A Hard Look at the Big Blue Wall

The true magnitude of the problem for the Republican Party only becomes apparent when you compare the big blue wall to what might be called the "small red picket fence" of the consistent Republican-voting states.
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It's becoming accepted conventional wisdom in Washington that Hillary Clinton is quite likely going to skate to the Democratic nomination for president. This disappoints many, since pundits love conflict in politics above all else. No conflict means having to write a whole lot of stories about a primary race that is over before it begins, which no political writer wants to do. But is there an even bigger buzzkill out there for political writers? Is the 2016 presidential election almost as easy to predict as the Democratic nominating contest?

The very idea terrifies conservatives, because the pronounced slant is so heavily tilted in the Democratic direction. George Will has been talking about it lately, in fact, warning Republican primary voters to choose someone who can successfully attack "the big blue wall" that faces them (Will even likes to get hyperspecific about the ideal Republican candidate: the one who can convince suburban Philadelphia voters to vote against Hillary, thus shifting Pennsylvania, thus dismantling the big blue wall). If Will is right, the crucial 2016 questions to ask are obvious. Will the big blue wall hold firm in 2016? Will Republicans hammer some cracks in it? And, most importantly, just what is this big blue wall in the first place?

The term is metaphorical. There is no big wall painted blue anywhere. It is a historical construct of the Electoral College, which is a fancy way of explaining that it's a list or map of the states which are considered pretty much "in the bag" for Democrats in the upcoming election. The criteria for inclusion in the big blue wall is a consistent Democratic voting record. Every state in the big blue wall has voted for the Democratic candidate for president in each of the past six elections. A perfect record of Democratic voting, back to Bill Clinton's first election, in other words. Mapped out, these states don't look all that formidable, as they cover only the West Coast (and Hawai'i), the upper Midwest, and most of New England and the northern Atlantic states.

Here's a handy list, in alphabetic order, of the 19 big blue wall states (with their respective Electoral College votes in parenthesis):

California (55), Connecticut (7), Delaware (3), Hawai'i (4), Illinois (20), Maine (4), Maryland (10), Massachusetts (11), Michigan (16), Minnesota (10), New Jersey (14), New York (29), Oregon (7), Pennsylvania (20), Rhode Island (4), Vermont (3), Washington (12), Washington D.C. (3), Wisconsin (10).

When you add up the total, you get a whopping 242 Electoral College votes -- which is only 28 votes shy of the 270 needed to win the presidency.

But the true magnitude of the problem for the Republican Party only becomes apparent when you compare the big blue wall to what might be called the "small red picket fence" of the consistent Republican-voting states. Only 13 states voted Republican in the past six elections, and while they look pretty formidable on a map of the country, most of them aren't all that populous (which is what counts in the Electoral College). Here's the Republican list:

Alabama (9), Alaska (3), Idaho (4), Kansas (6), Mississippi (6), Nebraska (5), North Dakota (3), Oklahoma (7), South Carolina (9), South Dakota (3), Texas (38), Utah (6), Wyoming (3).

That only adds up to 102 Electoral College votes -- meaning the Republican candidate has to pick up a whopping 168 votes from all the other states to win, while the Democrat only needs 28. This is why people like George Will are concerned.

The situation improves markedly for Republicans if you add in states where they won in only five of the past six elections. The problem is, the situation also improves for Democrats. Republicans would add in: Arizona (11), Georgia (16), Indiana (11), Montana (3) and North Carolina (15) -- a total of 56 more Electoral College votes. The two worrisome states for Republicans in that list would be Indiana and North Carolina, both of which Obama won in 2008 (but then lost in 2012), but the others seem pretty solid. Democrats wouldn't add as many states, but then again they don't need that many to push them over the top. States that voted Democratic in five of the last six elections: Iowa (6), New Hampshire (4) and New Mexico (5). Only 15 more Electoral College votes, but all pretty competitive states for a Democrat in 2016.

Republicans look better when you add in states that have only voted for Republicans four times out of six, but again, Democrats add some here too. The real strength for Republicans here is that every one of these states (with the sole exception of Virginia) has voted Republican in all of the most-recent four elections. In other words, they voted for Clinton twice but haven't voted Democratic since. This means the trend is pretty favorable for Republicans. Virginia, though, is trending decidedly Democratic these days, and voted for Obama twice. In any case, here's the list of Republican additions: Arkansas (5), Kentucky (8), Louisiana (8), Missouri (10), Tennessee (11), Virginia (13) and West Virginia (5). This gives a boost to the Republican total, adding in 61 Electoral College votes. This would put the Republicans at a grand total of 219, which is a little more competitive. The bad news for Republicans is that Democrats would add in two states in this category, Nevada (6) and Ohio (18), which would put them over the top with a grand total of 281 Electoral College votes -- 11 more than they need to win. So even if Republicans picked up the two states who split their vote evenly in the past six elections -- Colorado (9) and Florida (29) -- they would still fall short and Hillary wins.

If the big blue wall -- just the states with perfect Democratic voting records -- holds firm, then Hillary actually has multiple paths to victory. She could lose states like New Mexico, Iowa and Ohio and still win just by winning Florida, for instance. She could pick off vulnerable states in the Republican column, like Virginia and North Carolina (which would also give her the 28 extra votes she would need to win). Of the other states outside the big blue wall, Colorado in particular looks like an easy pickup.

Republicans have a much harder time of it, because they've got to hold onto all their historic states (all those who voted even just four times for the Republican in the past six) as well as pick off vulnerable Democratic states. It can be done -- George W. Bush did it twice, after all, even when the big blue wall held firm. In 2000, Bush won every state not in the big blue wall but two (New Mexico and Iowa). Then in 2004, he won all the states outside the big blue wall except New Hampshire. Both times, he inched his way across the 270 finish line. The path for Republicans to victory, however, would get a lot easier if they could manage to dislodge a state or two from the big blue wall.

As I see it, there are only really six possible big blue wall states Republicans seem to have any chance of successfully poaching: Maryland, New Jersey, Maine, Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania. Maryland has a Republican governor now, which signaled a possible big political shift (in a non-presidential year, though). New Jersey and Wisconsin could have "favorite sons" on the Republican ticket (although Chris Christie's personal approval rating in his state is pretty low right now). Maine has an independent streak, even if it does vote pretty reliably Democratic in presidential elections. Michigan and Pennsylvania are always targeted by Republicans, so perhaps this is the year they successfully turn one of these states red.

All of these would be heavy -- but not impossible -- lifts for the Republican Party. But they're really the only plausible cracks the Republicans could create in the big blue wall. It's easy to see why George Will focuses on Pennsylvania, because at 20 Electoral College votes, it would be the biggest prize to steal away from Democrats. But flipping Michigan's 16 votes or New Jersey's 14 would be almost as good.

Presidential elections are often referred to in horseracing terms. The big blue wall is a giant handicap for the Republican horse -- like having to run the track with 140 pounds of extra weight on board. The Democrats have many paths to victory, putting together various combinations from the "battleground" states. Republicans really only have one: to almost completely run the table in all of the tossup states. This isn't going to change much unless Republicans can indeed pry one or more of the big blue wall states away from Democrats.

It would be overstating the case to say that Hillary Clinton winning the 2016 general election is as predictable at this point as her winning the Democratic nomination. The odds are different, and there are more obstacles to overcome. So, no, I am not going to confidently call the victor of the 2016 election quite yet. But it sure looks like an easier run for Hillary than for her eventual Republican opponent. Conservatives should be worried about the big blue wall, because if it holds it means their candidate is going to have to run an almost-perfect campaign, in order to have any real shot at victory.

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