Rearranging the electoral map

Tracking the migration of American politics

Last in a series

MAPS ARE ONE OF THE OLDEST WAYS known to humankind to illustrate a location or make a point.  Like the great Medieval stained glass windows depicting scenes from the scriptures, maps can be a powerful visual way to teach when language fails.

Our fascination with maps has bled into the presidential campaign, as Electoral College maps are everywhere to be found. You can watch CNN’s John King or his MSNBC counterpart Steve Kornacki run through a variety of scenarios on an interactive screen, turning states from blue to red and back again, the electoral process morphing into a computer game where we can all be players. The red/blue color scheme, with its unique patriotic resonance, looks great on TV and makes the electoral map exceedingly legible for most people.

Real Clear Politics offers an on-line interactive map for anyone choosing to play the game, while the delightfully nerdy ensemble cast of FiveThirtyEight offers three scenarios based upon Nate Silver’s models –“polls-only,” “polls-plus,” and “now cast” versions predicting the election outcome.  Silver’s models have generally been accepted as the blue-chip standard in a cacophonous world of polls and prognosticators, and FiveThirtyEight’s often multiple daily updates satisfy even the most insatiable poll watcher, map reader, and electoral geek.

Polls dominate the news, and arguably influence swing voters, but polls lack the visual and visceral impact of the electoral map. You can learn a lot about America by watching how the electoral map has changed over time. The 1860 Electoral College map shows the fractured nation splitting apart, with four candidates dividing the states along regional lines. Lincoln received barely 40 percent of the popular vote, but carried the Electoral College decisively by winning the populous industrial states north of the Mason-Dixon line, as well as California (a mere 4 electoral votes then, and Oregon).  The rest, as they say, is history.

The 1948 electoral map is often overlooked because the lasting memory of that campaign is Truman’s surprise victory over Dewey, but the important story told by that map is the beginning of a decades-long process during which the Democrats lost their hold on the South.  The solid South, an electoral bloc that came into being after Reconstruction, voted invariably and inevitably for the Democratic nominee.  Even in 1928, the Catholic New York Governor Al Smith was able to carry the entire deep South, a reflection of how ingrained that voting habit had become.  The one quirk about the 1928 map that’s worth noting is one with local resonance: the only state outside the South carried by Smith was Massachusetts, reflecting the changing northeast urban electorate –specifically the power of Irish electoral dominance in the Bay State – a transformation that would come to full flower during the presidency of Franklin Roosevelt.

The South’s 100-year allegiance to the Democratic Party was a visceral rejection of the party of Lincoln, and over time the party transformed into two factions under one roof – the states’ rights party of the South and the immigrant labor party of the North.  Those factions resided comfortably under one banner for many years until time and circumstances forced an issue that was not reconcilable.  Many people think that the South left the Democratic Party only after Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act in 1964, and certainly that act of moral justice and social equity set the South adrift from the Democratic Party in a definitive and lasting way.  But it was the fight over the civil rights plank in 1948 that began it all, the fight made memorable by Hubert Humphrey, who appeared before that convention (his face in biographer David McCullough’s words “shining” with sweat in the hot and humid Philadelphia auditorium), insisting that it was time for his party to come “out from the shadow of states’ rights and walk forthrightly into the bright sunshine of human rights.”  Humphrey’s efforts won the day at the convention, but South Carolina’s Strom Thurmond led a conservative southern revolt, ran against Truman, and carried four deep South states with 39 electoral votes that November. Some thought that this defection would cost Truman the election, but it was not to be, as the feisty president was a famously tenacious political warhorse.

The 1948 election marked a historic turning point in the South’s previously blind allegiance to the Democratic Party.  There began a gradual shift in the Electoral Map, a shift illustrated dramatically by Barry Goldwater’s victories in the deep South in 1964 and by George Wallace in 1968. The patterns begun in 1948 and solidified in 1968 remained in place for 20 years. Only Jimmy Carter’s favorite-son status in 1976 was able to overcome southern antipathy toward the party whose president had pushed for the enactment of the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts into law.

Those patterns continue to hold some force even today, though their contours are less well defined, and there are cracks in the previously solid South. Bill Clinton was able to capture a few southern states (his native Arkansas, Georgia, and Louisiana) and Barack Obama’s victories in Virginia and Florida (twice) and North Carolina (once) are some proof of a post-racial American voting pattern, a pattern inevitable as generations pass, memories and old antagonisms fade, and demographics change. The migration of Americans to new places pulls and tugs at assumptions based solely on history. The transformation of states from red to blue or vice versa is as much a reflection of where people of certain educations or life experiences have chosen to live and work as it is anything else.

The final 2016 electoral map may end up defying all logic. This contest for the presidency has not adhered to any known or historic playbook, and the unusual dynamics of this election might lead to unexpected results. Trump appears to be touching a chord with white voters who formerly voted Democratic, while Clinton seems to have captured the moderate Republican vote, best represented by those “suburban female voters in Pennsylvania suburbs.” The presence of third party candidates in a year where the two major party nominees are historically unpopular also has the potential to create unexpected outcomes.  Evan McMullin could conceivably get enough votes in Utah to enable a narrow Clinton victory there, while Gary Johnson might (as Ralph Nader redux) cost her states such as New Hampshire, Maine, or Ohio.

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Will we look back on the final 2016 electoral map as an aberration, a reflection of the unusual circumstance of the Trump candidacy, or will we come to see it as the beginning of a new national trend in voting patterns?  Only time will answer that question.  In the meantime, take out your old Crayola’s and have some fun.

James Aloisi is a former Massachusetts secretary of transportation and a principal at the Pemberton Square Group.

For the previous articles in this series, click here, here, here, and here for articles one, two, three, and four.