Electoral Geography 2016

Came across an article, “The Map: 11 Angles on the Electoral College,” on Sabato’s Crystal Ball site. As a geographer at Northern Virginia Community College (NOVA), I love titles like this. I eagerly read Sabato’s 2016 predictions, which included several major points:

  1. In the 4 presidential elections from 2000 to 2012, only 10 of 50 states changed their electoral vote: Colorado, Florida, Indiana, Iowa, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Mexico, North Carolina, Ohio, and Virginia.
  2. Practically speaking, the GOP doesn’t have a path to victory without Florida and Ohio.
  3. Could Wisconsin go Republican if Scott Walker were the 2016 nominee? The article points out that Walker’s mid-term victories in 2010 and 2014, and recall election in 2012, averaged a 55% voter turnout. The state’s presidential turnout in 2012 was 73%, which means Walker would face a much larger and more Democratic electorate in his state.
  4. It would be hard for the Republicans to win the White House without Virginia, which is seen as a toss-up state.
Map 1. Predictions according to Larry Sabato, University of Virginia
Map 1. Predictions according to Larry Sabato, University of Virginia

Virginia’s Color on Sabato’s Map

Is Virginia really a “Toss-up” state? Probably not, based on recent elections:

  • Republicans have not won a statewide office since 2009, in both low and high turnout elections.
  • Virginia’s Governor, Lt. Governor, Attorney General, and both U.S. Senators are all Democrats. Republicans do not hold a statewide office.
  • The Republican U.S. Senate wave in 2014 did not unseat Democratic Senator Mark Warner, despite a low 41% voter turnout (compared to 73% for a presidential election) and Republican-passed voter restrictions.
  • Maps of electoral geography show that Virginia is favorable to Democrats, as is Fairfax County, Virginia’s most populous county.

For these reasons, it seems that Virginia leans to Democrats and should be a “Leans D” blue on Sabato’s map (see Map 1 above).

In essence, Virginia has transitioned from a Toss-up to a Democratic state, albeit a fragile one. West Virginia has made the reverse transformation since 2000, going from a dependably Democratic state to a reliably Republican one.

A Small Part of Nebraska Leaning to Democrats?

Only Nebraska and Maine can split their electoral votes. I would add Nebraska to electoral vote “Toss-ups” in Sabato’s map (see Map 1 above), because one of its 2008 electoral votes went to Obama. The 2nd Congressional District (Omaha) is increasingly Democratic, despite alleged Republican gerrymandering in 2011.

In 2014, Democrat Brad Ashford defeated the Republican incumbent, Lee Terry, who held the 2nd District for 16 years. This indicates that the single electoral vote for Nebraska’s 2nd District (NE-2) could again swing to Democrats in 2016. I would think that the NE-2 box should be a toss-up yellow—instead of the “Likely R” red that is presently on the map.

A Difficult Republican Path to the Presidency

By adding Nebraska’s 1 electoral vote (NE-2) to the Toss-up category and Virginia’s 13 electoral votes to Democrats, new totals for Sabato’s map would be:

     Democrats: 260; Toss-ups: 73; Republicans: 205

Republicans will need to focus on Florida and Ohio. The Republican National Convention in Ohio reflects a Midwest strategy. The Democratic National Convention is in Pennsylvania, which Republicans see as a potential swing state in 2016, yet it has not voted for a GOP presidential candidate since 1988.

I have drawn up a map (see Map 2 below) that (I humbly think) accurately illustrates the narrow path to victory for Republican candidates. On this map, the GOP needs to capture all 6 toss-up states to get above 270 electoral votes (the winning magic number). Democrats, on the other hand, only have to take 1 or 2 toss-up states to win.

Map 2. Predictions based on changes to Virginia & Nebraska.
Map 2. Predictions based on changes to Virginia & Nebraska.


Author: David Miller

Learned about the wonders of geography while working at National Geographic for some 25 years. Started teaching one class a semester at NOVA in the 1990s but became a dedicated instructor in 2010.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.