"Our Country!
In her intercourse with foreign nations may she always be in the right;
but right or wrong, our country!"

    --Commodore Stephen Decatur

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

As Goes Ohio...

As we enter the final two weeks of this election cycle, let us consider the question of whether President Obama or Governor Romney can win without Ohio. Currently, the only two bellwether states with any kind of reputation are Ohio and Nevada. These two states have only voted against the winner three times between them in the last hundred years: Nevada once in 1972 and Ohio twice in 1944 and 1960, and that last was one of the closest elections in history. Ohio especially, which has a population of 11.5 million to Nevada's 2.7 million, has become THE essential state to win for anyone who seeks the Presidency. Thus we have the saying, "As goes Ohio, so goes the Union."

You may be asking yourself, what is a bellwether anyway? The bell is obvious enough, but the wether has nothing to do with meteorology, but rather derives from the German widar or ram and is most often encountered in animal husbandry. The story goes that shepherds would place a bell around the neck of a castrated ram (the wether) to keep track of the whole flock, the thinking being that the ram would stay with his ewes wherever they roamed. This is not the most flattering comparison, but nevertheless, residents of bellwether states typically consider it a point of pride because of the unique role they play as an indicator of broader trends in electoral politics.

Following the etymology then, the chart above classifies states into sheep and bellwethers based on comprehensive election results from Dave Leip's Atlas of U.S. Presidential Elections. The sheep (shaded in yellow) are states which have voted with the winner three or more election cycles in a row. Aside from Franklin D. Roosevelt, no president has served more than two full terms--and indeed this is now constitutionally prohibited--so three in a row is more than just happenstance. The bellwethers (shaded in green) are states that have voted with the winner for three decades or more and have begun to acquire a more exceptional historical status.

Returning to our original question then, let us assume that Romney will win Florida, North Carolina, Missouri, and Virginia. It is possible then that Romney could win Colorado, Nevada, Iowa, and New Hampshire and go on to win the Presidency without Ohio. Meanwhile, Obama could theoretically win those same four states while losing Ohio to Romney and still win the election. However, both scenarios are quite unlikely. According to the RealClearPolitics polling averages, Colorado and New Hampshire are to the right of Ohio while Iowa and Nevada are to the left. Thus, it is reasonable to conclude that whoever wins Ohio will win the election.

It is worth noting that bellwethers are fundamentally a backwards-looking indicator of broader trends. As the old adage goes, "Every streak is good until it isn't." For example, as recently as 2004, Missouri and Tennessee were considered reliable bellwethers of the electorate, but both went to McCain in 2008 by a large margin. However, as the graph below illustrates, it is also true that if either Ohio or Nevada loses its bellwether status, there would be fewer such states than at any time since the end of Reconstruction--and that was with fewer states in the Union overall. Therefore, we can still make a few predictions about this election in the larger context of history.

If Ohio and Nevada lose their bellwether status and the election is decided on the barest of margins, it would signal that we have entered a new era of extreme hyper-partisanship similar to the antebellum period. In this scenario, Obama would certainly have lived up to his apparent goal of emulating the last President to come from Illinois, although not in a very good way. It would be a tragedy if after everything we have suffered through in the last four years that Obama's greatest similarity to Abraham Lincoln ends up being a legacy of bitter division and distrust.

There is also the possibility that Obama wins re-election with a broad mandate. In this case, Obama would be able to consolidate the disastrously extreme liberal policies of his first term and it seems likely that the Democrats' dream of a permanent majority would finally come true. Fortunately for conservatives, this seems more and more unlikely with each new poll. If Obama does win, it will almost certainly be by the narrowest of margins.

Finally, if Romney wins a solid victory it would signal a continuing realignment in American politics that started during the 1990's with the elderly and socially-conservative minorities continuing to assert ever greater importance in the electorate. The sheep today could become bellwethers of tomorrow. In the continuing realignment scenario, states like Virginia, North Carolina, Colorado, and especially Florida--all of which are leaning towards Romney in the most recent polls--may eventually overtake Ohio in electoral importance in future years. However, in this election, it’s still up to Ohio.

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