A Dem for All Seasons?

Cheryl Senter/AP Images
Elizabeth Warren speaking at a campaign event at the University of New Hampshire, Durham, October 2019

After Barack Obama won reelection in 2012, a spate of news articles, columns, and essays heralded the Democrats’ large and apparently impregnable Electoral College advantage. I know—I wrote some of them. I remember counting up the states the Democratic presidential candidate had won at least five times in the previous six elections, going back to 1992; five out of six seemed to me, in this volatile and polarized time, pretty reliable. Those states’ electoral votes added up to 257, just thirteen short of victory. The advantage seemed irrefutable. How could a Democrat possibly fail to win, say, Wisconsin, which the party had not lost since Ronald Reagan was reelected?

But lose Wisconsin Hillary Clinton did—by a mere 22,748 votes out of nearly 2.8 million cast, but she lost. Pennsylvania and Michigan were the two other states she lost narrowly in 2016 that every Democratic nominee since her husband had carried. And some states that had seemed to have turned or at least to be trending Democratic weren’t close at all. Since 1992, Democrats had carried Iowa in every contest except 2004; Donald Trump won the state by nearly ten percentage points. They had also carried Ohio four times out of the six elections between 1992 and 2012; the two Republican wins there were by George W. Bush, who, unusually, won the state by a smaller margin as the incumbent in 2004 than he had in 2000. Trump won it by eight points.

No one speaks of a Democratic advantage anymore. Indeed, what one hears from liberals today is a demand to do away with the Electoral College, with its bias in favor of small states, which tilt Republican. The Washington Post reported after the 2016 election that because each state is awarded two electoral votes based on its Senate representation in addition to those it receives based on its population, the votes of citizens in the ten least populous states had carried two-and-a-half times the weight in the Electoral College as the votes of citizens in the ten most populous states.1 Conservatives defend it, since it’s been working rather well from their perspective, especially in 2000 (when Al Gore won the popular vote by 500,000) and 2016 (when Clinton won it by 2.8 million).

As one surveys the 2020 electoral landscape, there are a few states that were thought to be blue but where the trend is not reassuring. In 2012 Obama won Minnesota by eight points, Clinton by just a point and a half four years later. He carried New Hampshire by nearly six points, Clinton by less than one half of one percent. Nevada went from a 6.7 percent Democratic margin to 2.4 percent. Trump has his eye on all three. They add up to…

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