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More Close Elections, Fewer Close States

After an era of presidential elections often defined by landslide results, the nation over the last dozen years has entered a period of close contests for the White House. The 2012 voting is the third in the last four to be decided in the popular vote by a margin of less than 5 percentage points. Yet only four states were decided this year by a margin so small.

Florida was the closest, going to President Barack Obama by a margin of nine-tenths of a percentage point. His Republican opponent, Mitt Romney, won North Carolina by 2.0 points, while Obama prevailed in Ohio by 3.0 points and Virginia by 3.9.

That’s it. As presidential elections have grown closer of late, the number of competitive states has shrunk dramatically. It is a far cry from how it used to be, when much more of the electoral map was in play.

In the tightly contested race in 1960 between Democrat John F. Kennedy and Republican Richard Nixon, 20 states were decided by less than 5 percentage points. It was the same number in 1976, when Democrat Jimmy Carter defeated GOP incumbent Gerald Ford nationally by a mere 2 points. By 2000, the number of such competitive states was down to a dozen, even though the election itself was a closely fought “split decision.” Republican George W. Bush narrowly won the electoral vote while Democrat Al Gore took the popular vote. Since then, the total of states decided by less than 5 points has plummeted further – to 11 in 2004, six in 2008, and now to four in 2012.

Why the decline?  An obvious reason is the increased polarization in the nation’s voting. States do not swing back and forth en masse as they used to. Presidential election maps over the last two decades have largely featured the states of the Northeast and Pacific West shaded Democratic blue, and those of the Republican heartland colored Republican red. Not surprisingly, four times as many states – 16 – were won in 2012 by supermajorities of at least 60% of the total vote than were decided by less than 5 points.

In this environment, presidential candidates have struggled to find new places in which to campaign. Only nine states were really hotly contested this year – New Hampshire in the Northeast; Florida, North Carolina and Virginia in the South; Iowa, Ohio and Wisconsin in the Midwest; and Colorado and Nevada in the West. In the end, after the expenditure of hundreds of millions of dollars, just two states switched party hands. Indiana and North Carolina returned to the GOP electoral vote column after a brief flirtation with Obama in 2008.

It is understandable that the presidential candidates do not campaign more aggressively in problematic terrain. But even a little effort by the Democrats in states such as Georgia and Texas, and Republicans in states such as New Jersey and Pennsylvania, could have both short-term and long-term payoffs. In the short run, presidential campaigning in more hostile states could assist the local party in becoming a more competitive force. And in the long run, that would boost the process of transforming Texas, Pennsylvania and others into true swing states – opening up a presidential election map that has become severely constricted.

(The historical data for this blog was from an October 2012 column written by the author for “Larry J. Sabato’s Crystal Ball.”)   

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