances of winning the White House. And zero chances of having a majority on Congress.

  32. Bithead says:

    Ah well, that kind of madness worked for you Bit, back when GWB ruled the world. His approval rating, and that kind of fact-less thinking, have been declining for about 4 years though.

    As has that of the Democrat run Congress… Hadn’t you noticed?

    You have a higher burden now. You can’t just insist crap, if you actually want to win back the country. You can’t just pretend “Real Americans” outnumber .. ah, real Americans.

    I suspect that burden will be light indeed in four years… as it was after four years of Carter.

  33. odograph says:

    Here’s a good ‘I was there’ story, on the mortgage crisis.