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Death of the Battlegrounds? The 2012 Election in History

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The 2012 presidential election is the only cycle since the birth of the modern two-party system in 1828 to be decided by less than 15 points nationally and yet have less than 10 percent of its contests decided by fewer than five points

barackobama05.jpgEven though the 2012 presidential election was considered a toss-up, or at least a very close race, throughout most of the cycle and in the closing weeks in particular, in the end, very few states provided nail-biting finishes that often accompany such competitive national races.

All told, the victory margin between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney was decided by less than five points in just four states: Florida (0.88 points), Ohio (2.00 points), North Carolina (2.08 points), and Virginia (3.73 points).

This, in and of itself, is not uncommon.

In fact, one-third of the previous 27 presidential contests over the last 108 years produced five or fewer states decided by less than five points: 1904, 1920, 1924, 1928, 1936, 1956, 1964, 1972, and 1984.

But each of these nine aforementioned cycles had one thing that distinguished them from the Romney-Obama contest.

They were all blowouts with an average victory margin of 23.9 points and the losing candidate receiving no more than 140 electoral votes:

Presidential Elections with Five or Fewer Highly Competitive Statewide Contests, 1904-2012

Year
Winner
Loser
# States MoV < 5 pts
Electoral vote
Nat'l MoV
1904
Teddy Roosevelt
Alton Parker
3
336-140
18.8
1920
Warren Harding
James Cox
2
404-127
26.2
1924
Calvin Coolidge
John Davis
4
382-136
25.2
1928
Herbert Hoover
Al Smith
5
444-87
17.4
1936
Franklin Roosevelt
Alf Landon
1
523-8
24.3
1956
Dwight Eisenhower
Adlai Stevenson
3
457-73
15.4
1964
Lyndon Johnson
Barry Goldwater
3
486-52
22.6
1972
Richard Nixon
George McGovern
0
520-17
23.2
1984
Ronald Reagan
Walter Mondale
3
525-13
18.2
2012
Barack Obama
Mitt Romney
4
332-206
3.3
Note: 47 states held elections in 1904 with 48 states in 1920, 1924, 1928, 1936, 1956. Includes the District of Columbia. Highly competitive races are defined as a cycle where the margin of victory between first and second place candidate is less than five points. Table compiled by Smart Politics.

How odd it is, then, for the 2012 race to be listed among these landslide races, particularly from the standpoint of the popular vote which gave Obama only a 3.3-point win over Romney.

And just how close was the Romney-Obama race from a historical perspective?

The national popular vote margin of victory in the 2012 contest was the 13th narrowest of the 47 presidential elections that have been conducted since the formation of the Democratic Party in 1828.

The closest popular vote election took place in 1880 with Republican James Garfield edging Democrat Winfield Hancock by 0.09 points.

The Kennedy-Nixon contest of 1960 is next at 0.17 points.

Three of the last four presidential elections resulted in a Top 10 narrowest popular vote finish during this 184-year span with Gore-Bush in 2000 at 0.51 points in third and Bush-Kerry in 2004 at 2.46 points in ninth.

Rounding out the Top 10 are Cleveland-Blaine in 1884 at #4 (0.57 points), Nixon-Humphrey in 1968 at #5 (0.70 points), Harrison-Cleveland in 1888 at #6 (0.83 points), Polk-Clay in 1844 at #7 (1.45 points), and Carter-Ford in 1976 at #8 (2.06 points).

But there are more historical oddities surrounding the 2012 election results.

For example, look at the percentage of states decided by less than five percent of the vote (a variable which adjusts for the changing number of states voting in presidential elections across the decades in U.S. history as the nation expanded).

In total, just nine presidential elections since 1828 have seen less than 10 percent of the states decided by fewer than five points, with the 2012 Romney-Obama matchup among them at 7.8 percent (4 of 50 states, plus the District of Columbia).

The 2012 matchup is the only one of these cycles to appear on the list of the Top 36 most narrowly decided presidential elections in the popular vote.

In other words, prior to 2012, every presidential election since 1828 in which less than 10 percent of the states failed to generate very competitive contests was a landslide race, with none of these cycles listed among the Top 35 closest popular vote elections.

Closest Margin of Victory in Presidential Elections by Popular Vote, 1828-2012

Year
1st
2nd
Nat'l MoV
# States MoV < 5
Total # States
% States MoV <5
1880
James Garfield
Winfield Hancock
0.09
12
38
31.6
1960
John Kennedy
Richard Nixon
0.17
20
50
40.0
2000
Al Gore*
George W. Bush
0.51
12
51
23.5
1884
Grover Cleveland
James Blaine
0.57
13
38
34.2
1968
Richard Nixon
Herbert Humphrey
0.70
13
51
25.5
1888
Grover Cleveland*
Benjamin Harrison
0.83
14
38
36.8
1844
James Polk
Henry Clay
1.45
12
25
48.0
1976
Jimmy Carter
Gerald Ford
2.06
20
51
39.2
2004
George W. Bush
John Kerry
2.46
11
51
21.6
1876
Samuel Tilden*
Rutherford Hayes
3.00
13
37
35.1
1892
Grover Cleveland
Benjamin Harrison
3.01
18
44
40.9
1916
Woodrow Wilson
Charles Hughes
3.12
15
48
31.3
2012
Barack Obama
Mitt Romney
3.27
4
51
7.8
1896
William McKinley
William Bryan
4.31
8
45
17.8
1948
Harry Truman
Thomas Dewey
4.48
18
48
37.5
1848
Zachary Taylor
Lewis Cass
4.79
11
29
37.9
1868
Ulysses Grant
Horatio Seymour
5.32
8
33
24.2
1992
Bill Clinton
George H.W. Bush
5.56
17
51
33.3
1840
William Harrison
Martin Van Buren
6.05
7
25
28.0
1900
William McKinley
William Bryan
6.12
5
45
11.1
1852
Franklin Pierce
Winfield Scott
6.95
7
30
23.3
2008
Barack Obama
John McCain
7.27
6
51
11.8
1944
Franklin Roosevelt
Thomas Dewey
7.50
14
48
29.2
1988
George H.W. Bush
Michael Dukakis
7.72
11
51
21.6
1996
Bill Clinton
Bob Dole
8.51
11
51
21.6
1908
William Taft
William Bryan
8.53
9
46
19.6
1980
Ronald Reagan
Jimmy Carter
9.74
16
51
31.4
1940
Franklin Roosevelt
Wendell Willkie
9.96
12
48
25.0
1864
Abraham Lincoln
George McClellan
10.08
4
25
16.0
1860
Abraham Lincoln
Stephen Douglas
10.13
10
33
30.3
1952
Dwight Eisenhower
Adlai Stevenson
10.85
7
48
14.6
1872
Ulysses Grant
Horace Greeley
11.80
7
37
18.9
1856
James Buchanan
John Fremont
12.20
4
31
12.9
1828
Andrew Jackson
John Q. Adams
12.25
4
22
18.2
1836
Martin Van Buren
William Harrison
14.20
8
25
32.0
1912
Woodrow Wilson
Teddy Roosevelt
14.44
14
48
29.2
1956
Dwight Eisenhower
Adlai Stevenson
15.40
3
48
6.3
1928
Herbert Hoover
Al Smith
17.41
5
48
10.4
1932
Franklin Roosevelt
Herbert Hoover
17.76
6
48
12.5
1832
Andrew Jackson
Henry Clay
17.81
5
23
21.7
1984
Ronald Reagan
Walter Mondale
18.21
3
51
5.9
1904
Teddy Roosevelt
Alton Parker
18.83
3
45
6.7
1964
Lyndon Johnson
Barry Goldwater
22.58
3
51
5.9
1972
Richard Nixon
George McGovern
23.15
0
51
0.0
1936
Franklin Roosevelt
Alf Landon
24.26
1
48
2.1
1924
Calvin Coolidge
John Davis
25.22
4
48
8.3
1920
Warren Harding
James Cox
26.17
2
48
4.2
* Denotes a nominee who won the popular vote but lost the electoral vote. Includes the District of Columbia. Table compiled by Smart Politics.

Overall, the Romney-Obama matchup ranks as the 13th closest popular vote race since 1828, but with the eighth lowest rate of highly competitive statewide races.

And so, in a cycle in which 10 to 12 battleground states were frequently identified by the media, only four proved to be anything close to a barnburner.

Who would have expected that a state like Georgia, which was considered to be solidly red for the entirety of the cycle, and never mentioned as a swing state, would be more narrowly decided at 7.82 points than several so-called 'battlegrounds' such as Arizona (9.04 points), Michigan (9.50 points), Missouri (9.62 points), and New Mexico (9.88 points).

In fact, Wisconsin, which was considered to be one of the top half-dozen battlegrounds throughout the cycle, was carried by Obama (6.71 points) at just over a point less than Romney won Georgia.

The big question for the media and political analysts going forward into 2016 will be to further clarify what is a battleground/swing/tossup/purple state, and, depending on how narrowly that is defined, perhaps more judiciously winnow the pool of states they project will actually be competitive on Election Day.

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2 Comments


  • Presidential elections don't have to focus on a handful of battleground/swing/tossup/purple states again.

    The National Popular Vote bill would guarantee the Presidency to the candidate who receives the most popular votes in all 50 states (and DC).

    Every vote, everywhere, would be politically relevant and equal in presidential elections. No more distorting and divisive red and blue state maps. There would no longer be a handful of battleground/swing/tossup/purple states where voters and policies are more important than those of the voters in 80% of the states that now are just 'spectators' and ignored after the conventions.

    When the bill is enacted by states with a majority of the electoral votes– enough electoral votes to elect a President (270 of 538), all the electoral votes from the enacting states would be awarded to the presidential candidate who receives the most popular votes in all 50 states and DC.

    The presidential election system that we have today was not designed, anticipated, or favored by the Founding Fathers but, instead, is the product of decades of evolutionary change precipitated by the emergence of political parties and enactment by 48 states of winner-take-all laws, not mentioned, much less endorsed, in the Constitution.

    The bill uses the power given to each state by the Founding Fathers in the Constitution to change how they award their electoral votes for President. Historically, virtually all of the major changes in the method of electing the President, including ending the requirement that only men who owned substantial property could vote and 48 current state-by-state winner-take-all laws, have come about by state legislative action.

    In Gallup polls since 1944, only about 20% of the public has supported the current system of awarding all of a state's electoral votes to the presidential candidate who receives the most votes in each separate state (with about 70% opposed and about 10% undecided). Support for a national popular vote is strong among Republicans, Democrats, and Independent voters, as well as every demographic group in virtually every state surveyed in recent polls in recent closely divided Battleground states: CO – 68%, FL – 78%, IA 75%, MI – 73%, MO – 70%, NH – 69%, NV – 72%, NM– 76%, NC – 74%, OH – 70%, PA – 78%, VA – 74%, and WI – 71%; in Small states (3 to 5 electoral votes): AK – 70%, DC – 76%, DE – 75%, ID – 77%, ME – 77%, MT – 72%, NE 74%, NH – 69%, NV – 72%, NM – 76%, OK – 81%, RI – 74%, SD – 71%, UT – 70%, VT – 75%, WV – 81%, and WY – 69%; in Southern and Border states: AR – 80%, KY- 80%, MS – 77%, MO – 70%, NC – 74%, OK – 81%, SC – 71%, TN – 83%, VA – 74%, and WV – 81%; and in other states polled: AZ – 67%, CA – 70%, CT – 74%, MA – 73%, MN – 75%, NY – 79%, OR – 76%, and WA – 77%. Americans believe that the candidate who receives the most votes should win.

    The bill has passed 31 state legislative chambers in 21 states. The bill has been enacted by 9 jurisdictions with 132 electoral votes - 49% of the 270 necessary to go into effect.

    NationalPopularVote
    Follow National Popular Vote on Facebook via NationalPopularVoteInc

  • "The big question for the media and political analysts going forward into 2016 will be to further clarify what is a battleground/swing/tossup/purple state, and, depending on how narrowly that is defined, perhaps more judiciously winnow the pool of states they project will actually be competitive on Election Day."

    If the goal of the media and political analysts was to inform and educate the public, they might act on that. That is not what media thinks they are here for, they are basically trying to attract eyeballs for ads on their shows/pages. This is why the "battlegrounds" will always be defined as 'states both candidates are contesting'. It's also why in 2008 no matter how big Obama's lead - CNN would never move Ohio off their 'battleground map', because you just can't show Obama holding more than 270 electoral votes, it's bad for business.

    Will Nate Silver and the quants change political reporting? Possibly, but the televised news organizations have a huge incentive to ignore the truth, just ask Joe Scarborough.

  • Leave a comment


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