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Obsolete Bellwether States

Every presidential election season, you’re liable to hear pundits and other prognosticators make bold predictions about how the upcoming election is going to hinge on how one or two certain states vote.  It’s certainly true that in most election years, everything tends to hinge on a handful of states.  In the 2016 election, there were six or seven states that were watched and analyzed and pondered more than any of the other forty-some states, and in the end, the election really did come down to how those few turned out.  Talking heads made the same conclusion about this year’s presidential election, and while recently talk has moved away from that as new variables begin to change the dynamics of this election in most atypical ways, the fact remains that there are certain states that we usually regard as bellwethers.  In the past, there have been other states that have lost their bellwether status.  Today’s fact, then, will be a handful of facts, looking at these statuses, both current and obsolete.  Things sure do change.

The term bellwether, by the way, is an old shepherding term.  One sheep would wear a bell around its neck, and when it was time to move the flock, all of them would follow this one sheep, having been trained to respond to the sound of the bell.  This guiding sheep was called a bellwether.  Nowadays this term is used to indicate anything that seems to reliably indicate the direction of a trend.

Ohio has been a bellwether for a long time, ever since the 1850s.  It’s currently got 18 electoral votes, and has been worth a lot more in the past.  Its populace tends to split its vote pretty evenly between Democrats and Republicans, so each party stands a good chance here, all things being equal (though all things are seldom equal).  Often the margin of victory will lie within the number of electoral votes that Ohio has.  In 2000 and 2004, had Ohio gone the other way, so would have the election results.  The same is true of 1976 and 1916.  In three of those aforementioned cases, that would have swung the election to the loser of the Electoral College.  (In 2000, the loser of the popular vote, George W. Bush, did win Ohio.)  No Republican in history has ever won the presidency without Ohio.  Only a few times has a Democratic president won without Ohio.  The last to pull this off was Jack Kennedy in 1960 (or, arguably, Al Gore in 2000).  This year, Ohio has trended more Republican, but it might not matter that much.  Donald Trump would be glad to win it, but with Hillary Clinton making headway in Virginia and North Carolina, more traditionally Republican territory, Ohio might not matter as much as it used to.

Florida seems to be where elections are won or lost, but the fact is, this is a fairly recent development.  It proved to be pivotal in the 2000 election, and since then, it’s always gone with the winner.  As Ohio’s star seems to be falling, Florida’s seems to be rising.  With its large population of blacks and whites, as well as Hispanics, Florida’s demographics are a more accurate reflection of the whole of the United States than Ohio’s are anymore.

Missouri was a reliable predictor of the winner for most of the 20th century.  From 1904 to 2004, only in 1956 did Missouri not vote for the candidate who became president.  It appears that Missouri has been trending more Republican since the 1990s, which is what’s costing it its status as a bellwether.  When a state becomes a reliable supporter of one party or another, its predictive value evaporates.


New York was once a strong indicator of how elections would turn out.  It seems incredible, since today New York is thought of as impervious to Republican presidential hopefuls and a save haven for Democrats.  But from the Civil War to the Clinton administration, New York voted for the winning presidential candidate all but four times.  New York probably enjoyed bellwether status because for a good part of the history of the United States, it was the most populous state, and thus carried the most electoral votes.  Further, from the time of the Civil War and the 1990s, New York’s voters tended to divide the state evently, with a majority Democratic southern part of the state and a majority Republican northern part of the state.  Republican strength in New York have faded as the Republican Party’s influence in the Northeast in general has faded.  Even though New York is still the fourth-most populous state in the country, neither the Democrats nor the Republicans think of the state as up for grabs anymore.

Maine might have been the first state to have been given the title of bellwether, but curiously, it never really was one.  Often it was said that “As Maine goes, so goes the nation!” but that was true only when the nation went for a Republican, at least for the first century of the Republican Party.  Maine used to be a reliably Republican state, voting for the Democratic candidate only four times during the 140-year stretch between Abraham Lincoln and Bill Clinton.  

Where did this inaccurate aphorism come from?  It actually dates back to the election of 1840.  At the time, Maine would hold its elections for state offices in September, not in November, like the rest of the country did.  In 1840, many Whig candidates were swept out of office in the Maine elections, handing the Democrats a crushing defeat in the state.  This was repeated nationwide when the rest of the country voted in November.  Something similar happened when Republicans in Maine swept out Democrats in the election of 1888, and then went on to win the White House that November.  After 1888, Maine’s state elections were moved in line with the rest of the country and they voted for all offices in November.  For some reason, it was still popular to declare “As Maine goes, so goes the nation.”  It was a more popular saying among Republicans, no doubt.

In the coming 2020 presidential elections, pundits are trying to figure out what the next bellwether might be. Virginia proved to be a pretty spot-on microcosm of the American electorate after the 2012 election, but it's only trended more Democratic since then, so it probably isn't an ideal subject. The states of North Carolina, Minnesota, and Arizona seem to be pretty divided--more so than they have been in the recent past. But no one seems to think either of these states will serve as a reliable barometer of the national mood. It's possible that this year, there simply isn't a bellwether to look at. Pundits will have to turn to more accurate ways of predicting the outcome, like reading tea leaves or entrails--or, if they must, talking to actual voters, if they really get desperate.

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