Sabatos Crystal Ball


Rhodes Cook, Senior Columnist September 11th, 2008


This is the time of the presidential campaign for “game-changing” moments, whether it is a huge outdoor acceptance speech in the shadow of the Rocky Mountains or the vice presidential selection of a largely unknown young female governor from Alaska.

It is a potentially pivotal time in an historic election.

But what the campaign of Barack Obama is ultimately looking for is a “map changer,” a path to an Electoral College majority that they hope will take them through plenty of Republican terrain.

It is a more far-flung route to the White House than the last successful Democratic presidential candidate, Bill Clinton, took in 1992. He essentially picked up where Michael Dukakis had left off four years earlier. Dukakis did not run particularly well in 1988, winning only 10 states and barely 100 electoral votes against Republican George H.W. Bush.

But he set the table for Clintomore favorable election year for the Democrats of 1992, the Arkansas governor cleaned up. He swept 26 of the 27 states where Dukakis had made his best showing, including all 10 that the latter had won.

This time, Democrats have an even bigger electoral map to build on than they did going into 1992. The latest Massachusetts nominee, John Kerry, won 19 states and 251 electoral votes in 2004. And the party is now dominant in the Northeast and enjoys the upper hand on the Pacific Coast as well.

If Obama can hold the lion’s share of the Kerry “19,” the traditional route to victory would send him to the next states on the Kerry checklist from 2004. In rank order of the Democratic vote share, that would be the traditional battleground states of Iowa (7 electoral votes), New Mexico (4), Ohio (20), Nevada (5), Florida (27), Colorado (9) and Missouri (11).

But the Obama forces are not just looking at these, but others deep in the Republican orbit. It is a whish list that includes a number of states where Democratic presidential candidates have not run well at all in recent elections. Top on the list is almost certainly inia, which was number 28 in Democratic presidential vote percentage in 2004. It is followed by North Carolina, number 31; Georgia, 35; Indiana, 39; Montana, 40; and North Dakota, number 46. The Democrats have not carried the electoral vote of Virginia, Indiana and North Dakota since 1964. North Carolina, Georgia and Montana have been in the Democratic column only once since then.

Alaska, the 45th-best state for Kerry, was also in Obama’s sights, at least until Republican nominee John McCain chose its governor, Sarah Palin, as his running mate. It is another state that has not voted Democratic for president since Lyndon Johnson in 1964.


When it comes to presidential voting, the District of Columbia is the most Democratic jurisdiction in the country while Utah is the most Republican. In between, many states are in flux from one decade to another. The following chart compares the rankings of states in terms of their Democratic presidential vote percentage from the beginning of the Bush era in 1988, when George H.W. Bush was elected, to the most recent election in 2004, when George W. Bush won reelection. The lines in the chart separate quartiles (more or less), with the first three groupings comprised of 13 states (including the District of Columbia) and the latter 12 states.

Democratic Rankings

(in terms of party’s presidential vote percentage)
Election Winner
State (Electoral Votes) Region 2004 1988 Change in Rank, ’88-’04 ’04 ’08
District of Columbia (3) Northeast 1 1 D D
Massachusetts (12) Northeast 2 5 Up 3 D D
Rhode Island (4) Northeast 3 2 Down 1 D D
Vermont (3) Northeast 4 16 Up 12 D R
New York (31) Northeast 5 8 Up 3 D D
Maryland (10) Northeast 6 14 Up 8 D R
Illinois (21) Midwest 7 12 Up 5 D R
Connecticut (7) Northeast 8 19 Up 11 D R
California (55) West 9 17 Up 8 D R
Hawaii (4) West 10 4 Down 6 D D
Maine (4) Northeast 11 27 Up 16 D R
Delaware (3) Northeast 12 28 Up 16 D R
New Jersey (15) Northeast 13 31 Up 18 D R
Washington (11) West 14 11 Down 3 D D
Oregon (15) West 15 10 Down 5 D D
Michigan (16) Midwest 16 22 Up 6 D R
Minnesota (10) Midwest 17 6 Down 11 D D
Pennsylvania (21) Northeast 18 13 Down 5 D R
New Hampshire (4) Northeast 19 48 Up 29 D R
Wisconsin (10) Midwest 20 9 Down 11 D D
Iowa (7) Midwest 21 3 Down 18 R D
New Mexico (4) West 22 18 Down 4 R R
Ohio (20) Midwest 23 24 Down 1 R R
Nevada (5) West 24 46 Up 22 R R
Florida (27) South 25 44 Up 19 R R
Colorado (9) West 26 23 Down 3 R R
Missouri (11) Midwest 27 15 Down 12 R R
Virginia (13) South 28 40 Up 12 R R
Arkansas (6) South 29 33 Up 4 R R
Arizona (10) West 30 43 Up 13 R R
North Carolina (15) South 31 34 Up 3 R R
West Virginia (5) Northeast 32 7 Down 25 R D
Tennessee (11) South 33 35 Up 2 R R
Louisiana (9) South 34 25 Down 9 R R
Georgia (15) South 35 39 Up 4 R R
South Carolina (8) South 36 47 Up 11 R R
Mississippi (6) South 37 42 Up 5 R R
Kentucky (8) South 38 26 Down 12 R R
Indiana (11) Midwest 39 38 Down 1 R R
Montana (3) West 40 21 Down 19 R R
South Dakota (3) Midwest 41 20 Down 21 R R
Texas (34) South 42 29 Down 13 R R
Alabama (9) South 43 37 Down 6 R R
Kansas (6) Midwest 44 32 Down 12 R R
Alaska (3) West 45 49 Up 4 R R
North Dakota (3) Midwest 46 30 Down 16 R R
Oklahoma (7) South 47 36 Down 11 R R
Nebraska (5) Midwest 48 41 Down 7 R R
Idaho (4) West 49 50 Up 1 R R
Wyoming (3) West 50 45 Down 5 R R
Utah (5) West 51 51 R R

Source: America at the Polls (CQ Press).

That the Obama campaign is taking a fresh look at the electoral map is an outgrowth of the “50-state strategy” that Democrats have been emphasizing the last few years under party chairman Howard Dean. But it also reflects the realities of Obama’s historic candidacy.

States on his “wish list” include several in the South with significant African-American populations as well as some in the rural Midwest and Mountain West where there are few minorities and racial tensions are low. Nearly all are states where Obama was successful in the Democratic primaries or caucuses this winter and spring, which provides the basis for an active, well-funded “ground game” this fall.

There are shades here of Richard Nixon, who promised to visit all 50 states in his 1960 presidential campaign. Nixon lost a close election that year to Democrat John F. Kennedy, but fulfilled his pledge with an 11th-hour visit to Alaska just days before the election.

There are similarities to Ronald Reagan, who turned a close race in 1980 against President Jimmy Carter into a decisive victory with the help of a strong crossover vote from “Reagan Democrats.” For good measure, both Reagan and Obama launched their campaigns in convention cities designed to symbolize an outreach beyond their party’s traditional bases. The Republicans met in 1980 in Detroit in a bid to show their interest in urban minorities. The Democrats last month met in Denver to advertise their designs on the Rocky Mountain West.

And there are even shades here of Bill Clinton in 1992. While he closely followed the Dukakis vote as a guide to victory, Clinton also free-lanced a bit to pluck some seemingly high-hanging fruit. A half dozen states that Clinton carried were in the Democrats’ “bottom 20” in 1988 – New Hampshire and New Jersey in the Northeast; Arkansas, Georgia and Tennessee in his native South; and Nevada in the West. These additional states helped turn what would have been a fairly narrow Clinton victory into an Electoral College landslide.

Of these six states, all but New Jersey had slipped away from the Democrats by 2000. So too had the Democrats’ brief dominance of the electoral map, from Clinton’s 32 states in 1992 down to Kerry’s 19 in 2004. In the end this year, the race may come down to traditional battleground states such as Ohio and Florida, Michigan and Missouri. But Obama forces are hoping that their end run into Republican territory will provide them with a valuable ace in the hole, and shake up the static “red-blue” map of America in the process.


Since the first member of the Bush family was elected in 1988, the Democrats have made their most pronounced gains in the Northeast while suffering their most perceptible declines in the agricultural states of the Midwest. That, at least, in terms of state rankings based on their share of the Democratic presidential vote in 1988 and 2004. New Hampshire, for instance, was the 19th-best state for the Democratic presidential ticket in 2004, up from 48th in 1988 – a gain of 29 places. Meanwhile, the situation in West Virginia has been the reverse. It dropped from the 7th-best Democratic state in 1988 to number 32 four years ago. Following are the states that moved at least 10 spots in Democratic rank from 1988 to 2004 and the comparative margins of victory in the presidential balloting each year.

Trending Toward the Democrats, 1988-2004

Election Outcome
State Region Gain in Dem.

Rank, ’88-’04
1988 2004
New Hampshire Northeast 29 Bush by 26% Kerry by 1%
Nevada West 22 Bush by 21% Bush by 3%
Florida South 19 Bush by 22% Bush by 5%
New Jersey Northeast 18 Bush by 14% Kerry by 7%
Delaware Northeast 16 Bush by 12% Kerry by 8%
Maine Northeast 16 Bush by 11% Kerry by 9%
Arizona West 13 Bush by 21% Bush by 10%
Vermont Northeast 12 Bush by 4% Kerry by 20%
Virginia South 12 Bush by 21% Bush by 8%
Connecticut Northeast 11 Bush by 5% Kerry by 10%
South Carolina South 11 Bush by 24% Bush by 17%
Trending Away from the Democrats, 1988-2004

Election Outcome
State Region Decrease in Dem.

Rank, ’88-’04
1988 2004
West Virginia Northeast 25 Dukakis by 5% Bush by 13%
South Dakota Midwest 21 Bush by 6% Bush by 21%
Montana West 19 Bush by 6% Bush by 21%
Iowa Midwest 18 Dukakis by 10% Bush by 0.7%
North Dakota Midwest 16 Bush by 13% Bush by 27%
Texas South 13 Bush by 13% Bush by 23%
Kansas Midwest 12 Bush by 13% Bush by 25%
Kentucky South 12 Bush by 12% Bush by 20%
Missouri Midwest 12 Bush by 5% Bush by 7%
Minnesota Midwest 11 Dukakis by 7% Kerry by 3%
Oklahoma South 11 Bush by 17% Bush by 31%
Wisconsin Midwest 11 Dukakis by 4% Kerry by 0.6%

Source: America at the Polls (CQ Press).