Monday, August 22, 2016

It Sure Looks Like the Same Old Electoral Map in 2016

The nomination of Donald Trump (and, secondarily, the performance of Bernie Sanders in the Democratic primaries) has helped to infuse media coverage this year with a pervasive everything-is-different-now attitude that has been applied to a number of campaign attributes, practices, and phenomena. In the eyes of political analysts who have become bored with the familiar red-versus-blue pattern of the two parties' contemporary geographic constituencies, one of the more exciting aspects of the Trump candidacy was its potential capacity to redraw the modern electoral map. A few weeks ago, when Trump was within striking distance of Clinton in the national polls, pundits speculated about pro-Trump white working-class voters shifting Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin, or Iowa from blue to red this year. More recently, Clinton's national lead and a few favorable state polls have prompted talk that Trump's political vulnerabilities might lead to Democratic victories in the traditional Republican bastions of Georgia, South Carolina, Arizona, and even Utah.

In truth, though, it seems quite unlikely that there will be much change in the traditional partisan alignment of the states At the moment, all three models on the FiveThirtyEight website—the polls-only, polls-plus, and now-cast analyses—produce an identical map in which every state is predicted to vote for the same party as in 2012 except for North Carolina, which flips from red to blue. (Because only two states, North Carolina and Indiana, voted differently in 2008 and 2012, FiveThirtyEight also forecasts a duplication of the 2008 outcome in every state but one.)

Four years ago, the Obama and Romney campaigns concentrated their resources in ten swing states deemed by both sides to be legitimately up for grabs: Colorado, Florida, Iowa, Nevada, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and Wisconsin. A Politico report published on Monday suggests that the Clinton campaign is currently making advertising purchases in seven states—the exact same battlegrounds as 2012, except for Colorado, Virginia, and Wisconsin—while the Trump campaign is currently advertising only in Florida, North Carolina, Ohio, and Pennsylvania. Clinton is also buying ad time in the Omaha television market, which encompasses the 2nd congressional district of Nebraska (worth a single electoral vote) as well as sections of western Iowa.

If there is any change in the map compared to 2012, it appears more likely that the scope of the electoral battleground will shrink further rather than expand into new territory. The Clinton campaign has indicated that it is sufficiently confident of victory in Colorado and Virginia to divert resources to other, more competitive states, but it has yet to make an open incursion into any state that was deemed safe for McCain in 2008 and Romney in 2012. Divining which states the Trump campaign views as top targets is a more difficult task for analysts, given its low rate of advertising and unorthodox candidate itinerary, but at the moment Trump is only contesting four states on the airwaves and is in no position to put any state into play that had been conceded to Obama in either of the past two elections.

We have had more than the normal share of surprises and milestones in 2016, but a realignment of the nation's political geography does not seem to be imminent. Even in an otherwise unusual presidential campaign, it will still—as the saying goes—all come down to Ohio.