May 17 2012

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A View of the Swing States – Historical

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Re-Election Margin Smaller than the First Win

Chris Cillizza, writer of the habit-forming column – The Fix – for the Washington Post, has presented his “first detailed analysis” of the general election in a new battleground map today, which shows that the race between President Obama and Mitt Romney is closer than other political handicappers have been so far willing to say.

Most significant is that The Fix’s new map has Arizona and Missouri “leaning Republican” instead of being true toss ups, while Democratic bastions in Michigan, Pennsylvania and New Mexico are now less certain, and “lean Democrat.”

President Obama still has the upper hand, according to The Fix, leading Mit Romney in the Electoral College by 196-170. 14 states with 172 electoral votes are either toss ups, or leaning slightly to one party or the other. 270 electoral votes are needed to elect a president.

As we look at Cillizza’s new map, can past elections provide context for today’s contest? Was 2008 consistent with other Democrats years or was it an outlier? Does current polling data inform that question?

Consider this data set.

The chart below lists out the 14 states in Cillizza’s map that are either toss ups, or lean Democratic or Republican. It then provides the combined average of the Democratic percentage of the presidential vote for the three elections prior to 2008 as a Democratic base line. The chart then shows President Obama’s winning percentage in that state for 2008, and the latest current polling.

A few technical notes here.

Purists may object to the use of 1996 data since Ross Perot was in the race. But Perot divided the center right vote, not the Democratic vote, and thus Clinton’s percentage of the vote is consistent with 2000 and 2004. Indeed, with the exception of certain states where Perot won more than 20 percent of the vote, it is consistent with 1992.

The historical data and the President’s winning percentage was sourced from David Leip’s fantastic historical election site. The current polling came from Realclearpolitics.com, which provides current polling averages for each state.

CATEGORY STATE Dem Average ’96-‘04 Obama %‘08 Obama % Current Polling
Toss Up Nevada 46 55 50
  Colorado 45 54 47
  Iowa 49 54 47
  Wisconsin 49 56 47
  Ohio 47 51 47
  Virginia 45 53 48
  North Carolina 44 50 46
  Florida 48 51 46
  New Hampshire 49 54 49
Leans GOP Arizona 45 45* 42
  Missouri 47 49 45
Leans Dem Michigan 51 57 48
Pennsylvania 50 54 46
New Mexico 49 56 53
*John McCain’s home state.

The data leads to three concrete conclusions.

First, while the Democrats are highly competitive in Iowa, Wisconsin, New Hampshire, New Mexico, and to a slightly lesser extent in Florida, they only get to or cross the 50 percent threshold in Michigan and Pennsylvania. Pre-2008, the historical advantage lies with the GOP.

Second, President Obama blew the doors off the historical precedents in these states in 2008. But was the transformational nature of President Obama’s candidacy, coupled with the financial crisis that dominated the general election season, create a historical fluke or a Democratic realignment?

Current polling tells the story.

Which brings us to the third conclusion. President Obama is significantly under performing in swing states compared to his 2008 victories; overall, by a margin of about 6 points. Indeed, tThe President’s current ratings are much more consistent with the historical average for Democrats in those states than with his 2008 victories.

Specifically, only in New Mexico and Nevada is POTUS at or above 50 percent.

Perhaps alarming for the White House, the President is either tied with the historical average or under-performing that metric in Iowa, Wisconsin, Ohio, Florida, New Hampshire, Arizona, Missouri, Michigan and Pennsylvania.

The analysis of hard election results against current polls is admittedly imperfect. And it must be noted that in many states where Obama currently under performs, he still leads Governor Romney in head to head match ups.

But it is nonetheless instructive that despite all the advantages of incumbency, and after a harsh and longer-than-usual Republican primary, that the President starts the 2012 campaign having lost ground over the last four years.

And that is significant.

No incumbent President running for re-election to a second term, has won with a smaller percentage of the vote than acquired in their first victory since Andrew Jackson in 1832.

That can’t be a helpful statistic for Team Obama as it puts together the autumn game plan.





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