State of the States: Indiana

During his 2020 primary campaign, (which now seems 1,000 years ago) Pete Buttigieg claimed electoral legitimacy because he won re-election being openly gay in “Mike Pence’s Indiana.” It’s a good setup. Pence isn’t exactly gay-friendly. Indiana is red. It’s a great David v. Goliath tale.

It was also some quality political prestidigitation. South Bend does not even slightly resemble the rest of Indiana. It’s heavily Democratic. And Pence was not a popular governor. His selection by Donald Trump allowed him to ditch a difficult re-election contest.

He’d managed the feat of offending both sides in the debate, passage, and aftermath of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which made it easier for businesses to pass on serving gay customers. Signing the bill pissed off the left. Signing a revision that gutted most of the provisions, after facing the threat of significant boycotts from big national businesses and organizations, angered the Christian Right.

Yes, Indiana is red. And in 2016, it was the reddest ever (R+21.) But not to the point where it doesn’t care what the rest of the country thinks, especially if there are financial consequences. When the GOP went a little far with their 2012 Senate nominee, a Democrat took the seat. Which he then lost in 2018. Think of the state as clearly leaning right, but unlike Wyoming or West Virginia, still exercising some Midwestern moderation once in a while. They did (very narrowly) vote for Barack Obama in 2008.

2016 Results: Donald Trump 57.2%, Hillary Clinton 37.9%, Gary Johnson 4.9% (R+21)

Trump definitely did well. He won by 19 points. Hillary finished below 40% in a state Obama won once. But Gary Johnson managed almost 5%. There was some residual Trump wariness.

2020 Polls: Trump is leading by an average of 14.6% and the polls are consistent. This is down a bit from 2016, but it’s more due to undecided voters. Joe Biden is yet to clear 40%. Compared to the rest of the country, Indiana is still R+21.

Key Historical Shifts: One. Ever. After the 1816 and 1820 elections, where the state legislature made the choices, Indiana has experienced two political phases, each lasting about a century.

Phase One (1824-1928): Slightly Democratic leaning swing state. From 1844 to 1900, Indiana was within 3 points of the national popular vote all but twice. Republican or Whig Indianans were on the ballot four times in the 19th century and had an edge each time. Otherwise, Democrats were in the driver’s seat. Except for picking Republican Charles Evans Hughes in 1916, if Indiana was voting for the GOP candidate, they were going to win.

Phase Two (1932-Present): Red, but not stupendously so. It’s not that Indiana could never vote for a Democrat. FDR won twice, LBJ and Obama once. But in every election from 1932 forward, the Republican candidate has done better there than in the national popular vote. Some switch got flipped. I’m not sure what it was. There are several red states that didn’t respond well to FDR, even if they voted for him in 1932 and/or 1936. This is the first one I’ve found that became solidly red for the first time during his presidency.

The other unique thing is the consistency of Republican support without ever having a +30 or until 2016 even a +20 year. It’s hard to stay in that +10 to +15 range for 80-90 years without ever going the other way when there’s a particularly bad candidate/state fit.

At the moment, Indiana looks like a prototypical GOP state. It’s whiter than average, lower income than average (35th), less educated than average (43rd in bachelor’s degrees, 40th in graduate degrees.) The thing is, Indiana was also red 60 years ago when these were not indicators of red states.

TL;DR I’m confused.

How Biden Could Improve on Hillary’s 2016 Result: Though we haven’t seen concrete evidence in Indiana polls, nationally Biden is running ahead of Clinton’a 2016 numbers with less educated white voters. There could be some third party voters who still don’t like Trump and find Biden more palatable than Hillary.

If Indiana doesn’t become even more red than 2016, and Biden can hold his current 7% national advantage, that would translate to doing a few points better in Indiana, which is what the surveys are showing. While Biden remains below 40%, Trump isn’t clearing 50% by very much. If Biden gets the majority of undecideds, as many challengers do, you could see an 8 to 10 percent final gap.

How Trump Could Improve on His 2016 Result: Indiana is pretty socially conservative. Trump will likely get points for nominating a justice that will give the Supreme Court a 6:3 conservative majority. Maybe those Johnson voters pick Trump this time.

Thinking Trump is going to do much better than his 19 point win last time is a stretch, but maybe he pushes Indiana to R+25 by improving how it compares to the rest of the country.

Forecast: Don’t really have a particular feel for how this will turn out, but Trump by 12 sounds about right.

State of the States: Vermont

Quick, what’s the state that has historically supported Republicans the most? That’s right! The home of Ben & Jerry’s and Bernie Sanders. The land of maple syrup and green mountains. The place with the progressive bastions of Burlington (where Bernie was mayor) and Brattleboro (pretend Berkeley was a giant B&B.)

Yes, Vermont has given more cumulative support to GOP presidential candidates than any other state. This isn’t a mistake or typo. From the first candidate, John Fremont in 1856, through Richard Nixon in 1960, Vermont was redder than the national popular vote in every election. By a minimum of 17 points and an average of more than double that. Even when losing badly overall, Republicans won the state every time, including 1936 when FDR only lost two states (Maine was the other rebel,)

Then Barry Goldwater happened. Continue reading “State of the States: Vermont”

Efficiency and Legitimacy

Joe Biden is becoming more efficient. At least based on recent polls. His weighted average in national surveys is +6.8%. If the election were today and the polls are correct, his tipping point state (the one that would put him to/over 270) is Pennsylvania. He leads by 4.6% on average. He’s got a gap of 2.2 points between his national number and the one that actually matters. You can think of this as an efficiency measure.

It’s pretty much impossible to game the Electoral College in such a way that a candidate could lose the popular vote by more than 6 points, yet still triumph. If not impossible, it’s a 1 in 100 thing that we can ignore for the purposes of doing a little math. An election where the tipping point state and national popular vote exactly match is perfectly efficient. We’ll give this an index number of 100. If a candidate would need to win the popular vote by 6 points or more, we’ll give that a 0. That’s as inefficient as you can be.

For the candidate who could lose the popular vote by up to 6 points and still win, they’d get an index of 200. No matter how you calculate, there are a total of 200 index points to split between the candidates, so that the average is always 100. Based on current numbers, Biden’s index number is 63, while Donald Trump’s is 137.

Here’s what the past several elections look like by this measure: Continue reading “Efficiency and Legitimacy”


As I was getting ready to work on a post about Indiana or Louisiana (hadn’t figured out which), the news about the passing of Ruth Bader Ginsburg reached the world. Suddenly, trying to sort out why FDR and the election of 1932 pushed Indiana from purple to red wasn’t urgent.

It’s always a big deal when a sitting justice passes away. There’s a scramble. And whether it was William Rehnquist, Antonin Scalia, or any other justice with a lengthy career and decades on the court, except for the day of the funeral, political considerations dominate the news. Yes, 2020 is an extra big mess, but the exception is when the court isn’t politicized, not when it is.

It’s always a big deal when a particularly meaningful justice leaves the court. RBG was nominated right before Steven Breyer. They served together for almost three decades. They voted together well over 90% of the time. In terms of judicial impact, it doesn’t make much difference that Breyer is the one who will be hearing arguments when the new session begins on October 5. Emotionally it’s a huge difference. Continue reading “Earthquake”

State of the States: Arizona

Looks like Arizona is front and center from now until November 3 (plus however long it takes them to count.) Of all the traditionally red states (AZ has voted for a Democrat only once since 1948), it looks like the best opportunity for Joe Biden to flip. He’s got a stronger lead there than in Florida, where the Obama-Biden ticket won twice. Odds are similar to Pennsylvania, where Donald Trump ended a 6 election Democratic streak in 2016.

Arizona is key to Biden being able to win even if one of the more common Democratic targets doesn’t work out. Much as I enjoy pushing back on conventional wisdom, the closer you look, the more this seems like a legit possibility. While I have no idea if or when Texas will go blue, Arizona will be giving Democratic presidential candidates a boost from their national average by 2028 at the latest. Even now, it’s a clear target for a Democrat who wins the popular vote by a couple/few points. Continue reading “State of the States: Arizona”

State of the States: West Virginia

In 1996, Bill Clinton won West Virginia by 15 points.

In 2016 Hillary Clinton lost West Virginia by 42 points.

This wasn’t a fluke. It was the logical conclusion of a pattern:

1996: D+6

2000: R+7

2004: R+10

2008: R+20

2012: R+31

2016: R+44

In case you’re wondering, this isn’t normal. States and regions change sides all the time. There are zero states that haven’t been more red than average at least once and more blue than average at least once. Huge swings from one election to the next are plenty precedented. But there’s usually a correction at some point. When the South went from blue to red, there was a lot of back and forth as the transition was happening. Not here.

With Donald Trump, the ideal candidate for West Virginia got to jump on a speeding train moving in the perfect direction. Though this is the most extreme example, the same thing is happening throughout a swath of the country with Appalachian roots. The states are either part of Appalachia itself, or the diaspora. Many of their voters are of Scots-Irish decent. This is the part of the country that made up Andrew Jackson’s base in the 1820s and 1830s. Continue reading “State of the States: West Virginia”

State of the States: Oregon

Even if you’ve never watched an episode of Portlandia, your political image of Oregon is likely very blue. It seems like a very liberal/progressive place, one beyond allergic to Donald Trump. Not quite. Joe Biden will win there in November. But by 12 points, maybe, maybe 15 or 16, not the 30+ in California or 25+ in Washington.

Believe it or not, Oregon is relatively moderate, a state Republicans need to start competing in if they want to win a national popular vote anytime soon. As California and Washington have become off-limits for GOP presidential candidates and Connecticut and New Jersey only accessible in a landslide year, the right Republican would be viable there. Something to ponder as thoughts turn to 2024 sooner than we’re ready for. Continue reading “State of the States: Oregon”

State of the States: Alaska

Alaska is red, violets are blue. Some things just are. Until they’re not. In the case of the 49th State, the only one that can make Texas look mini, I was preparing to write a quick piece about how it’s definitely in Donald Trump’s column, with a quick aside about the old election that moved Alaska from purple to red.

When I looked for the poll numbers to plug in to the second section, I was thinking there was a good chance that like Rhode Island, we’d have none. To my surprise, not only were there a few surveys, but they indicate a competitive(ish) race. FiveThirtyEight is giving Joe Biden a 20% chance at being the first Democrat to win Alaska since 1964.

How can this be? Continue reading “State of the States: Alaska”

State of the States: Texas

Almost twenty years ago, political demographer Ruy Teixeira and journalist John Judis wrote a book called The Emerging Democratic Majority. The thesis is that by combining women, racial and ethnic minorities, and knowledge workers, Democrats could create an enduring governing majority. This is exactly what the Democratic coalition in blue places looks like these days. And it bears more than a passing resemblance to the Obama Coalition. Clearly there was something to this.

Some carried this to a further logical conclusion. That Texas would inherently turn blue. If people of color tend to vote Democratic, and Texas was increasingly becoming non-white, then ergo, the second most populous state in the union would join California as part of an Electoral College bulwark, dooming Republicans to decades of needing an invitation to enter the White House. You can see why hopeful Democrats would buy in to this scenario.

In the several elections since the book debuted, Republicans have easily won each of the presidential contests in Texas. The GOP is unbeaten in Senate and governor’s races too. This is despite the increasing percentage of Latino voters and immigrants from blue states. Why isn’t this happening? Or is it, but something that Democrats hoped would take 10 or 20 years will actually require 40 or 60? Continue reading “State of the States: Texas”

State of the States: Rhode Island

We’re used to thinking about religion impacting voting. The Republican capture of the evangelical vote over the past 40 years is the single biggest factor in the past several GOP victories. As Trump haters lament the success the thrice-married, porn star paying, not sure how to hold a bible president continues to have with this key voting block, based mostly on judicial nominations and maximum verbal support for the community, it’s easy to forget about Catholics. That “other” group represents almost a quarter of the country.

In Rhode Island, it’s almost half. The only other group of consequence are those who consider themselves non-observant. Among those who regularly pay attention to religion, Rhode Island is a Catholic state. And it’s not a new development. For the past hundred and fifty years or so, it, Massachusetts, and to a bit lesser extent, Connecticut have given Catholics a strong presence in New England.

Times have changed, and this doesn’t drive electoral results as directly as last century. But you can still see the pattern. Among states with a high percentage of white Catholics, Donald Trump tended to do better than recent Republican candidates. In Rhode Island, it narrowed the gap. He still lost by double digits. It was still the closest result to the national popular vote for any Republican since 1992. In places like Pennsylvania (8th most Catholic state) and Wisconsin (11th), the votes of older white Catholics may have delivered the presidency to Trump. Continue reading “State of the States: Rhode Island”