It’s been obvious since at least 2016 that the state-by-state landscape of the Electoral College system makes winning presidential contests harder than it should be for Democrats. It’s not just a coincidence that Hillary Clinton won the 2016 national popular vote by 2.1 percent but lost the election by 77 electoral votes, or that Joe Biden won the 2020 national popular vote by 4.4 percent yet came within 42,918 votes of losing the Electoral College. Part of the problem is that the Electoral College system reinforces the small-state bias of the U.S. Senate by giving each state three electoral votes before population is considered. But more subtly, the distribution of voting strength around the country makes the states that decide presidential election more Republican than the country as a whole.
This disadvantage for Democrats is getting worse, says Amy Walter, after presenting the Cook Political Report’s revised PVI (Presidential Voting Index) ratings for states (an analysis of the partisan “lean” of all 50 states based on the last two presidential elections):
[W]hen looking exclusively at the Electoral College map, Republicans are enjoying a stronger advantage than at any point in the 25-year history of the Cook PVI. In 1997, the median Electoral College vote (located in Iowa) had a PVI score of D+1; meaning that the median Electoral College vote was one point more Democratic than the nation as a whole. By 2005, the median Electoral College state (Florida) had a PVI of R+1. In 2021, Wisconsin, with a PVI score of R+2, is the median Electoral College vote. So, if, for example, a Republican presidential candidate were to get 49 percent of the national popular vote, we should expect that Republican to get 51 percent of the vote in Wisconsin.
And that would be enough for the national W, assuming a uniform distribution of voting support. But since most political junkies have fixed notions of “battleground states” they carry around in their minds, it’s important to notice which states are now the most competitive. It’s not what you might expect if your view of the states hasn’t been regularly updated. Cook has a list of “hypercompetitive” states dating back to 1997 based on those with PVIs between D+3 and R+3; it’s updated after each presidential election. Iowa and Ohio were regularly on that list until both finally fell off n 2021. That same year, Arizona and Georgia appeared for the first time. The number of such states has declined from 19 in 1997 to 13 in 2021. And the states clustered around Wisconsin as potential tipping points that are just a bit more Republican than the national average include Pennsylvania (R+2), Arizona (R+2), Michigan (R+1), and Nevada (R+1). Wisconsin went Democratic in seven straight presidential elections prior to 2016; Pennsylvania and Michigan did the same for six straight elections. And Arizona went Republican in 16 of 17 presidential elections from 1952 through 2016. It’s a new landscape, all right, and a tougher one for Democrats. Sure would be nice for them if the presidential candidate favored by a plurality of voters simply won.