Donald Trump has upended much of what we thought we knew about U.S. electoral politics. Maybe Republican voters aren’t as conservative as we thought. Maybe candidates can make seemingly crazy statements without harming their prospects. Those were both lessons we learned from the Republican primaries. But the general election has gone more according to script, and Trump hasn’t upended that most basic feature of general elections, the map.
As politics has become more polarized, the electoral map has changed very little from election to election. But because Trump is such an unusual candidate, it seemed possible there would be states in play this year that usually aren’t. Trump himself said he would compete in deep-blue states like California, New York, Oregon and Washington. So far, however, the 2016 map looks a lot like the 2012 map. Some reliably red and blue states are a tad more competitive this year, relative to the country overall, than in recent elections, but Trump has not reshaped the political landscape. And with Clinton leading Trump nationally by about 7 percentage points, the typically uncompetitive states that seem most likely to flip are red, not blue.
Among the 44 states where general election polling has taken place, Hillary Clinton is ahead of Trump in every state that President Obama won in 2012, plus North Carolina. Here are the FiveThirtyEight polls-only adjusted polling averages for each state versus the vote percentage margin between Obama and Romney in 2012:
That Clinton is winning where Obama won is obviously a major problem for Trump. Mitt Romney lost in 2012, after all. But the states are not lining up exactly as they did four years ago. In several states that Obama didn’t win in 2012 (including Arizona, Georgia and Utah1), Clinton is running closer to Trump than Obama did to Romney in 2012. Trump, meanwhile, is doing better than Romney did in some states that Obama won last time around, including Connecticut and Maine. In other words, the results are compressed: More states are competitive, and fewer would be blowouts. (More on this in a moment.)
So how unusual is the change from 2012 to 2016? Let’s compare it with what happened eight years ago, the last time we had an open presidential election (no incumbent president on the ballot).2 Here’s a scatterplot comparing the results of the 2008 presidential election in all 50 states with those from the previous election, in 2004.
The relationship between 2016 and 2012 is similar to the one between 2008 and 2004 (with the exception of Utah, a heavily Mormon state that voted overwhelmingly for Romney, the first Mormon nominated by a major party, in 2012, and looks less Republican-leaning this year). That is, if you know how New Hampshire voted in 2012 and how much more Democratic-leaning or Republican-leaning the country is overall in 2016 compared with 2012, you would have a good idea of where the polls in New Hampshire currently show the Clinton-Trump race. You would know just as much about the polling in New Hampshire, in fact, as you would have about how it voted in 2008 using the 2004 results and the overall vote. Indeed, without Utah, the correlations are identical. Obama won in 2008 with 365 electoral votes; if Clinton won all the states where she is currently ahead in the polls, she would receive 347 electoral votes. Trump isn’t really doing any better than John McCain did.
If you look hard, though, you can see that 2016 is more compressed compared with 2012 than 2008 was compared with 2004. At the moment, states that typically are red in presidential elections don’t look like they’ll turn blue, or vice versa, but the margins separating Clinton and Trump in many uncompetitive states are smaller than they were eight years ago. Clinton leads Trump nationally right now by about 7 percentage points — almost exactly the margin Obama defeated McCain by. Yet while just six states were decided by 5 points or less in 2008, our polls-only adjusted polling average has 10 states that close now.
Let’s not make too much of this shift, though. The 2016 map has a lot in common with the 2012 map. For a map that really broke with its predecessor, check out the 1992 campaign.
Bill Clinton in 1992, then the Democratic governor of Arkansas, made significant inroads in the South — a region where Michael Dukakis had been shut out in 1988. Clinton carried Georgia and barely lost Florida; Dukakis lost those states by more than 20 percentage points.
There was a lot less polarization in 1992 than there is now. Although Clinton beat George H.W. Bush by 6 points nationally, very close to Hillary Clinton’s current advantage over Trump, nearly double the number of states (17, compared with 10 now) were within 5 points. The 2016 map may be compressed compared to 2012’s, but it’s nothing compared with 1992.
And if you really want to see a presidential election in which the previous race gave us pretty much no information about which states would be close, look to 1976. Here’s how the 50 states voted in 1976 versus 1972:
There is basically no trend. Although Jimmy Carter did better overall in 1976 than George McGovern did in 1972, the states were all over the place. Carter won Arkansas, for example, by 30 points just four years after McGovern lost it by 38. Massachusetts, on the other hand, was pretty consistent: Carter won by 16 points, and McGovern won by 9. Put another way, there was a 68 percentage point shift in the margin in Arkansas, compared with a 7 percentage point shift in Massachusetts. In 2016, according to current polls, only Utah is expected to shift by more than 15 percentage points.
In other words, in the battle between Trump’s uniqueness as a presidential nominee and political polarization, polarization seems to be winning.