“Can we forget for whom we are forming a government? Is it for men, or for the imaginary beings called States?” –James Wilson, author of U.S. Constitution (June 30, 1787)
As of the writing of this sentence, if you google “Republican L” nothing really comes up. There’s no Wikipedia page for it, and there are few references to it in popular media despite its significance in American political history. In fact, it was a regular talking point in my political science classes throughout the mid-2000s, and it goes a long way in explaining how George W. Bush won two terms in office.
The Republican L was a staple of turn-of-the-millennium American politics. The 2000 and 2004 presidential elections represented one the most static electoral college changes ever. Only three states switched allegiance in the years that separated those two elections: New Hampshire, Iowa, and New Mexico.
The term “Republican L” refers to the shape that the Republican base formed throughout this static period, which is best shown in Rhodes Cook’s map from August 23rd, 2007. Note that the electoral votes (EVs) reflect 2007 measurements, so ignore those and pay attention the colors.
The “L” varies in shape and size, and both matter a lot. For example, John McCain lost the 2008 election because Barack Obama chiseled nine states out of the L, which is exactly what analysts said had to happen for him to win. It was a veritable renaissance for the Democratic Party, which managed to pull Virginia for the first time since 1964, and North Carolina for the first time since 1976.
Those elections are important for understanding the Republican L. In neither case did the Republican L we recognize today stand out in red ink, but the vertex of the “L” itself formed in 1964 when Dixie voted Republican for the first time since the 1870s. Only five states in the Deep South (plus Arizona) voted Republican, and this started a trend for southern states like Alabama, Mississippi, South Carolina, and North Carolina that would continue until they voted a fellow Southerner into the White House in 1976.
It wasn’t until 1988 that we started to see the modern Republican L take form. Reagan had no trouble turning America red, and only Minnesota and DC voted against him in both 1980 and 1984. In 1988, though, his successor won without the help of the same electoral votes as Reagan. Washington, Oregon, Wisconsin, New York, and Massachusetts all bailed, and it’s worth noting that none of the aforementioned states have voted Republican since.
1988 Electoral Map
The eroding Republican positions in the Pacific northwest, Great Lakes region, and New England would provide Democrats a beachhead in 1992. All the states that voted for Dukakis in 1988 voted for Clinton, but Clinton was able to slice into Bush’s 1988 real estate and capture electoral votes in the mountain west (CO, NM, MT) and the southeast (AR, LA, TN, GA, KY, WV).
Republicans only had themselves to blame for 1992. Ross Perot got ~19% of the vote, because H.W. simply wasn’t conservative enough. He’d raised taxes and the economy was in recession, and the party apparatus wasn’t able to consolidate the base vote into an electoral weapon. Republicans were able to get MT, CO, and GA back in 1996, but lost FL and AZ, and ultimately the election. Democrats still owned too much of the L.
This all changed in 2000. Democrats ran the incumbent’s VP against the son of the guy the incumbent beat in ’92. Things didn’t pan out for Democrats the same way they had in ’64. Bush’s son pulled most of the same states his father did in 1988, eventually winning Florida by 537 votes. He won again four years later against John Kerry, this time without a recount. Refer back to the Cooks map to see this in action.
When 2008 rolled around, party officials knew the conservative base within the Republican L would be crucial for victory. With an unpopular outgoing incumbent, and no strong candidate emerging from the primary, Republicans directed endorsements toward a moderate congressman from…Arizona.
But this was no Barry Goldwater. The intent was to grab undecided and moderate voters, building off the assumption that the evangelical base was shored up in the heartlands. We all know what happened: Republicans lost part of the L to Obama, who received the largest percentage of the popular vote for a Democrat since Johnson in ’64.
Republicans don’t like to lose, and many in the camp blamed moderation for the loss in 2008, especially Ron Paul. One of the most outspoken Constitutionalists in American politics, Paul was the spearpoint of the libertarian movement throughout the 2000s. Core movements re-anchor parties in a bipartisan system. Political cores keep parties from drifting too far to the center and giving up ground to the other party. So strong was this conservative core following the 2008 loss that it earned a nickname: the Tea Party.
Pundits will tell you that the Tea Party hijacked Republicanism. Hell, it’s the entire substory of HBO’s “The Newsroom,” a contrived, poorly scripted attempt to merge Network with The West Wing. In reality, the Tea Party voting constituency is the only reason Republicans have been so successful since 1980. Those core voters are the backbone of the Republican L.
That being said, it would be dangerous for the Republican Party in 2016 to ignore core conservatives like it did in 2008 and 2012, just as it would be myopic to rely on them as much as it did in 2000 and 2004. Party officials have a precarious task ahead of them, and locking down the Republican L is the first task of many. For instance, if Republicans had taken back FL, VA, CO, and OH (all states that George W. Bush won twice) in 2012, Romney would’ve become the 45th President of the United States.
I played around with an electoral map to demonstrate the importance of holding down the Republican L, and below is an example of what Republicans should gun for in 2016.
The map above isn’t far-fetched. I didn’t assume anything we haven’t seen in recent elections, and I even split Nebraska’s 2nd Congressional District vote.
I targeted Ohio over New Mexico for two reasons. First, New Mexico doesn’t get Republicans to 270 electoral votes by itself. Republicans would also have to pull combinations of swing states, like New Hampshire and Iowa, in addition to New Mexico to hit 270, and I think that’s asking a lot. Secondly, Ohio voted for Bush twice, while New Mexico (and Iowa) supported Al Gore in 2000, so I think enough core conservatives live in Ohio to make it red again.
Notice how close the race is. In the 2016 map above, Republicans only win by 10 electoral votes…put another way, they win by Missouri, which could also flip to blue if rural conservatives feel shunned by the Party. The parity above is largely a result of having to contend with California, which has added 10 electoral votes since 1980, but stopped voting Republican after 1988. Texas and Georgia combined still falls 1 vote short of California’s 55 EVs.
It begs the question: If an optimistic projection for Republicans only wins by 10 votes, what does a pessimistic projection look like? Well, here it is.
This is the RNC’s worst nightmare. While the geographic core remains intact, Democrats are able to chip away the high-value edges. Colorado and Virginia voted Democrat in the past two presidential elections, which is an alarming trend for Repubs. Indiana and North Carolina were blue in 2008, so there is a precedent. Missouri and West Virginia voted Democrat in the 90s, and West Virginia also voted Democrat in 1988. Florida is a major swing state, and the winner of Florida has won the presidency in every election the past fifty years (except in 1992).
All it takes is a few high-value swings from the Republican L, and the Democrats win.
Interesting aside: Even in the first map (where Republicans win 274-264), losing little ‘ole West Virginia to the Democrats would mean an electoral tie, in which case the U.S. House would have four days to elect the new President based on a one-vote-per-state rule laid out in 12th Amendment. The U.S. Senate would simultaneously elect the new Vice President. It’s worth noting that many of those congressmen and congresswomen would have to be sworn in first, as they would’ve been part of the exact same November election as the Presidential candidates on whom they’d be voting.
The Democrats are hoping Obama’s recent unpopularity doesn’t affect the 2016 race, but Biden could still follow in Gore’s footsteps and hope for a slightly better result. Howard Dean might scream his way back into the spotlight, and Luis Gutiérrez might try to ride the same train that got Obama from Chicago to DC. The former Baltimore mayor, Gov. Martin O’Malley, has expressed interest, but I’m still trying to figure out why The Wire didn’t cast Simon Baker for Carcetti’s part, since Baker looks way more like O’Malley than Aidan Gillen….but I digress.
The Republicans could field a familiar hodgepodge of fire-breathing lawmakers and governors eager to reinvent the Republican Party: Bachmann, Cruz, Huckabee, Paul, Rubio, Santorum, Perry, and Romney. Some minority candidates will no doubt make a splash in the wake of BHO’s tenure, including the former governor of Louisiana and a retired Director of Pediatric Neurosurgery. Some of these candidates are from the Republican L, and some aren’t, but it doesn’t really matter, as long as they all endorse the guy who’ll actually win the RNC’s nomination. Who will that be?
I think this presidential race will be between two candidates I haven’t even mentioned yet: Jeb Bush and Hillary Clinton. Can you believe that? We might see Bush vs. Clinton again. God, I miss the ’90s.
Clinton would take New York, home of her senate seat, and Bush would almost certainly grab Florida, which he governed. California would fall to Hillary, and Texas would go to Jeb. I’d imagine a ton of ads being run in battlegrounds like the Great Lakes region and the mountain west. This would be smashmouth politics, two political cores going at it. It doesn’t get better than Bush vs. Clinton Redux.
Regardless of who gets the nominations, the Republican L will come up. Analysts will say that the Democratic nominee must do what Obama did in 2008, and hack away at the Republican base. Other analysts will say that Republicans can rely on the L in light of Democratic unpopularity and spend time and money in battleground states like Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and other blue states that can turn purple under the right conditions.
One final map for you. Here’s a 2016 U.S. electoral map that shows which battleground states have voted for both parties over the last three elections (shaded in grey).
Obviously, Democrats hold the default advantage in the electoral college, but I can see the right Republican candidate turning a majority of those grey states red. With no incumbent, it should be a tight, high-octane race. None will be spared.