Move Over Missouri, Iowa Is the New Bellwether State

There's some hand-wringing going on in Missouri right now. Unless Barack Obama improbably rallies to win the Show-Me State when provisional ballots are tallied, ...
by | November 19, 2008

There's some hand-wringing going on in Missouri right now. Unless Barack Obama improbably rallies to win the Show-Me State when provisional ballots are tallied, Missouri will, for the first time since 1956, give its electoral votes to a losing candidate. Is Missouri no longer a bellwether state?

I have some good news for Missouri: You haven't lost anything. You haven't been a bellwether state for quite a while, except under the most simplistic definition of the term.

By definition, a bellwether is "a person or thing that shows the existence or direction of a trend." Sure, a state that goes with the national winner is showing the direction of the trend to some extent. But, a state that mirrors the national popular vote gives a much better indication of the trend. This year, Virginia was a much better bellwether than Vermont.

In 1996, Bill Clinton beat Bob Dole in Missouri 47.54%-41.24%, for a 6.30 percentage point victory. Nationwide, Clinton won by 8.52 points. That's a 2.32 percentage point gap between the Missouri result and the national result -- not bad.

But, in 2000 the gap was up to 3.86 points, in 2004 it was 4.74 points and, this year, it was 6.89 points. Each time, Missouri was more Republican than the country as a whole. So, the truth of the matter is that Missouri has had a small but consistent (and increasing) Republican lean for four straight presidential elections.

Missouri hasn't been a horrible bellwether, but it certainly hasn't been the best one. What state has? Check out the five states that have come closest to matching the national popular vote in each election since 1988. The number that follows each state is the difference between the state's popular vote margin and the national popular vote.

1988

1) Colorado 0.05%

2) Michigan 0.17%

3) South Dakota 1.39%

4) Montana  1.86%

5) Louisiana 2.48%

1992

1) Iowa  0.45%

2) Connecticut 0.87%

3) Tennessee 0.91%

4) Louisiana 0.95%

5) Wisconsin 1.21%

1996

1) Oregon  0.43%

2) Pennsylvania 0.68%

3) New Mexico 1.19%

4) New Hampshire 1.43%

5) Wisconsin 1.81%

2000

1) Oregon 0.08%

2) Iowa 0.21%

3) Wisconsin 0.30%

4) New Mexico 0.46%

5) Florida 0.53%

2004

1) Nevada 0.13%

2) Ohio 0.35%

3) New Mexico 1.67%

4) Iowa 1.79%

5) Colorado 2.21%

2008

1) Virginia 0.57%

2) Colorado 1.93%

3) Iowa 2.55%

4) New Hampshire 2.89%

5) Ohio 2.93%

There are a lot of things that stand out in these numbers. Look at the very random states (South Dakota?) that mirrored the national popular vote in 1988 -- that's a good reminder that the presidential map is constantly in flux.

Oregon, surprisingly, was the top state in both 1996 and 2000. It's swung Democratic since then. New Mexico had a great run as bellwether in 1996, 2000 and 2004, but Obama won it by nearly 15 points (he won by 6.72 points nationwide).

The state that stands out most, though, is Iowa. Iowa is the only state that has been one of the top five bellwethers in four of the last five elections. The only year that it doesn't make the list is 1996, when it was sixth -- and only off by 1.82 points.

So, in every presidential election from 1992 through 2008, Iowa's popular vote margin was within 2.55 percentage points of the national popular vote result. That is an impressive performance as a bellwether.

This is a rather ironic role for the Hawkeye State. By traditional standards, Iowa is far from a bellwether. It went for Nixon in 1960 (Kennedy won), Ford in 1976 (Carter won), Dukakis in 1988 (Bush Sr. won) and Gore in 2000 (Bush Jr. won).

Ohio, which hasn't chosen a presidential loser since Nixon in 1960, surely will think it deserves the title. Nevada, which has gone for the winner for eight straight elections, has a claim too.

But, why reward these states for ancient history when Iowa has been such a good indicator of the national result in recent elections? The only point against Iowa is that its "worst" showing of the last five elections was this year, when it was off by 2.55 points.

Even in its worst year, it was the third best bellwether. Plus, there are several extenuating circumstances in play that help explain the state's ever-so-slight Democratic lean.

Obama campaigned heavily for the Iowa caucuses. McCain didn't. Obama hailed from a neighboring state. And, McCain opposed ethanol subsidies. (On the other hand, McCain and Sarah Palin spent more time in Iowa in the final weeks of the campaign than Obama and Joe Biden.)

None of that guarantees that "as Iowa goes, so goes the nation" in 2012. Four years out, elections are never that predictable. But, just from the numbers, if there's one state that we can expect to be a microcosm of the nation in 2012, it's Iowa. And, that's what being a bellwether is all about, right?

Josh Goodman
Josh Goodman  |  Former Staff Writer
mailbox@governing.com

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