We enjoyed his work on the recent Australian election, now Crikey psephologist Charles Richardson turns his attention to George W Bush’s stunning re-election – and a blunder by The Age’s international editor Tony Parkinson.
Watching American election results remains a frustrating experience. Big blocks of electoral votes just appear out of nowhere: there is no concept of “swing”, no-one ever talks about the pendulum, no-one matches precincts to get comparative results.

It’s like Australia of forty years ago: not just pre-Antony Green, but pre-Malcolm Mackerras. So what follows is an attempt to explain what happened in psephological terms that Australians will understand.

In 2000, George Bush Jr received 49.7% of the two-party vote. This year, according to the latest figures, he has 51.6%, a swing of 1.9%.

It is not surprising, therefore, that Bush won a majority in the electoral college. It is smaller than you would expect, though, because so much of his swing was concentrated in his own safe states. A uniform 1.9% swing would have gained him the states of Florida, New Mexico, Iowa, Wisconsin, Oregon and Minnesota, plus one electoral vote in Maine, for a gain of 67 electoral votes.

As it was, however, he only gained the first three of those (the Democrats have not yet conceded Iowa, but Bush is clearly ahead), and lost one of his own states, New Hampshire, for a net gain of only 35 electoral votes. (As explained in my election preview, I count Florida as starting in the Democrat column.)

To win in 2008, the Democrats will need a uniform swing of 1.3% – the median state of course being Ohio, with its 20 electoral votes. In other words, they could win the electoral college without a majority of the vote, because their vote is a little more evenly spread than the Republicans’.

The Republicans won 31 states, 15 of them with margins of more than 10%; the safest was Utah on 22.9%. All but one (Indiana) of the 15 are in the deep south or the west.

John Kerry won 19 states plus the District of Columbia, but only three states by more than 10%; all three are in New England, the safest being his own state, Massachusetts, on 12.9% (the District of Columbia was 40.6%).

It was very much a status quo election: the majority of states swung by less than 2% either way. On current figures, the biggest swing was 5.9%, to the Republicans in Hawaii; the biggest the other way was 4.9% in Vermont.

To the extent that it is moving at all, the American electorate seems to be getting more geographically polarised. Prior to the election, there were 16 states held with margins of less than 3%. Now there are only 11.

The pattern of party support is clear from a glance at a map: Democrats have the north-east and the west coast, the mid-west is marginal, and the Republicans have everything else. It is the Civil War division repeating itself, but with the party labels reversed.

Just as interesting, however, was the pattern of swing this time, which I have not seen mentioned by any other commentator. Although nowhere swung very much, the east swung generally to the Republicans, and the west to the Democrats. Of the 17 states that swung to Kerry, 11 of them were west of the Mississippi, while of the 14 biggest swings to Bush, all but two (Hawaii and Oklahoma) were to the east.

Tony Parkinson’s Bush mandate blunder

Crikey psephologist Charles Richardson also wrote the following for our November 6 subscriber email edition:

The Age’s international editor Tony Parkinson produced this piece in yesterday’s paper: Stop the cheap shots – Bush is legit

It included the following second paragraph: “Numerically, Bush has won the biggest mandate of any US leader in history, and the strongest endorsement for any second-term president since Ronald Reagan.”

We are used to Parkinson acting as a Republican propagandist, but this is just Orwellian in its disregard for the facts. Let’s see if we can nip it in the bud.

Yes, Bush won the election, fair and square. But he won the smallest margin in the electoral college of any re-elected president since Woodrow Wilson in 1916, and the second-smallest in history.

In popular vote Bush’s mandate is even less impressive. His share of the 2-party vote (which, in a first-past-the-post system, is all that matters – those who vote for 3rd parties have no more effect than voters who stay at home) is the lowest ever for a re-elected president, since popular votes were first tallied in the 1820s.

For those who don’t believe me, here are the figures:

Year President Share of
Majority in
electoral college
1832 Jackson 56.5% 170
1864 Lincoln 55.1% 191
1872 Grant 55.8% 223
1900 McKinley 53.2% 137
1904 T. Roosevelt 60.0% 196
1916 Wilson 51.7% 23
1924 Coolidge 65.2% 233
1936 F. Roosevelt 62.5% 515
1940 F. Roosevelt 55.0% 367
1944 F. Roosevelt 53.8% 333
1948 Truman 52.3% 75
1956 Eisenhower 57.8% 384
1964 Johnson 61.3% 434
1972 Nixon 66.2% 503
1984 Reagan 59.2% 512
1996 Clinton 54.7% 220
2004 Bush 51.6% 34

Tony Parkinson vs Charles Richardson
Subscriber email November 12

The Age’s international editor Tony Parkinson writes:

Crikey, a reader of The Age has alerted me to the Charles Richardson diatribe published in your sealed section. He alleges I have overstated the nature of the Bush mandate, in particular when measured against Bill Clinton’s re-election in 1996.

Leaving to one side the tedious, doctrinaire claptrap with which Richardson chooses to decorate his arguments, here are some numbers to chew on:

Bush, 2004 – 59.46 million votes
Clinton, 1996 – 47.40 million votes

I may be mistaken, but I thought the first rule of psephology was the capacity to count.

Tony Parkinson

And Crikey psephologist Charles Richardson responds:

I thought I provided enough figures to back up my claim about Bush’s mandate, but some more won’t hurt. Since Parkinson seems particularly interested in Clinton’s 1996 re-election, here are the numbers:

Clinton got 47,401,185 votes, his opponent, Bob Dole, got 39,197,469 [source: World Almanac] – that’s 54.7%. This year, Bush got 59,459,765 votes, against Kerry’s 55,949,407 [source: CNN website]. That’s 51.5% (I said 51.6 earlier; it’s come down very slightly on later figures).

It’s true that the percentages are different if you add in third party candidates, but since there is no distribution of preferences in the American system, it makes more sense to leave them out, just as we leave out informal votes – they have no more effect than the people who don’t vote at all.

Parkinson is of course at liberty to believe if he wishes that numbers of votes, not percentages, are the real test of support. But I find it hard to believe that he really does. If so, he would have to believe that Kerry, with 55 million votes, has more of a mandate than, say, Ronald Reagan in 1980, who only got 44 million. Or that Billy McMahon in 1972, with 2.74 million votes, got a bigger mandate than Robert Menzies in 1963, with only 2.54 million. This way madness lies.

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