In the six presidential elections between 1992 and 2012, the Democratic party has regained the solid popular vote majority it enjoyed during the New Deal/Great Society era (1932-64) but relinquished in the six elections between 1968 and 1988.
Since losing in 1988, Democrats have carried the popular vote in five of six elections and won the Electoral College in four. Of the two close elections in the current era (2000 and 2004), Republicans won the presidency in both. The four Democratic victories, by contrast, came by comfortable popular margins of 5.6, 8.5, 7.3, and 3.9 percentage points (in order, the two Clinton and two Obama wins). These Democratic showings were good for 370, 379, 365, and 332 electoral votes, while George W. Bush’s two wins featured 271 and 286 electoral votes, just slightly above the 270 needed for election. In 2012 Barack Obama became the first president since Ronald Reagan to win two popular majorities
(52.9 percent in 2008 and 51.1 percent on November 6).
Republicans cannot take much comfort in their 234 seat majority in the House of Representatives. For one thing, Democrats won the 2012 House popular vote by 1.2 percentage points, a sharp improvement from their 6.6 point deficit in 2010. More important, since ticket splitting achieved mass proportions in the 1950s, greatly aiding House and Senate incumbents seeking reelection, congressional dominance has been on a different track from presidential dominance. It has arguably become something of a lagging indicator. The fact that Republicans never came close to a House majority between 1968 and 1988 was small consolation to Democratic nominees who lost the presidency time after time. More recently, Republican congressional landslides in 1994 and 2010 did nothing to prevent the subsequent reelection of Democratic presidents.
In the midst of these recent losses, Republican analysts (including me) became adept at finding one off, “special” circumstances to account for supposedly anomalous Democratic wins. Bill Clinton ran as a moderate or even a conservative on selected issues like crime and welfare reform. Ross Perot’s independent candidacy confused the electorate and divided the Republican vote in 1992 and 1996. Barack Obama in 2008 benefited from bipartisan goodwill as the first minority nominee for president. A mediocre or bad economy wrecked Republican chances in 1992 and 2008.
But Obama’s reelection makes the GOP’s minority status in presidential politics impossible to analyze away. Economic conditions—stagnant growth and high unemployment—seemed to fulfill the classic conditions for a “referendum” election that would very likely result in the ouster of the incumbent. The president’s signature domestic accomplishment, Obamacare, was rejected by majorities in poll after poll. The charisma and voter euphoria that marked Obama’s election in 2008 had seemingly long since dissipated.
When most polls during 2012 showed Obama with a slender lead over Mitt Romney, Republican elites questioned the pollsters’ methodology. Some samples projected a bigger Democratic share of total turnout than in the banner Democratic year of 2008, which seemed implausible given the close national numbers. Many polls showed Romney leading among independents, in past elections a harbinger of victory. Moreover, the Romney-Ryan ticket made no game changing mistakes, and in the judgment of both sides, Romney dominated the first presidential debate, invariably in earlier cycles the most important.
But when all the votes were counted, the election was not very close. Obama’s victory margin was a hair under 5 million votes. Of the 28 states he had won in 2008, he held 26. Of the 12 “battleground” states, Obama won 11—8 of them by a margin of more than 5 percentage points. Remarkably, this meant that if there had been a uniform 5 point swing toward the Republicans in the national popular vote margin—that is, had Romney won the popular vote by 1.1 percentage points instead of losing it by 3.9—Obama would still have prevailed in the Electoral College, winning 23 states and 272 electoral votes.
In the last two decades of Democratic dominance, 18 states and the District of Columbia have voted Democratic six out of six times. These currently have 242 electoral votes, which is quite close to the 270 needed to win the presidency. There are 13 states that have voted Republican in every election since 1992, but they total just 102 electoral votes. This means that to win, a Republican nominee must either break a generation long Democratic winning streak in one or more states, or carry 168 of 194 electoral votes among the “purple” states that have gone both ways since 1992. Not for nothing have political insiders taken to calling the GOP path to an Electoral College majority the equivalent of drawing to an inside straight.