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It’s not the swing states, it’s the three swung states

Not long ago, three states now considered part of the Democratic base in presidential elections were red.

California delegate Abby Travis holding a sign at the 2008 Democratic National Convention in Denver, Colo.
REUTERS/Brian Snyder

It’s fairly obvious that the current nationwide map of U.S. House districts favors Republican control of the House even when, as happened in 2012, Democratic candidates actually received the plurality of votes for all House races combined.

Gerrymandering by Republicans after the 2010 elections was a factor in that result (although, I have argued, not as big a factor as some Democrats want to believe).

In the period 1968-1988, when Republicans won a very impressive five out of six presidential elections, it was argued that the Electoral College was tilted in favor of Republicans. This was not, of course, based on any gerrymandering, since electoral votes are apportioned (with one or two small and inconsequential exceptions) on a state-by-state, winner-take-all basis. But the Electoral College system overweights small population states and underweights large states. Republicans during that period won more of the small states and got the benefit of that overweighting.

But since Bill Clinton broke the Republican hot streak in 1992, Dems have won four out of six presidential elections. (It is worth noting that all four elections that the Dem candidates won, they also got the most popular votes. And perhaps I should also note that the only recent case in which the popular vote loser won the electoral vote was the case of Republican George W. Bush in 2000. So if the Electoral College now tilts blue, it is mostly a “natural” – as opposed to a gerrymandered or rule-driven — occurrence.)

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All of the verbosity above is really just to introduce a fact that caught me off guard in a piece by Dan Balz of the Washington Post that seemed to further than anything else I’ve seen to explain why the Repub domination of the presidency has turned into Dem domination.

In the six elections from 1968 to 1988, the Republicans carried California, Illinois and New Jersey all six times. In the six elections from 1992 to 2012, the Dems carried those three large and electoral-vote-wise well-endowed states all six times.

In fact, all three of those states are now considered part of the Democratic base in presidential elections, so much so that I was taken aback to be reminded how recently they had been red.

Yes, California, the single largest electoral vote prize and Illinois (the sixth largest) and New Jersey (tied for ninth).

In today’s numbers, those three states are good for a combined 89 electoral votes.

Eighty-nine electoral votes that were once fairly solid red and, for the last six cycles, have become fairly solid blue. Ouch. That’s a lot to overcome.

The way Balz reviews the history, the base that the Repubs enjoyed during their six-term run of dominance has been cut in half and the biggest factor in that change was the reversal of those three big states. Quoting Balz:

In the six elections beginning with 1992, the Republicans’ Electoral College base has shrunk by nearly half, while Democrats have built an even bigger bulwark than the GOP enjoyed in its presidential heyday. Eighteen states plus the District [of Columbia] have backed the Democrats in the six most recent presidential elections with a total of 242 electoral votes. Republicans, meanwhile, have seen their base erode to 13 states accounting for just 102 electoral votes.

The rest of the Balz piece is not about that one big fact. It’s about two theories for how the Repubs can overcome this problem by either nominating a centrist (Chris Christie) or a libertarian (Rand Paul). We’ll see.