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With 14 Months To Go, Some Thoughts On 2016


Does this sound like a state I talk about a lot?

Seeing that X is winnable, Ys then try to figure out what it would take to win it. The answer is, a lot of money and a lot of time… Having taken a long, hard look at the X numbers, Ys usually decide to make a token effort there and concentrate instead on, say, Ohio…

(Congressman from Y) says, ‘The national Y Party will not invest in X. They take money out as if it’s a colony and put nothing back in. In August, they’ll be out here with their phony advance men promising us that they are going to go all the way in X. But privately we know that they will do that only to keep up appearances long enough to rip off more money. Then they’ll yank the tent and call it quits in late September. They don’t understand X, they don’t like X, they don’t want to even think of X as a Yic state. It’s like they’re run by the mind of Woody Allen.’

If the Ys make no serious effort and the Zs have a decent candidate, then the Zs have an edge in X.

Sounds like someone else is ranting about Pennsylvania again, the fool.

The above appeared in The Atlantic in the July 1988 issue, and its author, Bill Schneider, wasn’t talking about the Keystone, but the Golden State: Democrats had a frustrating time there from 1952 through, at the time, 1984, and would again later that year.* We laugh now, as California has become a solidly Democratic state six elections straight. But at the time, it was part of the mythical Red Wall, along with (equal in smile-inducement now) Illinois.

Conventional wisdom combined with “Lucy footballing” a state is stupid. Parties hungry for regaining control must be open to all possibilities even if victory has seemed fleeting in the recent past and especially if they’ve been facing a bad string of cycles. Republicans face a serious deficit in the Electoral College, which they must address, but the forces that drive flips in party control yank and warp the map frequently over the long passage of time. Will Republicans enjoy such a flip? How could we tell before Election Day?

Here’s What Really Flips States

We can write off individual 2015 polls, “sign counts,” and the latest Twitter outrage about candidate X or Y as holding any significance. What matters? Efforts to increase voter rolls by each party, the perception of the economy, the incumbent president’s approval rating, and how the Gore 2000 states are looking.

Campaigns matter. They always have, and they always will.

Campaigns matter. They always have, and they always will. 2016 falls under “always,” in case you were confused. We can stack the visible efforts by each party against partisan registration stats where we can obtain them, like in North Carolina and Pennsylvania. If the out party’s claims are being verified in the registration numbers after an expected surge during primary season, the party trying to claw its way back in is likely putting in the effort required to get close. On the other hand, if we are seeing oodles of millions wasted in ads with little polling movement, it will be the same old, same old for Republicans, and Hillary Clinton will enjoy an edge.

How are you doing personally? This question has determined pretty much every election. In so-so to decent times, the incumbent party generally has an edge. This isn’t always true, of course (see 2000), but consistently bad economic news hurts the incumbent. When things take a turn, crowds want someone to blame. The president is easy, as we see now with Barack Obama, either sarcastically with #thanksObama or seriously with the 2010 midterm. If the economy is humming along next year, that is good news for Mrs. Clinton. If it nosedives? President McCain will tell ya how that goes.

The incumbent president’s approval rating proved helpful in watching the 2014 midterm races. Incumbent Democrats ran a little bit ahead of the president’s numbers in their states, and with his terrible fall numbers, six received the boot and two more came within 30,000 votes of following suit.

How are you doing personally? This question has determined pretty much every election.

If President Obama enjoys a resurgence in popularity and pulls to even, Hillary’s odds improve with them. If his tank dramatically, she has a tougher time arguing for her party’s third straight term. The importance of his performance, though, matters in extremes. Odds are, his numbers will stay where they are, failing to boost her dramatically but also failing to drag Clinton down. If they do, all other things being equal, it will be another less-than-four-point national race.

Lastly, watch the states that voted for Al Gore in 2000. When a political party has enough energy to wrestle back 1600 Pennsylvania, they carry a state they hadn’t the last time they succeeded in a flip. This historical note of mine was confirmed by Geoffrey Skelley of Larry Sabato’s Crystal Ball, and serve as a fine canary in the 2016 coal mine. As much Lucy-and-the-footballing some Democrats joked regarding California in the early 1980s, it fell for them hard in 1992, and has been entranced ever since.

In particular, watch the performance of the nominees in Iowa, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Minnesota. Mrs. Clinton’s head-to-head numbers in three of these states have been interesting. If her struggles continue in them well into 2016, and she starts to consistently trail in these states, start betting on a red map. If things return to normal for the Democrats there, it doesn’t eliminate the Republicans’ chances, but it diminishes them significantly.

Every party has its California. Until it doesn’t.

*1964 being the exception, of course, but Barry Goldwater lost practically everywhere that year.