Election 2012 is finally almost in the books—I say "almost" because, even with the election almost three weeks old, many states haven't certified their results yet and a handful of states still have a significant number of ballots to count—and it's time to start slicing and dicing the results to see how the electorate has changed since the last go-round.
What's remarkable, though, is how little the electorate has changed despite all the sturm and drang of the last four years. It was a closer election than in 2008, by several percentage points, but it wasn't the sort of election where whole swaths of the population suddenly change their minds and reverse course. Instead, it was a nuts-and-bolts, grind-it-out election: a small but appreciable number of swing voters changed from D to R, the Republicans got their people to turn out, and, maybe most impressively, the Democrats managed to replicate their levels of base turnout from 2008, which back then had seemed like a once-a-generation high-water mark.
By arranging the states from top to bottom in a totem pole according to how they performed, you can see how little that rank order changed from 2008 to 2012. There were a few exceptions—usually states where the presence of a hometown hero on the ticket (Utah) or the absence of one (Alaska) took a thumb on or off the scale—but for the most part, Barack Obama's performance was off a percentage point or two or three in each state. Not entirely uniformly, but quite consistent with an overall drop nationwide of a couple percentage points.
Before the election, there was a lot of consternation about the seeming disparity between nationwide polls that showed a close race and statewide polls that seemed to put the Electoral College comfortably in Obama's hands. Was it because Obama had completely cratered in the implacably conservative red states? Was it because the heavy advertising in the swing states was helping him hold steady there, while he'd lost a lot of ground in the neglected states? Now that we've got the actual results, it turns out that neither of those is the best explanation. Instead, as usual, the simplest explanation was the right one: the states basically behaved like they always behave, relative to the national average and relative to each other, and the national polls just turned out to be more wrong than the state-level polls.
|D.C. 90.8%||D.C. 90.1%||D.C. 90.5%||D.C. 90.5%||D.C. 93.4%||D.C. 92.6%|
|Mass. 62.1%||Rhode Is. 69.0%||Rhode Is. 65.6%||Mass. 62.7%||Hawaii 73.0%||Hawaii 71.7%|
|Rhode Is. 61.8%||Mass. 68.6%||Mass. 64.8%||Rhode Is. 60.5%||Vermont 68.9%||Vermont 68.2%|
|Vermont 60.3%||New York 66.0%||New York 63.1%||Vermont 60.3%||Rhode Is. 64.2%||Rhode Is. 64.0%|
|Arkansas 60.0%||Hawaii 64.3%||Hawaii 59.8%||New York 59.3%||New York 63.6%||New York 63.5%|
|New York 59.5%||Vermont 63.2%||Conn. 59.3%||Maryland 56.6%||Mass. 63.2%||Maryland 63.3%|
|Illinois 58.6%||Maine 62.7%||Maryland 58.5%||Conn. 55.3%||Maryland 62.9%||Mass. 61.8%|
|California 58.5%||Conn. 60.4%||New Jersey 58.2%||Illinois 55.2%||Illinois 62.7%||California 61.3%|
|Maryland 58.3%||New Jersey 60.0%||Delaware 56.7%||California 55.0%||Delaware 62.6%||Delaware 59.4%|
|W. Virginia 57.8%||Illinois 59.6%||California 56.2%||Maine 54.6%||California 62.3%||Conn. 59.1%|
|Minnesota 57.7%||Minnesota 59.4%||Illinois 56.2%||Hawaii 54.4%||Conn. 61.3%||Illinois 58.6%|
|Wash. 57.6%||Arkansas 59.4%||Vermont 55.4%||Delaware 53.8%||Maine 58.8%||New Jersey 58.6%|
|Hawaii 56.7%||Maryland 58.6%||Wash. 52.9%||Wash. 53.6%||Wash. 58.8%||Maine 57.8%|
|Oregon 56.6%||Delaware 58.6%||Maine 52.7%||New Jersey 53.4%||Oregon 58.4%||Wash. 57.6%|
|Missouri 56.5%||W. Virginia 58.4%||Michigan 52.6%||Oregon 52.1%||Michigan 58.4%||Oregon 56.2%|
|Maine 56.1%||Michigan 57.3%||Penn. 52.1%||Minnesota 51.8%||New Jersey 57.9%||New Mex. 55.3%|
|Penn. 55.5%||California 57.2%||Minnesota 51.3%||Michigan 51.7%||New Mex. 57.7%||Michigan 54.8%|
|Delaware 55.2%||Wash. 57.2%||PAR 50.3%||Penn. 51.3%||Wisconsin 57.1%||Minnesota 53.9%|
|New Mex. 55.1%||Louisiana 56.6%||Oregon 50.2%||New Hamp. 50.7%||Nevada 56.4%||Nevada 53.4%|
|Michigan 54.6%||Wisconsin 55.9%||Iowa 50.2%||Wisconsin 50.2%||Penn. 55.2%||Wisconsin 53.4%|
|Connecticut 54.1%||Iowa 55.7%||Wisconsin 50.1%||Iowa 49.7%||Minnesota 55.2%||Iowa 53.0%|
|Iowa 53.7%||New Hamp. 55.6%||New Mx. 50.003%||New Mex. 49.6%||New Hamp. 54.9%||New Hamp. 52.8%|
|PAR 53.5%||* Penn. 55.2%||* Florida 49.995%||* Ohio 48.9%||Iowa 54.8%||Colorado 52.8%|
|* Colorado 52.8%||PAR 54.7%||New Hamp. 49.3%||PAR 48.8%||* Colorado 54.6%||* Penn. 52.5%|
|Wisconsin 52.8%||Oregon 54.7%||Missouri 48.3%||Nevada 48.7%||PAR 53.6%||Virginia 52.0|
|Louisiana 52.7%||New Mex. 54.0%||Ohio 48.2%||Colorado 47.6%||Virginia 53.2%||PAR 51.7%|
|Tennessee 52.6%||Ohio 53.6%||Nevada 48.1%||Florida 47.5%||Ohio 52.3%||Ohio 51.0%|
|Kentucky 51.9%||Missouri 53.5%||Tennessee 48.0%||Missouri 46.4%||Florida 51.4%||Florida 50.4%|
|Nevada 51.8%||Florida 53.2%||Arkansas 47.2%||Virginia 45.9%||Indiana 50.5%||N. Carolina 49.0%|
|Montana 51.7%||Tennessee 51.3%||W. Virginia 46.8%||Arkansas 45.1%||N. Carolina 50.2%||Georgia 46.0%|
|New Jersey 51.4%||Arizona 51.2%||Arizona 46.7%||Arizona 44.7%||Missouri 49.9%||Arizona 45.4%|
|Ohio 51.2%||Nevada 50.9%||Louisiana 46.1%||N. Carolina 43.8%||Montana 48.8%||Missouri 45.2%|
|New Hamp. 50.8%||Kentucky 50.5%||Virginia 45.9%||W. Virginia 43.5%||Georgia 47.4%||Indiana 45.0%|
|Georgia 50.3%||Georgia 49.4%||Colorado 45.5%||Tennessee 42.8%||S. Dakota 45.7%||S. Carolina 44.7%|
|N. Carolina 49.5%||Colorado 49.2%||Georgia 44.0%||Louisiana 42.7%||Arizona 45.7%||Miss. 44.1%|
|Florida 48.8%||Virginia 48.9%||N. Carolina 43.5%||Georgia 41.7%||N. Dakota 45.6%||Montana 43.0%|
|Arizona 48.7%||Montana 48.3%||Alabama 42.4%||S. Carolina 41.4%||S. Carolina 45.5%||Alaska 42.7%|
|Texas 47.8%||S. Dakota 48.1%||Kentucky 42.3%||Miss. 40.1%||Texas 44.1%||Texas 42.0%|
|S. Dakota 47.7%||N. Carolina 47.5%||S. Carolina 41.9%||Kentucky 40.0%||Miss. 43.4%||Louisiana 41.3%|
|Virginia 47.4%||Texas 47.3%||Indiana 42.0%||Indiana 39.6%||W. Virginia 43.3%||S. Dakota 40.8%|
|Kansas 46.5%||Miss. 47.3%||Miss. 41.4%||Montana 39.5%||Nebraska 42.4%||N. Dakota 39.9%|
|Wyoming 46.2%||Indiana 46.9%||Kansas 39.1%||S. Dakota 39.1%||Kansas 42.4%||Tennessee 39.6%|
|Alabama 46.2%||S. Carolina 46.8%||Texas 39.0%||Texas 38.5%||Tennessee 42.4%||Nebraska 38.8%|
|Indiana 46.2%||Alabama 46.3%||Oklahoma 38.9%||Kansas 37.1%||Kentucky 41.8%||Kansas 38.8%|
|S. Carolina 45.4%||N. Dakota 46.1%||S. Dakota 38.4%||Alabama 37.1%||Louisiana 40.5%||Alabama 38.8%|
|Miss. 45.1%||Oklahoma 45.6%||Montana 36.3%||Alaska 36.8%||Arkansas 39.8%||Kentucky 38.5%|
|Oklahoma 44.4%||Wyoming 42.5%||N. Dakota 35.3%||N. Dakota 36.1%||Alabama 39.1%||Arkansas 37.8%|
|Alaska 43.4%||Kansas 39.9%||Nebraska 34.8%||Oklahoma 34.4%||Alaska 38.9%||W. Virginia 36.3%|
|N. Dakota 42.1%||Alaska 39.6%||Alaska 32.1%||Nebraska 33.2%||Idaho 37.0%||Idaho 33.6%|
|Idaho 40.3%||Nebraska 39.4%||Idaho 29.2%||Idaho 30.7%||Utah 35.5%||Oklahoma 33.2%|
|Nebraska 38.7%||Idaho 39.2%||Wyoming 29.0%||Wyoming 29.7%||Oklahoma 34.4%||Wyoming 28.8%|
|Utah 36.2%||Utah 38.0%||Utah 28.3%||Utah 26.7%||Wyoming 33.4%||Utah 25.5%|
"Par" represents the Dems' national percentage that year; as you'll notice, the same states usually stay the same distance from the national average year after year (think of them as boats being lifted or lowered by the national tide). For instance, you'll notice that Ohio is almost always a point or two behind the national average, which is why it's such a reliable swing state that pundits hyperventilate over. Similarly, it's usually close to being the "tipping point" state, in other words, the state that puts the winning candidate over the 270 mark in the Electoral College (a phrase popularized by Nate Silver, marked on this chart by an asterisk in each column). The "tipping point" state, or the state closest to "par," however, aren't necessarily going to be the closest states; in an election that isn't close, there's always a cushion of additional states that the victor wins that add to the victor's margin.
There's much more, including two more charts, over the fold...
What might be more interesting than the first chart, showing the actual percentages received by Barack Obama in each state, is a chart showing the shifts in percentages from 2008 to 2012. After all, trends might help us see where we're going next, instead of just where we currently are. However, the shifts are for the most part so insignificant—and the ones that are significant are easily explained by "favorite son" effect—that they may not amount to anything meaningful. Nevertheless, let's look at how much of a shift happened, state-by-state:
|Dist. of Columbia||93.4%||92.6%||-0.8|
First things first, we can pick off the states where the "favorite son" effect kicked in (or out), as these are responsible for the biggest outliers. Alaska, for instance, moved the most in Obama's direction, thanks to the absence of Sarah Palin from the ticket. (Four years after the fact, that sounds incredible that she'd serve as a net plus in her home state, but she hadn't done the quitty-changey thing yet at that point.) And of Mitt Romney's five home states, it looks like Utah is the one where he's actually regarded as the hometown hero (seeing as how Massachusetts, New Hampshire and California didn't have an unusual shift, and Michigan's slightly-redder-than-usual shift is probably better explained by the fact that it was contested somewhat actively this time, unlike John McCain's ignominious early concession of the state in 2008).
In addition, it looks like Paul Ryan's addition to the ticket did have at least some of the intended effect, as Wisconsin did have the largest red-shift of any of the swing states. Interestingly, Arizona didn't experience anywhere near as big a swing in Obama's direction as did Alaska, suggesting perhaps that John McCain didn't really move the needle that much in his own state in 2008.
As for the other states experiencing a sizable red-shift, for the most part, they show the decision whether or not to actively contest a state makes a big difference in terms of how that state performs relative to the nation. Missouri and Indiana were battlegrounds all through 2008, but got written off early this time. Similarly, remember that the Obama camp started to play in Montana and North Dakota late in the game in 2008 once it became clear they could start padding their margins. In all cases, they didn't get the ads or the ground game, and accordingly, their Dem performance was way off.
Only West Virginia's red-shift stands out like a sore thumb, and that seems to be more a matter of demographic change. It's one state where the younger generations may be more conservative than the older generations (as mining occupies less of a dominant position in the economy, and unions lose strength as a result). It'd be easy to blame Republican "war on coal" rhetoric, which seemed to get amped up even further this election, but if you look at the first chart, you'll notice that West Virginia has very steadily and consistently been drifting down from a strongly Democratic to strongly Republican state at the presidential level each cycle. (Luckily, that trend hasn't trickled downballot much yet, as it still has a Democratic governor and senators, and a Democratic state legislature ... for now.)
On the flipside, once you get past Alaska, the states that moved in the Dems' direction (or that had the smallest declines) tend to fall into one of two categories: either states with the largest African-American populations, or northeastern states that are already monolithically Democratic. In either case, the Democratic base was pretty well fixed in place, and determined to show up. In general, these are the states, both red and blue, that Nate Silver defined as the "inelastic" states, i.e. those that are most polarized and without a lot of swing voters.
As for the former category, Mississippi and Louisiana are the two states with the highest African-American population percentages in the country. If black turnout stayed consistent from 2008 and evangelical white turnout fell, that would explain why they moved in the Dems' direction. (Nowhere near enough for them to be competitive, unfortunately.) Alabama and South Carolina are also near the top of the list for African-American percentage, and the Obama percentage was stable there, too.
New York, Rhode Island and Vermont are all in the latter category of northeastern states with dominant Democratic voting blocs. (Interestingly, Rhode Island and Vermont were among Nate's most "elastic" states, meaning they're full of swing voters, and yet they had some of the least snap-back against Obama of any state anywhere. Apparently the swing voters here, more so than other states, decided to stay the course.) Maryland, which has the fifth-largest African-American population percentage in addition to a reliable Democratic machine, seems to fall into both categories.
Out of all the states that moved in the Dems' direction, that leaves New Jersey. Pundits would probably ascribe that to Hurricane Sandy, where Barack Obama benefited from the goodwill earned from responding attentively to the storm in the week before the election. That may well be a factor (and another unfortunate factor may be who had the hardest time voting in New Jersey—the damage was the heaviest in some of the most Republican-heavy parts of the state, in places like Ocean and Cape May counties). But demographic change may be another factor too, as New Jersey, much like New York and Maryland, is quickly becoming a more diverse place.
What, then, happened in Nevada? If the idea that states that are becoming more racially diverse and that have strong Democratic machines in place were the ones that moved in the Dems' direction or held steady, why did Nevada underperform? After all, it has one of the most rapidly growing Hispanic populations in the country, and as we saw in 2010, the local party is great at pushing turnout. But this time, note that it was the only swing state that really lagged the national average (other than Wisconsin, which had a Paul Ryan effect, and Michigan, which isn't really a swing state).
It's possible that Nevada's electorate got even more scrambled than most in the wake of the economic downturn, thanks to a lot of outmigration because of its tops-in-the-nation unemployment and the already-transient nature of its population. That scrambling may have left a slightly more conservative electorate—or just made it harder to do effective GOTV work. (In addition, Nevada's shift wasn't so big—3 percent instead of the national shift of 2 percent—that it may not be worth extended worrying.)
That previous chart of the 2008 to 2012 trend had a lot of negative numbers in it. So, finally, let's cleanse our palates with a friendlier chart: the trend from 2004 (the Democrats' worst performance in the last six elections) to 2012. Interestingly, it looks hardly at all like the 2008-to-2012 trend chart; as we zoom out to a broader, longer-term trend, instead we mostly see the blue states becoming bluer and the red states becoming redder.
|Dist. of Columbia||90.5%||92.6%||+2.1|
Of the states with the strongest Dem trends, there are some with a pronounced "favorite son" effect (Hawaii and Delaware), some moving from light-blue to dark-blue (Maryland, California) or swing to light-blue (New Mexico) because of demographic change. Some moved quickly because the '08 Obama campaign decided to push them rather than neglect them like previous campaigns (Virginia, Indiana, Colorado). Not really falling into any category is Alaska, which still shows a strong trend even without accounting for the Palin factor (not an issue here, since the trend skips from '04 to '12). Whatever the cause of Alaska's movement, you know that Mark Begich—Alaska's freshman senator, facing a potentially difficult re-election in 2014—has to be pleased to see that overall trend.
The states with the trends in the Republican direction are, with one exception, red states getting redder. The exception, of course, is Massachusetts, where that can be explained because of the "favorite son" effect in 2004 with John Kerry's candidacy. In fact, with the exception of Utah and Wyoming, all states fall into a particular category: they're in that crescent-shaped arc of states that runs along the spine of the Appalachian and Ozark Mountains, mostly white and mostly evangelical states that historically have had a strong Democratic tradition but that have been gradually realigning over the last couple of decades (but where the fastest burst of realignment seemed to happen between 2004 and 2008).
There's one other state that didn't quite have a Republican trend, but that had a decidedly sub-par trend between 2004 and 2012 and that may be cause for some concern in the future: Pennsylvania. Of all the swing states, it had the worst 2004-2012 trend; in fact, of all the states that John Kerry won in 2004, it's the one where Barack Obama did the worst in 2012.
Pennsylvania has been a stubbornly Democratic-leaning state (it's one of Nate's inelastic states), always staying at or slightly above the nation's "tipping point." But it's going against the demographic tide, in that it's one of the nation's most elderly states and one of the whitest swing states; moreover, the state's southwestern corner, once you're outside of Pittsburgh's immediate environs, has its own distinctly Appalachian flavor, similar to West Virginia and the parts of Kentucky pulling away from the Dems. Indeed, the rural areas in orbit around Pittsburgh have been trending quite rapidly toward the GOP; luckily, Democratic gains in Philadelphia's suburbs and other parts of the state's eastern half have kept the state balanced. So while Pennsylvania looks poised to stay in the blue column in the near future, it's one state worthy of a caution flag.
One last note: If the percentages look a little different from other state numbers you've seen, these are the Dems' share of the two-way (D plus R) vote, rather than a percentage of the total vote. For instance, Barack Obama's share of the total vote was 50.8 percent, rather than the 51.7 percent he got of the two-way vote. If you're comparing numbers over the years, this is a better way to smooth out the differences between elections, where third-party candidates may have a different impact from year to year. Obviously, Ross Perot's runs in 1992 and 1996 made a bigger difference than the collection of also-rans that got only 1.7 percent of the vote this year. (In fact, you might remember the first chart from a post a year ago addressing the question of "Which swing state is the swingiest?" You'll notice that, to make room for 2012, the 1988 results have disappeared, with Michael Dukakis finally scrolling off the side of the screen into oblivion.)
As I said, the count is still ongoing in several states; these numbers, current as of Friday, are drawn from Dave Wasserman's (of Cook Report fame) spreadsheet, which seems to be the most up-to-date count anywhere.