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The Thin Blue Wall

It comes up every election: The national popular vote doesn’t matter. We elect presidents through the electoral college.

It usually comes up when either (a) when we’re too far out to have good state polling, and then (b) when there is a disconnect between state and national polling. It has come up multiple times this election in the form of the alleged “Blue Wall” that protects Democrats against the majority vote. In September, Nate Silver took a lot of grief by talking about the national polling when state polling still looked good for Clinton. The national popular vote doesn’t matter, we were told, because states. Then state polling changed and the story changed to “It’s temporary.”

Which, of course, it was. However, we’ve gone through this cycle a couple of times now, with each side arguing that the national polls that were starting to look unfavorable were less important than state polls that looked better. This isn’t wrong exactly, as state polling can actually give a more accurate view of the national picture than national polls can. But it’s primarily a question of whether we should apply national polling to the states, or extrapolate state polling onto the national. Because if they persist in disagreeing, one of them is probably wrong.

If there is a disagreement come election day, we’re likely going to find out that the state polling is wrong, the national polling is wrong, or both are wrong. What’s not likely to happen is a wildly divergent result between national and state polling. As we learned in 2000, the popular vote and electoral college vote can produce an inverted result. However, it can only do so in the event of a really close race. If a Republican or a Democrat wins the popular vote by 2%, there is an overwhelming likelihood that they have won the presidency. Even if it’s just by 2%.

When people try to get specific with the states, they tend to get hung up on the stated odds in specific states at the expense of the big picture. They look at a 40% chance of winning one state, a 30% chance of winning another, and a 20% chance of winning a third, and think that the candidate has about a 2% chance of winning all three. In fact, it’s probably closer to 20%. Chances are, if a candidate wins the 20% chance state, they’ve already won the other two. Swing voters (who are deciding between R and D) and marginal voters (who are deciding whether to show up at all) in Pennsylvania and Colorado simply aren’t that different. The same things that effect the thinking of voters in one pool typically affect the other.

People look at the 2008 and 2012 elections and see that Obama cleaned up in the electoral college and assume that this projects a very strong electoral college advantage. The electoral college, though, is a result amplifier. It takes close elections and makes them look more lopsided than they are. Think of 1984 when Reagan won by an 18-point margin and won almost every state despite 40% of the country voting for Mondale. Or George Bush’s 1988 victory, which had a stout 7.7% margin (close to Obama’s 2008 margin), but netted him a whopping 426 Electoral Votes (compared to 365 for Obama). That makes it seem like the Republicans had a huge electoral college advantage. But they didn’t.

You can get an idea of the electoral college advantage by looking at the Tipping State. The Tipping State is the state at finish line for the losing candidate. In 2012, the Tipping State was Pennsylvania. Romney would also have had to win Florida, Ohio, and Virginia, but he lost those by slimmer margins than Pennsylvania and with a uniform swing it was Pennsylvania that would have put him over. While swings are rarely completely uniform, it’s a reasonably good baseline. The assumption of a uniform swing did a better job of predicting 2012 margins than state polling did.

The long and short of it is that national totals come from somewhere, and they don’t usually come disproportionately from solid-color states. If Mike Dukakis had a surge of support, more likely than not it would have come from states red, blue, and purple. The tipping state in 1988 was Michigan, which Bush won by a 7.9% margin. He won nationally by 7.7%. As the national margin gets closer, states start flipping. Often, many states at once. A two-point swing in 1988 would not have given Dukakis any more electoral votes, but a third would have gained Dukakis nearly 60 electoral votes, and a fourth point would have made it 120.

Historically, the Tipping State is usually not very from the national totals. Since 1950, the gap between the Tipping State and the national margin has only exceeded two points twice and is usually lower than 1%. Starting at 1950 is cheating a little bit, because before that divergences were more common. Why? Our national culture was less national then, for one. For another, most of the exceptions fall into the category of (a) extremely lopsided races or third parties (1912 and 1948). The same applies to elections after 1950, with exceptions appearing in lopsided 1964, 1972, and 1980, as well as the three-party 1968.

The most inconvenient counter-example is 2008, wherein John McCain’s national margin was 7.2% (not a blowout by the above standard) and the Tipping State, Iowa, was 9.5% away. Now, by the standards of the comparison, 7.2% is not a blowout. By contemporary standards, of course, it is. four years later, Mitt Romney cut the popular vote margin down to 3.9%, and came out behind in Tipping State Pennsylvania by 5.3%. In the event that a Republican were able to cut further into the national vote, there’s a good chance the gap that went from 2.3% to 1.5% would close even further (in 2004, the gap was .3% as Bush won Ohio by 2.1% and nationally by 2.4%). As of October 30th, Trump is down 5.2% nationally and 5.3% in Colorado. As his national fortunes have waned, so too have his swing state fortunes.

Ultimately, the Blue Wall likely only protects Democrats up to a point or two, maximum. In other words, it’ll break a near-tie. Most elections aren’t that close, and the only close election to produce a large margin was almost exactly 100 years ago. The only inverted outcome was 2000, wherein Gore won the popular vote by half-a-percent. A Republican that wins 51% of the vote wins.

As it pertains to this specific election, there are three things worth considering.

The first is that one way a campaign can make targeted gains in swing states is through good organization, a strong GOTV operation, and possibly (though I’m not convinced) advertising. This confers an advantage to Hillary Clinton. Second, to the extent that the swing from 2012 to 2016 is not uniform, there are reasons to believe that it could actually favor Donald Trump as he may shed unhelpful votes in red states to pick them up in purple ones. Back when the race was close (September 27th, to be exact), FiveThirtyEight showed him down by 1.2% nationally and down by 1.4% in the Tipping State of Colorado, which is a far cry from the 1.5% gap that Trump had. The third thing worth considering is that this election is not, in fact, close. So unless something changes, I hope you enjoyed this intellectual exercise.

Image by marc falardeau The Thin Blue Wall

  1. David Shor []

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Will Truman is a former professional gearhead who is presently a stay-at-home father in the Mountain East. He has moved around frequently, having lived in six places since 2003, ranging from rural outposts to major metropolitan areas. He also writes fiction, when he finds the time. ...more →

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111 thoughts on “The Thin Blue Wall

  1. I dig that theory 100%.

    That said, what seems to throw a wrench into it from where I sit is the fact that Gary Johnson and Jill Stein are both polling at more than 6% between them (I tried to find these numbers from the official Ordinary Times stats guy, Sam Wang, but I couldn’t find a 4-way poll on his website, just 2 way polls).

    I submit to you the following:

    There ain’t no freaking way that Gary Johnson’s share added to Jill Stein’s share will add up to 3% between them. No freaking way.

    Assuming that there is no freaking way that Gary Johnson and Jill Stein, together, will add up to 3%, I’m stuck wondering if that 3% of voters are more likely to stay home or more likely to show up and vote, for real, for one of the two real candidates.

    And if it’s the latter, who they were lying to themselves/the pollsters about who they were really going to be voting for.

    And which of the two real candidates it’s more likely that they’d feel it somewhat necessary to lie to themselves about eventually voting for.


  2. This is also why McMullen will not win Utah and throw the election to the House of Representatives. McMullen can only put up numbers that make him competitive in Utah if Trump is doing poorly enough nationally that it’s not close. When Trump was within a point or two, he was winning Utah handily.


  3. I always understood references to The Wall as referring to a very dedicated level of support for Clinton in a bunch of states, not just swing states, or to the very strong support among black voters she has.


  4. The issue of course is that this looks like it is going to be a plurality election with Clinton getting around 49 percent of the vote by current projections and Trump getting around 42-44 depending.

    Here is Nate Cohn on the polls:


    Many of these dissatisfied voters are extremely likely to vote for one candidate or another, but they are not happy about it. When the news isn’t so good for the candidate they’re likelier to support, they say they’re “undecided” rather than bring themselves to admit — either to themselves or to the polling interviewer — that they’ll support their candidate. These same swings in enthusiasm have an effect on whether pollsters judge them to be likely voters, or even the propensity for voters to respond to surveys at all.

    This theory helps explain why the most abrupt movements in the polls seem to come when the race is near one of its two extremes. Mrs. Clinton surged after the first presidential debate in part because she was near her low point heading into it. The allegations about Mr. Trump’s sexual misconduct didn’t hurt him as much in the polls as his first debate performance, for instance, because Mrs. Clinton’s marginal supporters had already flocked back to her column after the debate. There were fewer voters for her to lure back.


      • I, of course, would love a blue blowout. Seemed plausible for a while, then more of the email nonsense pops up and it’s back to being a pipe dream. Oh well, I’ll just hope for the Presidency and Senate.

        I’m assuming you’d like a plurality as a vote of no confidence in the big two/vote of strength for the libertarians?


              • Obama tried to do stuff in 09-10 and even got some stuff done.

                But his complacency, specifically he and all his acolytes thinking “Obama is awesome, who could be against Obama?” got Scott Brown a Senator’s seat and then led to a complete shellacking in November 2010.

                When you’re entire political legacy is dependent on a specific piece of a political coalition, it’s unconscionable to allow that piece of the political coalition to get away from you. And he didn’t even get something good for it, e.g. true love instead of a Frey wife.

                The subsequent midterm losses wouldn’t even be something to affix blame on him if it wasn’t for losing Kennedy’s seat. But the midterm losses showed he and his minions didn’t learn a darn thing from the Oakley debacle.


                  • I keep forgetting you believe that.

                    I shouldn’t, it’s hilarious. Kinda racist. Actually a lot racist, but hilarious.

                    (Clearly the black man only understands the literal gun to the head, whereas the white Presidents understand the threat without needing the props and large lettering.)


                    • morat20,
                      If you grant that it actually happened (which, I will say, is a lot to grant), then the morons who thought they needed an actual gun were white, and a rather insulated bunch, at that.

                      Of course, if you want to have some real fun, we should get into why the neoliberals (on Wall Street) got us into WWI.. and WWII in the bargain.


                • I’m more in agreement with this analysis than not. I’ve always read Obama’s first couple years as them living their own campaign rhetoric that they were a new way and were above “politics as usual”. They also either
                  A) couldn’t imagine the GOP would embark of the cynical total opposition strategy or
                  B) couldn’t think of any way to prove it except by letting the GOP show it by doing it.

                  I think the 2010 whupping was damn near unavoidable with the combination of the great recession and the right wing response to the left basically winning a contest they’d been fighting over for a century. I do agree that Oakley was heavily on O and Co. It would have done them a hell of a lot of good if they could have run the ACA through the normal process of getting its legislative final coat of paint.


                  • What I find fascinating about this election is mainly that O&co ran the table in ’08, but within a decade they will have possibly pissed the whole thing away. If Hills doesn’t win, the R’s will have turned that whole losing “a contest they’d been fighting over for a century” to the destruction of the D’s at pretty much every level of gov’t.

                    Hillary has to win not only the presidency but take the senate to just hold on. And even then, they have a much worse situation in ’18 regarding seats held in the senate, they have lost even deep blue governorships in areas such as Maryland and Mass.


                    • I think predicting destruction of the Dems at every level of government is a bit hyperbolic (I approve, I love hyperbole). It does beg the question; what liberals goals are; political success or implementing their preferred policy? I’m pretty happy with what the behavior of the ‘liberal’ party says is their answer to that question.


                      • Well, to stray a little bit, they are part-and-parcel. You can’t have goals achieved without legislative success. You can’t have legislative success without goals achieved.

                        Otherwise, you are out in the woods like Labour right now. But by gosh, they are sure showing everyone just how liberal they are! (Not that we libertarians are doing much better.)


                      • Oh, I wouldn’t dream of it councilor. But, considering who blew up an opportunity* in the first place, well, it would be a bit of tit-for-tat!

                        *Along with don’t fight a land war in asia, don’t barely pass unpopular legislation just before a census year.


                        • Yes, they could have had healthcare reform or they could have played super safe and maybe* have had a shot at, what, a less bad whipeout in 2010? I think the Dems chose pretty well. Especially since we know, post hoc, that the GOP was going to refuse to participate and was going to pitch a fit over whatever was done no matter what Obama had proposed in place of the ACA.

                          *Assuming their base didn’t ditch them and stay home in raw disgust at them bailing on health care reform.


                            • Sure, sort of. If the point of having a majority is to pass a crappy version of reform and then get your electoral ass handed to you after you had just run the table.

                              Let alone do it in a census year, which incidentally gave your opponents damn near complete control of state level gov’t while giving them the house by unprecedented gains. And while I know the left isn’t a fan of state level gov’t, it is the nature of our system.


                            • I forget who said it, but The Point of having a Congressional Majority is to Do Things, especially if you’re a Democrat.

                              “We came here to do a job, not keep a job.”

                              Nanci Pelosi


                                    • Well, for starters, they’re not “trying to survive”; they do alright for themselves and their shareholders.

                                      For seconders, the ACA was instituted, to a great extent, because of the entirely rational and in fact predictable for-profit market-based behavior of insurance companies.

                                      After that, things get more complicated.


                                      • Stillwater,
                                        You obviously aren’t in the business of healthcare.
                                        To put it simply: they aren’t doing alright. They’re falling apart at the seams and the profit in healthcare is recentralizing around the providers rather than the payers.

                                        HIGHMARK is busy trying to become a provider rather than a payer, because fo these trends.


                                        • Kim: hey’re falling apart at the seams and the profit in healthcare is recentralizing around the providers rather than the payers.

                                          Isn’t this a good thing in the macro sense? Isn’t economic efficiency all about minimizing middle persons in the exchange of goods and services?


                                          • I’m not sure that’s where I’d head. I’d argue that minimizing the profitability of health care payers means that it will be easier to get single payer, which will be more efficient.


                              • Uhm, how does the disaster of the healthcare delivery system system negate the disaster of the ACA? Seems to me that the ACA is making the rest even worse by doubling down on much of the worst aspects, with no easy fix in the offering.

                                But what do I know, the Cubs are in the series…


                                • The exchanges are a disaster for two reasons (well, three): insurance companies are playing politics with em; people with chronic conditions who pre-ACA wouldn’t be gettin any insurance are now receiving it; and young, healthy people aren’t signing up and contributing to the pool (that one was pretty predictable).

                                  What all this shows to me – both our pre- and post-ACA healthcare – is that an insurance based model in the US of A is totally unworkable. Repeal and replace is a great idea until you get to the second part of that cute phrase: “replace”. With what? (HSAs of course!!)

                                  I’d suggest single payer, myself.

                                  Add: But to finish the thought more in line with your question, the delivery system by which healthcare is provided (Insurance companies) is in almost every respect the anti-thesis of a functioning market.


                                  • Stillwater,
                                    One more problem for you: Actuarial in nature. It’s hard to figure out how much to charge, even for catastrophic health care, for people who are just joining and have lots of problems.

                                    We were SUPPOSED to give the insurance companies some money so that they could have a decent buffer to get the numbers right. Republicans nixed it.


                          • I’ve always found the argument that a pol should be knocked for trying to enact one of there biggest platform planks and multi decade desire of their party just plain weird. Not that they can’t be criticized for doing it poorly or that the result didn’t work out. But going for HCR in 09 was almost mandatory for any D. That little economic crisis thing was certainly an issue, but after winning the prez and both houses going for HCR was an easy easy choice.


                    • That’s a great point. The only thing I would say in rebuttal (or maybe just as rationalization) is that both the 2010 and 2014 elections were mid-terms with low turnout and a motivated opposition. So democrats were even for governships held in the presidential election years, but lost 9 during the midterms. Another quirk to note is how many more states had gubernatorial elections in off years. With that said, Republicans did a great job at formulating and implementing a solid strategy for taking back a huge number of states.


          • If a Civil War didn’t happen in 1968 when there were literally hundreds of riots, it’s not happening because transgender people can use the bathroom they want, some bakers have to bake cakes they don’t want too, and the nation is getting browner.

            But, what will not help is another 4 years of dueling narratives of “Imperial Democratic Presidency flouting the Rule of Law” and “Congress Refusing to Do Anything.”


  5. “When people try to get specific with the states, they tend to get hung up on the stated odds in specific states”

    I see what you did there. Cute!


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