Sabato's Crystal Ball

Obama’s Next Challenge:

Turning Primary Losses Into Electoral Votes

Rhodes Cook, Senior Columnist May 15th, 2008

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As Barack Obama prepares to move from the primary to the general election phase of the 2008 presidential election, he faces a new challenge which combines both – to bring many of the states where he suffered primary losses this winter and spring into the Democratic column this fall.

Obama has expressed confidence that he can hold Democratic mainstays such as California and New York, as well as strongly compete in battleground states such as Pennsylvania and Ohio – all places he lost decisively in the Democratic primaries to Hillary C linton.

But his ability to actually carry these states is another matter, and if he is to succeed, he will need to prove himself a coalition builder of the first magnitude.

Any half decent candidate is going to carry their party’s strongholds, whether they won the state in the primary season or not. But it takes a special candidate to win electoral votes in more problematic terrain where they have come up empty in the spring . Ronald Reagan was such a candidate; so was Bill Clinton. And Obama has shown the grit and political skills this primary season that could make him a third.

But first, the daunting part. No presidential nominee since Democrat Walter Mondale in 1984 has lost more primaries than Obama (17 for Mondale; 15 and counting for Obama, in terms of sanctioned primaries alone). And no nominee in the current primary-domin ated era of presidential nominations that began in earnest in 1976 has won the White House after losing more than 10 primaries in the winter and spring.

Yet these figures by themselves are only part of the story. Hillary Clinton has lost even more primaries this spring, 16 thus far, which is as much a sign of the unique, evenly matched nature of the two Democratic campaigns than glaring evidence that Obam a would be another Michael Dukakis or George McGovern.

Over the last quarter century, the nominating process has been characterized by a series of quick knockouts, with candidates nailing down their party’s nominations with only a handful of primary defeats. Not since 1984 have a pair of contenders battled wi re-to-wire through the primary season as Obama and Clinton have this year. And not since Ronald Reagan challenged President Gerald Ford for the Republican nomination in 1976 have two candidates fought through the primaries on such even terms.


Figure 1. Success Rate of Presidential Candidates in States Where They Earlier Lost Primaries

Usually the presidential candidate that trips over the fewest primary hurdles en route to their party’s nomination goes on to win the general election in November. Yet an ability to come back and win states in the fall that were lost in the winter or spri ng can also be critical to winning the presidency. Ronald Reagan in 1980 and Bill Clinton in 1992 had particularly high rates of success in turning states that they lost in the primaries to sources of electoral votes in the fall. It is a quality that Bara ck Obama, Hillary Clinton and John McCain would need to emulate if they are to win the White House this fall. All three have suffered an unusually high number of primary losses this year. Through May 13, the total stood at 16 Democratic primary losses for Clinton, 15 for Obama, and eight Republican primary defeats for McCain.

Primary Losses in Megastates
Election Nominees Election Result Primaries Lost Won in Fall Success Rate Won in Fall Lost in Fall
1976 Jimmy Carter (D) WON 10 4 40% NY CA
Gerald Ford (R)* Lost 11 7 64% CA TX
1980 Ronald Reagan (R) WON 4 4 100% MI, PA
Jimmy Carter (D)* Lost 10 2 20% CA, NJ, NY, PA
1984 Ronald Reagan (R)* WON 0 0
Walter Mondale (D) Lost 17 1 6% CA, FL, OH
1988 George H.W. Bush (R) WON 1 1 100%
Michael Dukakis (D) Lost 14 1 7% IL
1992 Bill Clinton (D) WON 7 6 86%
George H.W. Bush (R)* Lost 0 0
1996 Bill Clinton (D)* WON 0 0
Bob Dole (R) Lost 3 0 0%
2000 George W. Bush WON# 7 2 29% MI
Al Gore (D) Lost# 0 0
2004 George W. Bush (R)* WON 0 0
John Kerry (D) Lost 3 1 33%
All Nominees 87 29 33%
Winning Candidates 29 17 59%

Note: An asterisk (*) indicates an incumbent president. A pound sign (#) denotesthat George W. Bush won the electoral vote in 2000, while Al Gore took the popular vote. The list above is based on primary results from the states and the District of Col umbia and includes only those contests in which the nominee was listed on the ballot. Democratic primaries in 1976 in New York and Texas for the election of delegates only and a similar Republican primary in Texas the same year are included in the totals. “Megastates” are those with 15 or more electoral votes at the time of the election.

Source: Race for the Presidency: Winning the 2008 Election; America Votes 27 (both CQ Press).


Just as pertinent at this point may be a different set of numbers. Since 1976, presidential nominees as a group have turned roughly one out of every three states from the losing column in the primaries to the winning column in the general election. Yet th e success rate for candidates who have actually won the White House is significantly better than that, with a “turn around” of better than one out of every two states. And both Reagan in 1980 and Clinton in 1992 had rates much higher than that.

Reagan lost Republican primaries in major industrial states such as Massachusetts, Michigan and Pennsylvania to George H.W. Bush in early 1980. But with the help of newly minted “Reagan Democrats,” he came back to win these states in the fall.

Clinton lost Democratic primaries throughout New England in 1992, as well as Colorado, Maryland and South Dakota. But with the exception of the latter, he won every state in this eclectic group that November.

To succeed this fall, Obama would need to show gifts of outreach equal to the victorious Clinton and Reagan. He has not fared all that well in prime battleground states, losing primaries or caucuses in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Nevada, New Mexico and New Hampsh ire. All are states that went Democratic or Republican in 2004 by margins of no more than 3 percentage points. And Obama lost primaries in states such as California and New Jersey that Democrats have come to count on, but that Republican John McCain could conceivably put in play this fall.

Yet Obama’s route to victory may not require all of these states. One of the ironies of this year’s nominating process is that he has run well in places with a Republican heritage, as has McCain in states that lean perceptibly to the Democrats. At the sam e time, each has shown some vote-getting weakness in states that constitute their party’s core. The result could be a noticeably different electoral map this fall, with Obama or McCain winning the election by making significant inroads into the other part y’s side of the map.

At this point, though, Obama occupies a position less like Reagan or Clinton than the 1976 version of Jimmy Carter. Branded “Jimmy Who?” early in that race, the former Georgia governor was even more of a newcomer on the national stage than Obama is this y ear. But Carter got off to a strong start beginning in Iowa, emerged as the Democratic front-runner by early spring, and survived a number of late primary losses after his “honeymoon” period had ended. But boosted by the Democrats’ proportional representa tion system, Carter kept adding delegates even as he was losing, and he acquired the necessary delegate majority as the primary season came to a close.

Carter endured more ups and downs as the year unfolded. But with the wind at the Democrats’ back in 1976, he was able to prevail over President Ford that November by the narrow popular vote margin of 2 percentage points. It is an outcome that the Obama ca mpaign would no doubt accept – a victory that may not be pretty, but one that accomplishes his goal of winning the White House.


Figure 2. A New Electoral Map in 2008?

With the 2008 presidential primary season nearly complete, one thing is already clear: There could be a markedly different electoral map in November from the one four years ago, particularly if Democrat Barack Obama ends up as the Democratic nominee again st Republican John McCain. Obama has run quite well in primaries and caucuses in many Republican-oriented states, but less well in many Democratic states. Meanwhile, Republican John McCain has encountered the opposite situation – losing often this winter and spring in GOP-oriented territory, but dominating his party rivals in states with a more Democratic pedigree.

’08 Primary/Caucus Winners
Electoral Votes ’04 Pres. Winner Obama (D) McCain (R)
STRONG REPUBLICAN (Bush by more than 10% in ’04)
Utah 5 Bush by 46% W L
Wyoming 3 Bush by 40% W* L*
Idaho 4 Bush by 38% W* yet to vote
Nebraska 5 Bush by 33% W* yet to vote
Oklahoma 7 Bush by 31% L W
North Dakota 3 Bush by 27% W* L*
Alabama 9 Bush by 26% W L
Alaska 3 Bush by 26% W* L*
Kansas 6 Bush by 25% W* L*
Texas 34 Bush by 23% L/W* W
Indiana 11 Bush by 21% L W
Montana 3 Bush by 21% yet to vote L*
South Dakota 3 Bush by 21% yet to vote yet to vote
Kentucky 8 Bush by 20% yet to vote yet to vote
Mississippi 6 Bush by 20% W W
Georgia 15 Bush by 17% W L
South Carolina 8 Bush by 17% W W
Louisiana 9 Bush by 15% W L
Tennessee 11 Bush by 14% L L
West Virginia 5 Bush by 13% L W
North Carolina 15 Bush by 12% W W
Total 173
LEANS REPUBLICAN (Bush by 5% to 10% in ’04)
Arizona 10 Bush by 10% L W
Arkansas 6 Bush by 10% L L
Virginia 13 Bush by 8% W W
Missouri 11 Bush by 7% W W
Colorado 9 Bush by 5% W* L*
Florida 27 Bush by 5% (L) W
Total 76
PRIME BATTLEGROUNDS (won in ’04 by less than 5%)
Nevada 5 Bush by 3% L* L*
Ohio 20 Bush by 2% L W
New Mexico 5 Bush by 0.8% L* yet to vote
Iowa 7 Bush by 0.7% W* L*
Wisconsin 10 Kerry by 0.4% W W
New Hampshire 4 Kerry by 1% L W
Michigan 17 Kerry by 3% L
Minnesota 10 Kerry by 3% W* L*
Pennsylvania 21 Kerry by 3% L W
Oregon 7 Kerry by 4% yet to vote yet to vote
Total 106
LEANS DEMOCRATIC (Kerry by 5% to 10% in ’04)
New Jersey 15 Kerry by 7% L W
Washington 11 Kerry by 7% W* W/W*
Delaware 3 Kerry by 8% W W
Hawaii 4 Kerry by 9% W* no vote*
Maine 4 Kerry by 9% W* L*
California 55 Kerry by 10% L W
Connecticut 7 Kerry by 10% W W
Illinois 21 Kerry by 10% W W
Total 120
STRONG DEMOCRATIC (Kerry by more than 10% in ’04)
Maryland 10 Kerry by 13% W W
New York 31 Kerry by 18% L W
Vermont 3 Kerry by 20% W W
Rhode Island 4 Kerry by 21% L W
Massachusetts 12 Kerry by 25% L L
Dist. of Columbia 3 Kerry by 80% W W
Total 63

Note: A “W” indicates that the primary or caucus was won by Obama or McCain. A “L” denotes a loss. An asterisk (*) indicates a caucus vote; a dash (-), that Obama was not on the Michigan primary ballot. “(L)” indicates that Obama’s loss in Florida was in a primary not sanctioned by the national Democratic Party. There are 538 electoral votes up for grabs in November, with 270 needed to win the White House.

Source: Mapping the Political Landscape 2005 (Pew Research Center).