CORRECTION: An earlier version of this column should have noted that New Hampshire is not part of the blue-wall states in the Northeast and that Wisconsin is part of the blue wall.
In the six presidential elections from 1968 to 1988, Democrats effectively competed for so few states that their own strategists lamented that the party needed to draw an “inside straight” to reach the 270 Electoral College votes required for victory. But since then, the parties have played very different hands.
In that earlier period, Gerald Ford in 1976 was the sole Republican presidential nominee to win fewer than 301 Electoral College votes. Jimmy Carter, who beat Ford, was the only Democratic nominee during those years to win more than 191. Republicans dominated the map so thoroughly that in the three presidential elections of the 1980s, Democrats received a smaller share of the available Electoral College votes than in any three-election sequence since the formation of the modern party system under Andrew Jackson in 1828.
But since 1992, no Democratic nominee has garnered fewer than 251 Electoral College votes; behind Bill Clinton in 1992 and 1996 and Barack Obama in 2008, the party captured at least 365. In turn, the ceiling has lowered for Republicans, even in their best years. George W. Bush won 271 and then 286 electoral votes in his 2000 and 2004 victories. The former was the second narrowest Electoral College victory ever; the latter was the smallest share of the available electoral votes won by any reelected president since 1804, except Woodrow Wilson.
Some conservative strategists have presented this switch as essentially happenstance—a succession of unrelated events (such as economic downturns in 1992 and 2008 or poor candidate matchups, as in 1996). But the change is better understood as a product of each party’s evolving coalition.
As Democrats have solidified an upstairs-downstairs constituency of affluent, socially moderate white suburbanites and minorities (many economically strained), they have established a durable hold on states shaped by rising education levels and diversity. As Republicans have become a more monolithically conservative party, especially on social issues, they have tightened their control over heavily religious Southern and heartland states but watched more cosmopolitan states move at varying rates toward the Democrats in presidential races. “All of this is squeezing [and] compressing the map for Republicans,” says Steve Schmidt, the campaign manager for GOP nominee John McCain in 2008. In fact, since 1992, Republicans have won a smaller share of the available Electoral College votes outside the South than in any five-election sequence since the party’s founding in 1856.
Central to this role reversal is the rise of what I’ve called the “blue wall”: the 18 states that have voted Democratic in at least the past five consecutive presidential elections. Democrats have not won that many states so often since Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman carried 22 in each election from 1932 to 1948.
The blue wall encompasses the 11 states from Maryland to Maine (except New Hampshire); the three West Coast states; and Michigan, Minnesota, Illinois, Wisconsin, and Hawaii (plus the District of Columbia). Republicans carried 12 of these states at least four times from 1968 to 1988. But common factors have shifted almost all of them toward the Democrats since then: a growing minority population and a tilt away from the GOP among socially moderate college-educated white voters. Over the past five elections in these 18 states, the GOP presidential nominee has finished within 5 percentage points of the Democrat just 10 times out of a possible 90 results.
If Obama holds the blue-wall states and D.C. in 2012, he will capture 242 of the 270 Electoral College votes he needs. (He would also set a record: Democrats have never won so many states over six consecutive elections.) At that point, Obama would have plentiful options for reaching an Electoral College majority, such as adding the three Southwestern states (Colorado, Nevada, and New Mexico) plus Iowa and New Hampshire; or combining those latter two with Ohio; or joining the three Southwestern states with North Carolina or Virginia.
Although unemployment exceeds the national level in eight of them, Romney trails in every blue-wall state for which public polls are available. But his aides intend to challenge Obama in three states where Republicans made big inroads in 2010: Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin. It’s unclear whether Romney can really storm those gates. Before the Republican primaries, he seemed well positioned to compete in places such as the Philadelphia and Detroit suburbs. Those voters powered his primary victories, and his business background still attracts many of them. But the sharp Republican debate on social issues (particularly contraception) has hurt Romney on those cul-de-sacs, especially with college-educated women. No ground is more important for him to recapture.
Since 2000, the electoral map has broadened further for Democrats, as the same convergence of diversity and education that earlier tipped states such as California and Illinois has transformed previously red-leaning Colorado, Nevada, North Carolina, and Virginia into toss-ups. Hard times and, ironically, questions about his commitment to socially conservative causes offer Romney a chance to enlarge the GOP map and chip away at parts of the blue wall. If he can’t, it will be the Republicans who must pull an inside straight to win.
This article appears in the May 12, 2012, edition of National Journal Magazine.