CHAMPAIGN, Ill. - History has some good news for the Democrats on the eve of their convention next week in Boston.
In terms of the relative size of their electoral base and its distribution across states, and despite current polling data, which is highly volatile at this juncture in the race, the Democrats begin the 2004 campaign "with a distinct electoral advantage."
So says Peter Nardulli, author of a new study that is based on 20 years of research on state-level presidential voting patterns in the United States between 1828 and 2000.
The study, titled "Handicapping the 2004 Presidential Election: A Normal Vote Approach," will be published in the October issue of PS, or Political Science & Politics, a publication of the American Political Science Association. Nardulli is a professor of political science at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and a voting expert who pioneered a "normal vote" approach to capturing changes in presidential voting patterns, using five-election "moving averages" of election returns.
According to Nardulli, the Democrats have not begun a presidential campaign in such a strong position since 1944.
"Practically speaking, all the Democrats need do is win the states in which they have a meaningful normal vote advantage to capture the presidency," Nardulli said. "If the Democrats can do this they need not win any Southern states in which the Republicans hold an electoral edge, including Florida."
Moreover, even if Ralph Nader matches his state-level returns from 2000, this by itself will not be enough to overcome the Democrats' electoral advantage in states that are essential to attaining an Electoral College majority.
The Democrats are in such a strong starting position in the 2004 campaign because of the cumulative effects of gradual shifts in normal voting patterns across a wide swath of states outside the South. These trends began in the 1970s, Nardulli said, and "have eroded what once were sizeable Republican electoral advantages in a number of key states."
"At the national level, the net electoral effect of these gradual shifts is comparable to most critical realignments in U.S. electoral history. Comparable periods of secular change benefited the Republicans in the first quarter of the 20th century and between 1932 and 1976."
But does this mean that the Democrats have the 2004 election "sewn up?"
"Absolutely not," says Nardulli. "The Democrats' edge in the size and distribution of their electoral base does not mean they have a lock on this election. Electoral upsets such as those that occurred in 1912, 1916 and 1976 demonstrate that even overwhelming normal vote advantages do not guarantee electoral victory. State normal vote advantages simply provide parties with 'comfort margins' that help them deal with election-specific departures from normal voting patterns that are driven by such factors as increases in unemployment, inflation or crime. Or scandals such as the Teapot Dome Scandal, Watergate, Iran-Contra or the Monica Lewinsky affair."
• To capture a bare majority of Electoral College votes with the smallest set of departures from established state voting patterns requires that the Republicans "hold their own" in those states where they have an electoral edge and win eight battleground states: Colorado, Florida, Louisiana, Missouri, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Mexico and Ohio.
"A loss in any of these states, unless it is accompanied by an upset in a state in which the Democrats have an even stronger electoral edge, would cost them the presidency," Nardulli said.
• "War presidents" seldom reap electoral rewards in the aftermath of a war, and electoral catastrophes such as those that occurred in 1920, 1952, 1968 and 1992 are "more likely. The current polls, which show Mr. Bush not attracting much more support than expected by the size of the Republican's national electoral base, document the relevance of these historical lessons. These current polls also show him well behind where Nixon, Reagan and Clinton were at comparable points in their successful bids for re-election."
• Domestic issues - most notably unemployment and health care - also pose problems for the Republicans. Unemployment rates for May show that the battleground states of Louisiana, New Mexico and Ohio rank in the lowest third of all states, Nardulli finds. Center for Disease Control data show that Colorado, Florida, Louisiana, Nevada and New Mexico all have an "exceptionally high number of residents not covered by health insurance. Due to these state-specific factors, the central domestic themes in the Democrats' fall campaign could resonate well with many of their voters," Nardulli said.
"If Mr. Bush is able to mount even a modest 'fall rally,' the Democrats' normal vote advantage could be overcome," he said.
"Most sitting presidents in the last seven campaigns have been able to generate fall rallies. But the lingering effects of the Iraq situation, in conjunction with the 2004 election's highly polarized partisan setting, give rise to serious doubts about either candidates' ability to sway a significant proportion of the electorate during the campaign.
"If the national polls continue to be tightly balanced, then monitoring electoral developments in the battleground states may provide early insights into the election's outcome."
Details on the process used to derive normal vote estimates are available online in Appendix II. Graphs of all state normal voting patterns are available for review in "State Level Voting Patterns for President, 1828-2000," which is accessible at the same Web address.