Over the last few years, those of us who spend every fourth autumn repeatedly clicking refresh on FiveThirtyEight have grown very familiar with a particular map of the US. The West Coast, Northeast and much of the Midwest are coloured Democratic blue. Most of the rest, the South and inland west, are Republican red.
Only about a dozen states are actually competitive in presidential elections. And, since winning a state’s popular vote generally means winning all its votes in the electoral college, the result is that we’re all going to spend the next three months obsessing about Florida and Ohio.
A summary of the last four presidential elections. Red states have voted Republican four times; blue states voted Democrat four times. The lighter shades represent three victories out of four, while the purple states have voted each way twice. Image: Angr/Wikimedia Commons.
We’ve all got so used to this map that it’s easy to lose sight of quite how recent a phenomenon it is. Not simply the colour scheme itself, which only became the accepted shorthand in the 2000 election; but the whole modern idea of safe states, which arrived at the same time.
Until George W Bush appeared on the scene, presidential electoral maps were a lot less predictable. This is 1996:
And this is 1992:
There’s been much excitement about polls this year which suggest Hillary Clinton might win a red state like Georgia or Arizona. Bill managed to win both, albeit in different elections (1992 and 1996 respectively).
Clinton the First also won Montana, once, as well as vast swathes of the South and Lower Midwest that are now out of reach to the Democrats: Louisiana, Missouri, Kentucky, Tennessee, Arkansas… Even if Hillary wins in a landslide, she’s extraordinarily unlikely to carry any of those.
Bill had some help, of course: in both his elections, Ross Perot made significant in-roads as a third-party candidate, making individual state results much less predictable. But those Nineties elections were not a freak occurrence: in the 20th century, in fact, it’s pretty much impossible to find an election in which the map looks anything like the one we’ve grown used to.
Consider 1984. You might be aware that election was a Reagan landslide, in which he won 59 per cent of the vote, against just 41 per cent for Democrat Walter Mondale. What you might not realise, though, is that this was enough to make the map look like this:
Mondale won just one state, his home state of Minnesota; and Washington DC, which is basically just the inner city, and where a Democrat would have to literally kill a baby live on CNN to have a chance of losing.
The 1976 one is even weirder. Jimmy Carter won that; but the coalition of states that carried him to the White House looks nothing like that one Hillary is going for this year:
That’s a clean sweep of the south for Carter; but he only won about half the Mid West and the North East, while losing the West Coast entirely.
Partly this was because Carter himself was a southerner. But it also reflects the fact that, not that many decades ago, the Democrats were the party of the South. (In the 19th century, the Republicans were very clearly the good guys, which is confusing for the modern liberal.)
1976 was the last gasp of that version of the US party system, though, and it was already on the way out. It had declined thanks to the Republicans’ “southern strategy”, which is basically a euphemism for “being a bit racist to appeal to racists”.
Today, that strategy is mostly associated with Richard Nixon’s victory in 1968, but you can already see it at work four years earlier. In the 1964 election, Barry Goldwater, the father of modern American conservatism, got himself utterly trounced. But he did at least manage to win the Deep South:
To see what a political earthquake the southern strategy would be, you only need to compare that map with the one from eight years earlier. In 1956, Republican Dwight D Eisenhower beat Democrat Adlai Stevenson – for the second time, in fact – with an electoral map that’s almost an exact inversion of the 1964 one.
Some 48 states took part in both elections. (Alaska and Hawaii didn’t gain their statehood until 1959.) Of those, only five didn’t flip between those two elections: Arizona and Louisiana, which stayed Republican; Arkansas, Missouri and North Carolina, which stayed Democratic.
Making political predictions is a mug’s game, but I feel pretty confident that, this November, there will not be 43 states won by the party that lost them in 2008.
The last half century has seen several Republican landslides in the electoral college. As well as 1984, there was 1972, when Nixon thrashed George McGovern (he carried Massachusetts and, yes, DC again); Reagan’s victory in 1980, and George Bush senior’s in 1988, were pretty solid, too.
To find a similar Democratic victory you have to go back rather further. But Franklin D Roosevelt won not one, not two, but four presidential elections – and in every one of them, he won more than 400 electoral college votes.
The best, from a liberal wish-fulfilment point of view, was 1936:
Let’s all just take a moment to imagine Hillary doing that to Trump, shall we?
Here’s one last historic map, just to hammer home a theme. Before FDR reshaped the political landscape, the Republicans were the party of industry, progress and the north. The southern states, still bitter about that whole Civil War thing, and with a nasty habit of preventing African-American populations voting, tended to vote Democratic. Here’s the 1920 map:
Republican Warren G Harding won that election comfortably, restricting the Democrats to their southern heartlands. Harding was tall, silver-haired, good looking and impressive. All this, though, served mainly to prevent anyone from noticing that he was also catastrophically useless – he was very much the Zac Goldsmith of his day – and he spent two years being a particularly rubbish president, before unexpectedly dying in office.
Which just goes to show that looks aren’t everything.
In the final series of the The West Wing, Democrat Matt Santos narrowly defeats Republic Arnold Vinick in the race for the White House. There are many things about that series that show it takes place in a weird parallel universe: the election is in 2006, an off-year here in the real world; Vinick, despite being a Republican, is someone you actually wouldn’t mind being in the White House; the entire existence of Jed Bartlett.
But the biggest oddity in some ways is that 2006 electoral map. The Republicans win California; the Democrats win Texas; and no state seems to be out of reach for either of them. Here’s the final result:
When I first watched The West Wing, that map felt like science fiction. Looking back, though, its unpredictability is somehow more in-tune with US history than the last 16 years of reality have been.