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US election: it was geography that saw Reagan home

  • Written by  Geographical Archive
  • Published in Geopolitics
The Reagans at the inaugural parade in 1981 The Reagans at the inaugural parade in 1981 National Archives and Records Administration
02 Nov
President Reagan’s first election victory in 1980 was seen as a landslide. Geographer Ron Johnston shows how this was by the virtue of US geography, not the polling booths

Geographical Archive

The result of the election for the next President of the United States held on 4 November, 1980 was widely interpreted as a landslide victory for Governor Reagan of California over the incumbent president Carter. In terms of the Electoral College this was indeed so, for President Carter won only 49 of the 538 seats there and Governor Reagan won the remaining 489. But Governor Reagan won only a bare majority of the votes cast (51 per cent), with President Carter winning 41 per cent; four years earlier President Carter won 50.1 per cent of the votes cast and 297 of the 538 Electoral College seats, against his Republican opponent’s, incumbent-President Gerald Ford, 48.0 per cent. Thus a relatively small loss of votes (President Carter lost about 18 per cent of his electoral support but 84 per cent of his Electoral College votes) produced an overwhelming defeat. The landslide occurred in the Electoral College, rather than in the polling booths. To understand how this came about requires an examination of the American electoral system.

An American presidential election, like a British election, is fought across a set of constituencies. In the latter, the party winning most votes in each constituency is rewarded with an additional seat in the House of Commons. In the United States, the candidate winning most votes in a State is rewarded with all of that State’s seats in the Electoral College. (This presidential contest is in fact fought in 51 constituencies; the 50 states plus the District of Columbia, which is not a State. All are termed States here.) Seats in the Electoral College are allocated according to each State’s Congressional representation: the larger the population the greater the number of seats. The States vary in size from Alaska and Wyoming, each with just over 400,000 residents, to California with more than 22,000,000. Alaska and Wyoming, along with Delaware, the District of Columbia, Nevada, North Dakota and Vermont, qualify for three Electoral College seats each. California has 45, out of the total of 538. (There are 535 members of Congress – 50 Senators and 485 Representatives; the extra three seats are for the District of Columbia.)

Screen shot 2016 10 25 at 12.39.39See how college votes have changed since 1981 (Image: Geographical archive)

When Americans went to the polls on 4 November, they were not voting directly for either Jimmy Carter or Ronald Reagan (or one of the minor party candidates). Instead, they were voting for their home State’s representation in the Electoral College. Each party put up a slate of candidates pledged to vote for its respective presidential nominee if the party won in that State; the slate getting the largest number of votes won all of the Electoral College seats. Thus in Governor Reagan’s home State of California, his slate won 4,424,902 of the 8,387,465 votes cast (52.8 per cent: Carter won 3,031,291) thereby giving Reagan 45 votes in the Electoral College. In his home State of Georgia, Carter captured 56.6 per cent of the votes, and 12 of the Electoral College seats.

In all Presidential contests since the 1820s, candidates have sought a secure regional base as a foundation for success

Some of the results in the various States were very close, but a very small majority can give a candidate a considerable advantage in the Electoral College. Thus in Alabama, for example, Reagan beat Carter by only 12,000 votes, to earn nine Electoral College seats, and in Massachusetts a difference of less than 1,000 votes out of nearly 25 million cast gave the Republican candidate 14 votes in the College.

The Electoral College never meets. Each State’s elected slate gathers in its capital city on January 6, 1981 to cast its votes, and until then the election is not complete. Of course, the result is a foregone conclusion. Some Electors do break their pledge (one from Washington in 1976 voted for Reagan instead of for Ford), but when the President of the Senate makes the count in January there is no doubt that Reagan will be the overwhelming victor.

349px ElectoralCollege1980.svgStates won in the 1980 election (Image: Wikicommons)

The variation between the states in their membership of the Electoral College means that some are much more important than others. Indeed, the election could be won by a candidate who is victorious in only 11 of the 51 States (California, New York, Pennsylvania, Illinois, Texas, Ohio, Michigan, Florida, New Jersey, Massachusetts, and either Indiana or North Carolina) which together carry a majority of the 538 votes in the College: Governor Reagan won all of these states in 1980. That is why those States are the focus of much of the campaign effort leading up to the election. But to gamble on winning in just those 11 would be a foolish risk. In all Presidential contests since the 1820s, candidates have sought a secure regional base as a foundation for success.

Since the inauguration of the New Deal following the election of Franklin Roosevelt in 1932, the Democratic Party’s base has been the South whereas the Republican Party’s ‘homeland’ has been on the High Plains and in the Midwest. Many of the industrial states of the northeast, carrying large numbers of Electoral College votes, have been marginal – winnable by either party. Thus there has been a fairly stable geography of voting at United States’ Presidential elections over the last half-century, with only a few contests displaying marked deviations from the general pattern (these were the Kennedy-Nixon contest in 1960, that between Johnson and Goldwater in 1964, and Nixon’s re-election success, over McGovern, in 1972).

Carter’s 1976 victory was based on him winning every State south of the Mason-Dixon line, to which he added several northeastern States, including four of the largest – Massachusetts, New York, Pennsylvania and Ohio (he won the last by only 11,000 votes in 4,112,000 cast). West of the Mississippi-Missouri he won only Texas (part of the South) and Hawaii: only Minnesota (the home of his Vice-Presidential candidate, Walter Mondale) and Wisconsin in the Midwest returned a Carter slate to the Electoral College. Carter’s hold on the South was not strong, however, and he won more than 60 per cent of the states won by Carter: 1,976 votes in only three states – Arkansas, the District of Columbia, and his home state of Georgia. Thus a relatively small movement of voter support away from him could put a large number of Electoral College seats at risk, and produce a landslide to his Republican opponent.

This Republican success suggests that the Democrat Party is becoming ‘homeless’, and is failing because the geographical base of the Electoral College system is against it

This is what happened in 1980. There was a general downward shift in Carter’s vote, across all States, of about ten percentage points. (For Carter, the most disastrous loss was Arkansas, where his share of the vote fell from 65 per cent to 47.8.) Apart from his home state, Mondale’s home state of Minnesota, and the District of Columbia, which has a majority of black residents, only four small states remained loyal, and each of these was won with less than half of all the votes cast. (Because there were candidates other than Carter and Reagan, notably Anderson.) Governor Reagan not only won in the Republican heartland and in the large, marginal States, therefore, but he also swept the South (including Texas, the home of his Vice-Presidential candidate, George Bush). Like the Liberal Party in Great Britain, the Democrat Party was left with a large percentage of the popular vote but no spatial concentration of that percentage to ensure representation – in this case in the Electoral College.

This Republican success suggests that the Democrat Party is becoming ‘homeless’, and is failing because the geographical base of the Electoral College system is against it. One reason for this may have been the performance of the independent candidate, John Anderson. Although formerly a Republican member of the House of Representatives, Anderson was from that party’s ‘left’ wing (as opposed to Reagan’s position on its ‘right’) and Democrats feared that he may win more votes from Carter than from Reagan. Whether he did, or whether his supporters might otherwise have abstained, is not yet clear. What is certain is that in 14 States the margin between Reagan and Carter was less than the number of votes won by Anderson: these included six southern States – Alabama, Arkansas, Kentucky, Mississippi, North Carolina and Tennessee. If President Carter had won all of John Anderson’s votes, he still would not have won the election, but he would have got 193 Electoral College votes rather than 49.

Whether the Democrat Party has lost its Southern base can only be answered at future elections, therefore. All that can be concluded at present is that 41 per cent of the votes, widely distributed across the country (Carter got below 35 per cent in only 14 States) rather than concentrated spatially, is likely to produce electoral disaster under the American system, whereas 51 per cent can produce a landslide. The geography of the election may not be all-important, but it is highly significant.

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