Handicapping the Electoral Vote, One Year Out

by slb36cornell

electoral college map 2016 prediction

While most of the pundits and prognosticators are focusing on the primaries, I thought I’d take an early look at the general election contest, which is just one year away. I’ll take a state-by-state look at the race, in an effort to determine not only the most likely outcome, but also each party’s best paths to 270.

I plan to update this forecast on a regular basis over the coming year. Later predictions should be more quantitative, as more data (polling and otherwise) will become available as the election approaches.



Safe: the favored party’s candidate is extremely likely to win this state, even if the opponent wins in landslide nationally (99-100% chance the favored party will win this state in 2016)

Solid: the favored party’s candidate is extremely likely to win this state, except in a wave election the other way (90-98% chance)

Likely: the favored party’s candidate is likely to win this state (75-89% chance)

Lean: the favored party’s candidate has the advantage, but this state could go either way (60-74% chance)

Edge: this is a tossup state, but I believe one party/candidate has a slight advantage (50-59% chance) In other words, in a close election, the Safe and Solid states should not be competitive, the Likely states may be competitive (and one or two might have a surprising outcome), and the Lean and Edge states should be competitive.

Closer to the election, the percentages for each category will shift a bit as the overall picture becomes clearer.

State-by-State Forecasts

I believe the contest will primarily be fought in ten states, and a handful of others may be targeted by one or the other party. I see little reason to expect that the battleground states will have shifted much from 2012.

New England Region

Safe D states: Massachusetts (11 EVs), Rhode Island (4), Vermont (3)

Solid D states: Connecticut (7), Maine (4)

Maine is worth mentioning because it splits its electoral votes; the 1st District is a bit more competitive and could be targeted by a Republican candidate looking to poach an EV. Call it Likely D, with the rest of the state Safe.

Lean D state: New Hampshire (4)

NH has gone for the Democratic candidate in five of the last six elections, with the exception being a narrow Bush win in 2000. In each election since, the state has been at least a couple of percentage points bluer than the nation as a whole. I’m being cautious in my rating for the time being because the state is known for having a bit of a libertarian streak which a Republican candidate could exploit, but it’s hard to envision the GOP nominating someone who could outperform McCain or Romney here.

Mid-Atlantic Region

Safe D states: New York (29), Maryland (10), District of Columbia (3)

Solid D states: New Jersey (14), Delaware (3)

Polling from New Jersey sometimes makes the state look competitive, but it never turns out that way. NJ has voted significantly more Democratic than the national average in every election since 1996 (Clinton won a close victory here in ’92).

Likely D state: Pennsylvania (20)

Perhaps I’m being a little bold in categorizing PA as Likely rather than Lean Democratic, but Pennsylvania has consistently been more Democratic than the nation as a whole, and the state judicial elections this month show that Democrats in the state are motivated and engaged. The Democratic presidential candidate has won PA six elections in a row.

South Atlantic Region

Along with the Midwest and Southwest, one of the most critical regions in the country. Democrats may have something of a structural advantage here, as they could lose the region’s popular vote and still walk away with a majority of the electoral votes, as they did in 2012.

Edge D state: Virginia (13)

Obama won Virginia in 2008 by a slightly smaller percentage than he won nationally. However, though the race was closer in 2012, Obama actually over-performed in Virginia, winning it by a larger percentage than he won the overall popular vote. That’s an excellent sign for Democrats moving forward.

Edge R state: Florida (29)

My instinct here is that Florida could go either way, but it’s a must-win for Republicans and it’s not quite as important for Democrats (who could win 270 electoral votes by adding Ohio, Virginia, and/or Colorado to their usual coalition). So I expect Republicans will go all-out in an effort to win Florida, even if it means sacrificing some other swing states to do so. Additionally, the strong possibility that the GOP nominee will hail from Florida may help their cause.

Lean R state: North Carolina (15)

Obama won North Carolina by less than 1% in 2008 and lost by 2% in 2012. The state should be close, but the Democratic candidate would probably need to be winning nationwide to have a chance at victory here. So far, polling in this state has looked pretty good for Hillary Clinton (not as good for Bernie Sanders).

Solid R state: Georgia (16)

I don’t think Georgia is quite ready to enter “swing state” status, but it’s one of the most plausible targets for Democrats beyond the Obama states.

Safe R state: South Carolina (9)

South-Central Region

Solid R states: Missouri (10), Arkansas (6)

I wouldn’t be surprised to see Missouri shift into the Likely or even Lean Republican category, but it’s kind of like New Jersey: often appears close, but always seems to turn out the same way. The limited polling here thus far hasn’t looked encouraging for the Democrats. Arkansas could be close if Hillary is the nominee, but it would be rather shocking if she actually wins it.

Safe R states: Texas (38), Tennessee (11), Alabama (9), Kentucky (8), Louisiana (8), Mississippi (6), West Virginia(5)

Most of these were Democratic states a generation ago, but they’ve all gone the other way in the past four or more elections. The conservative shift of some of these states may be overstated (antipathy towards President Obama could be inflating Republican numbers a bit), but I think we can just about rule out the possibility of a Democrat winning here in 2016.

Texas deserves a special mention, as it is both crucial to Republican chances, and a state that Democrats would like to target due to the large and growing minority population. Texas may be reaching the point where it could be close, but I do not think it is winnable yet.

Midwest Region

With the exception of Illinois, it’s possible that every state in the region could be competitive. The Democratic nominee needs to do well in this part of the country, and Republicans may need to make inroads in order to offset possible losses in the Southwest and South Atlantic regions.

Safe D state: Illinois (20)

Solid D states: Michigan (16), Minnesota (10)

Democrats shouldn’t get too comfortable about these states, which should be competitive…but they’re unlikely to actually flip, unless the Republican candidate is winning nationally by a fair margin.

Likely D state: Wisconsin (10)

Although Scott Walker has become unpopular here, I’m a little more confident that this state will go Democratic now that he’s out of the running. Wisconsin is one of a handful of states that has gone Democratic in the past seven elections dating back to 1988, and I doubt that this is the year that will break that winning streak.

Lean D state: Iowa (6)

If the election were held right now, Iowa would be a tossup, and depending on the GOP candidate, possibly a Republican pickup. But the state usually winds up in the Democratic column and I think it’s more likely than not that the Democratic candidate wins it again in 2016.

Edge D state: Ohio (18)

As the state that most reliably gives its electoral votes to the overall winner, Ohio might be the most important state in the country this year—again. Since I expect that the Democratic candidate will probably win the popular vote in 2016, I believe that chances are good that Ohio will follow. It will certainly be close, as it has been in the past six elections (each time, Ohio was decided by less than 7%).

Solid R state: Indiana (11)

Republicans can no longer call this state “safe” since Obama’s surprising victory in 2008, but it remains a state with a significant GOP advantage. If Indiana becomes competitive this year, that would be a terrible sign for Republicans.

Interior West Region

Safe GOP states: Oklahoma (7), Kansas (6), Utah (6), Nebraska (5), Idaho (4), Alaska (3), Montana (3), North Dakota (3), South Dakota (3), Wyoming (3)

Not much needs to be said about these states. Some (Montana, for instance) may be worth watching, if there’s a significant third-party candidate, or if the Democratic nominee chooses a running mate from the region, but there’s very little chance that any of them will flip.

Nebraska is a special case because it could split its EVs, and indeed Obama picked up an electoral vote here in 2008. However, even the least Republican district in the state is probably Solid R at this point.

Southwest Region

Solid D state: New Mexico (5)

It wasn’t long ago that this was a swing state, but it seems to be firmly in Democratic hands now.

Likely D state: Nevada (6)

Depending on the Republican nominee, that could be a little optimistic, but it’s fairly clear that the Democrat is favored here.

Edge D state: Colorado (9)

It will come down to turnout, but I like the Democrat’s chances here. Even if Republicans recapture Florida, Ohio, and Virginia, the Democratic candidate can still win the election with a strong showing here and in the other bluish states.

Solid R state: Arizona (11)

Another Republican state that could be competitive, but probably won’t flip unless everything goes right for the Democratic candidate. Still, targeting this state could put the Republicans on the defensive and build the groundwork for future success here.

Pacific Region

Safe D states: California (52), Washington (12), Hawaii (4)

Solid D state: Oregon (7)

A swing state in 2000, Oregon has shifted fairly decisively in the Democratic Party’s favor.

Changes from 2012

Red to Blue: none

Blue to Red: Florida (29)

Electoral Vote Scorecard

Safe Democratic states: 151 Electoral Votes

Solid Democratic states: 66 Electoral Votes (Safe+Solid: 217 EVs)

Likely Democratic states: 36 EVs (Safe+Solid+Likely: 253 EVs)

Lean Democratic states: 10 EVs (Safe+Solid+Likely+Lean [blue coalition]: 263 EVs)

Edge Democratic states: 40 EVs (blue coalition + Edge: 303 EVs)

Edge Republican states: 29 EVs (red coalition + Edge: 235 EVs)

Lean Republican states: 15 EVs (Safe+Solid+Likely+Lean [red coalition]: 206 EVs)

Likely Republican states: 0 EVs

Solid Republican states: 55 EVs including one EV in Nebraska (Safe+Solid: 191 EVs)

Safe Republican states: 136 EVs

Democratic Paths to Victory

1. Replicate the Obama Map: Clearly the most straightforward path, this would take the blue coalition states (263) and add Florida (29), Ohio (20), Virginia (13), or Colorado (9). To protect against potential losses in states like Iowa, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, or Wisconsin, the Democratic nominee should seek to capture two or more of those tossup states, although any one would suffice as long as the blue coalition holds.

2. New Southern Strategy: An alternative strategy would look at the states Bill Clinton won in the 1990s, like Georgia, Arizona, Missouri, Arkansas, West Virginia, and Tennessee, and try to recapture or at least compete in as many of them as possible. Many of these states have become significantly more Republican in the intervening years, so this would be a risky and inferior plan in a close election, but if things are going particularly well, an aggressive strategy might pay off, and if the election is going poorly (in the Midwestern states, for instance), this might be a desperation move for Hillary, albeit one that’s not too likely to work. Conventional wisdom would dismiss this strategy as implausible, but then again, in 2007 Indiana and North Carolina were considered safe Republican states.

3. Political Revolution? If Bernie Sanders is the nominee, he might try to break out of the conventional red state-blue state dynamic and compete in traditionally Republican states that might be open to an outsider, like Alaska, Montana, or the Dakotas. Even with this strategy, victory would probably depend on holding the blue coalition states plus either Colorado or Virginia, at minimum.

4. Multi-Regional Plan: A fourth strategy would eschew a state-by-state approach in order to focus broadly on the three swing regions: the Midwest, the South Atlantic, and the Southwest. This would keep the focus on key states like Ohio and Florida while also giving attention to bluish states like Wisconsin and Nevada, as well as potential targets like Arizona, Georgia, and Indiana. This would expand the map and help to protect blue states from Republican incursions, but it would run the risk of letting the Republicans gain the upper hand in tossup states by exclusively focusing on them.

Republican Paths to Victory

The Republicans would have to add 63 electoral votes to the red coalition states. A tall order to be sure, but perhaps less daunting than it would appear at first. There are several approaches they might take:

1. Recapture the Bush Coalition: Republicans can win the election by taking the four tossups: the Edge R state (Florida) and the Edge D states (Ohio, Virginia, and Colorado). This would replicate the 2004 map, with the exception of Nevada (which may not be out of reach, either). They would need a huge turnout among conservative voters, and they’d either need to cut the Democratic advantage among Latino voters and young people or offset it with gains among other groups. If the Republicans nominate anyone to the right of Rubio or Bush, they might need to use this strategy as bluer states might not be as fertile for them.

2. Invade Pennsylvania: It didn’t work for Romney, it didn’t work for McCain, (and it didn’t work for Robert E. Lee either) but Pennsylvania remains a tempting opportunity for Republicans. Republicans would need a big turnout from their base in the middle part of the state, and would need to do well among the state’s relatively high number of moderate voters (including suburbanites who are more liberal on social issues than economic ones, and working-class voters who are more socially conservative but liberal on economic issues). The state’s elderly voters would be another key demographic. With the red coalition plus Florida and Pennsylvania, the GOP would still need 15 more EVs, and Ohio (with many similarities to Pennsylvania) would probably be the most likely target.

3. Target the Midwest: Republicans’ problem is that the blue coalition is so large that Republicans need to win almost every swing state—they basically have to run the table. One way around this would be to expand the map by targeting blue states in the Midwest, like Michigan, Minnesota, and Wisconsin. By putting Democrats on defense, they could shore up Republican states and possibly force their opponents to divert resources away from the key swing states. Midwestern states tend to be older and whiter than some of the other battlegrounds, and may be receptive to conservative messaging, especially if the economy is doing poorly.

4. Anger, Fear, Suppression: Perhaps the Republican’s best strategy is not based on any map, but rather reliant upon tactics to boost Republican turnout and suppress the vote of liberal-leaning groups like young people and minorities. Republican voters can be motivated by appeals to religion or patriotism as well as antipathy towards the Democratic nominee, often by stoking deep-seated biases. The Democratic vote can be suppressed by tactics that make it harder for Democrats to cast ballots (ID laws, biased voter purges, residency laws that make it hard for college students to register and vote, insufficient voting machines, etc.) and by fomenting apathy, complacency, or cynicism (arguments that the Democratic nominee is too liberal, too conservative, too corrupt, too out-of-touch, or otherwise not to be trusted). In order to take advantage of their favorable geography, Democrats will need to push back hard against all these efforts.


Reprinted with permission from Daily Kos