Sabato's Crystal Ball

From Republican ‘Lock’ To Republican ‘Lockout’?

Rhodes Cook, Senior Columnist November 13th, 2008

Every day since Nov. 4, the scope of Democrat Barack Obama’s victory has grown more impressive.

His electoral vote total of 364 is the highest for any presidential winner since Bill Clinton’s reelection in 1996.

His 53 percent share of the total popular vote is the largest since George H.W. Bush won a comparable proportion in 1988.

And Obama’s popular vote margin of 8 and a quarter million votes (and counting) is the widest since Ronald Reagan’s landslide reelection victory over Walter Mondale in 1984.

It is hard to imagine that barely 20 years ago, it was fashionable to talk of a Republican ‘lock’–a GOP dominance of the electoral map so strong that it appeared to guarantee the party possession of the White House for years to come.

But, as is often said: That was then and this is now. Then, the Republicans had the three “S’s” on their side–the South, the suburbs and small-town America. Now, many of the suburbs have defected to the Democrats, the South is no longer an exclusively GOP preserve, and small-town America does not have the votes to keep the Republicans consistently competitive in national politics.

In their presidential heyday of the 1970s and ’80s, the GOP swept 40 or more states in four separate elections with three different presidential candidates–Richard Nixon, Reagan (twice) and Bush the elder. In the aggregate tally for these two decades, Republicans won nearly 50 million more popular votes than the Democrats and the GOP averaged 440 electoral votes per election.

But since then, Democrats have won three of the last five presidential elections (four, if their popular vote victory in 2000 is counted), and surpassed 350 electoral votes in 1992, 1996 and 2008. The George W. Bush interlude produced modest Republican victories of 271 and 286 electoral votes respectively.

After two close elections in 2000 and 2004, the Democrats may be beginning to put their stamp on an era of presidential politics in which it could be difficult for the Republicans to compete. As for the latter, what has gone wrong?

First of all, the two Bush presidencies were undermined at the end by sour economies, which smoothed the road for Democratic comebacks in 1992 and 2008.

Second, the Republican “brand” itself was in tatters by 2008–undercut by the lingering war in Iraq, big budget deficits and the worst economic crisis in decades–all of which were personalized in the unpopular presidency of George W. Bush.

Third, Republicans have responded more often than not by nominating aging war heroes–George H.W. Bush (68 years old in 1992), Bob Dole (age 73 in 1996), and John McCain, (72 in 2008). Their nominations painted the picture of a party rooted in the past, glorious and honorable as that past may have been. Meanwhile, by offering articulate, 40-something nominees such as Clinton and Obama, the Democrats offered candidates who could be readily identified with the present and the future.

Yet it is too soon to be talking of a Democratic ‘lock’ with any sense of conviction. New political eras take several elections to validate. In the meantime, the electorate is in the midst of significant change demographically, as the nation’s minority population continues to grow. More and more voters are finding the ranks of the independents the place to be. And for the first time since the early 1990s, Democrats will control both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue in 2009–reaping any blame that is likely to accrue for their governance in these difficult times. In short, the Republicans could be back on top in a few years just by keeping their distance from any catastrophes that may develop on the Democrats’ watch.

But it would also be wise for the Republicans to take a look at how far they have fallen in the past two decades. In 1988, the last presidential election when pundits could point to the possibility of a Republican ‘lock,’ the elder Bush swept the majority of states in every region of the country. And with the exception of New York, he won all of the big ones that year: Pennsylvania and New Jersey in the Northeast; Illinois, Michigan and Ohio in the Midwest; Florida and Texas in the South; and California in the West.

This year, Obama carried all of these large electoral vote prizes except Texas. And most of them he won by eye-popping margins. The Illinois senator swept California by 2.6 million votes, New York by nearly 1.8 million, Illinois by 1.3 million, Michigan by more than 800,000, Pennsylvania by more than 600,000, and New Jersey by more than 500,000 votes. Of these big electoral vote states, only the high-profile battlegrounds of Florida and Ohio were comparatively close, although Obama won each by a clear-cut margin of more than 200,000 votes.

And for good measure, he also pulled Indiana and Virginia into the Democratic column for the first time since 1964, North Carolina for the first time since 1976, Colorado and Nevada for the first time since the Clinton years, and Iowa and New Mexico for the first time since 2000.

Part of Obama’s sweeping success this year was due to the unusual amount of energy and enthusiasm he was able to generate around his historic candidacy, the record sums of campaign money he was able to attract, and the successful voter registration drives that the Democrats conducted that helped to expand their base in state after state.

In each of these areas, the Democrats far outperformed the Republicans, enabling the Obama campaign to act both aggressively and expansively when looking at the electoral map.

Ominously for the GOP, the Democrats not only competed in a number of states that had been conceded to the Republicans for years, but they also won several of them. The result is a reversal of fortune from 20 years ago. Rather than the hope of a Republican ‘lock’ at the presidential level, the GOP now faces the prospect of a Republican “lockout” for years to come if they do not move quickly to get their act together.


PRESIDENTIAL VOTING: LARGEST STATES SHIFTING FROM REPUBLICAN TO DEMOCRAT

A quarter century or so ago, the Republicans regularly won the White House by dominating presidential voting in the nation’s most populous states. But that is no longer the case. In 2008, Democrat Barack Obama scored a decisive electoral vote victory by carrying seven of the eight states with more than 15 electoral votes. Obama won most of them by double digit margins percentagewise, including California, New York, Pennsylvania, Michigan and his home state of Illinois. Texas was the only state with more than 15 electoral votes to go this year for Republican John McCain.

Number of Times Voted Democratic
State ’08 Electoral Vote 1972-88 (5 Elections) 1992-2008 (5 Elections) ’08 Result
California 55 0 5 Obama by 24%
Texas 34 1 0 McCain by 12%
New York 31 2 5 Obama by 25%
Florida 27 1 2 Obama by 3%
Illinois 21 0 5 Obama by 25%
Pennsylvania 21 1 5 Obama by 10%
Ohio 20 1 3 Obama by 4%
Michigan 17 0 5 Obama by 16%

Source: This year’s presidential results are based on unofficial returns as posted on www.cnn.com, as of Nov. 10, 2008.