It is so easy for political reporters and armchair analysts to be beguiled by the seeming solidity of the 2008 electoral map. The swath of Obama blue covering traditionally GOP bastions like Indiana, Virginia, and North Carolina seems so solid on a print page. But in a shrewd piece for Real Clear Politics this week, Sean Trende challenges glib assumptions about electoral geography based on the results of the past five presidential elections. As Trende points out, “the Republicans haven’t had a particularly good presidential playing field since 1988.” The reasons vary: a stagnant GOP economy in 1992 and 2008; strong economic growth under Democrats in 1996 and 2000; and the drag from the Iraq War in 2004. We easily forget that even though five presidential elections cover two decades, they are still just five data points.
I am not suggesting that major news outlets send political reporters off to Cheyenne and Syracuse under the naive belief that somehow Wyoming and New York will be in play in November. Political reporters are, of course, best positioned in states where the campaigns are sending the candidates and saturating the TV screens. (I spent good chunk of the fall of 2004 and 2008 on the ground in Columbus, Ohio, watching the candidates come to me.)
But if we are journalistically doomed to spend the next six months traipsing over the same patches of political geography, it would be laudable if campaign reporters could do more than simply metering muddled voters as they mull. There are innovative stories that can be written beyond the obvious Road to 270 strategic summaries. Over the life of the Obama administration, for example, have swing states received more federal funds per capita than similar states that are firmly Democratic or Republican? Are Obama appointees to the sub-Cabinet or White House staff more likely to hail from states that are up for grabs in 2012?
Campaign coverage should also convey how fluid electoral math can become over the next six months. The political map can shift sharply between elections, even those featuring incumbents, as it did between 1976 and 1980 and between 1988 and 1992. (As even the Times’s Nate Silver, at the end of a recent blog post that was predicated on the stability of the electoral map, wrote: “With all that said, there is a lot of uncertainty this far out from the election. The ordering of the states is usually fairly consistent from year to year, especially when there is an incumbent running for re-election, but they can be scrambled to some extent by local issues, long-term demographic trends or the amount of attention that the campaigns focus on them.”)
Who knows whether by October the Democrats will be targeting Missouri and Republicans will see hidden opportunity in New Jersey? At this point in 2008, it would have been laughable to suggest that Obama could carry Indiana or North Carolina. Yet he did. That is the biggest risk in media organizations trumpeting exclusive maps of tossup states in May—they inspire a level of false certainty about an election whose details are still unknowable.
Correction: This article initially stated that Barack Obama was the first Democrat since Lyndon Johnson to win a majority of the popular vote. In fact, Jimmy Carter received just over 50 percent of the vote in 1976. CJR regrets the error.