A popular meme from earlier this year involved lists of what each American state excelled at, whether good ("The United States of Awesome") or bad ("The United States of Shame"). In order to enlighten, amuse, and provide material to journalists forced to pound out state "nutgrafs" in a matter of minutes, I have come up with a list of what each state excels at during presidential election years. Feel free to quibble or add your own facts in the comments!
Note: The best source for presidential election results is Dave Leip's Atlas of Presidential Elections. I haven't attributed statistics that can be found there (and it's easy to navigate the site), but there are hyperlinks for other data, such as polling and finance reports.
ALABAMA: Best at preserving the Reagan vote
John McCain's 60.3% in Alabama was the biggest increase in the US over Ronald Reagan's showing in 1980 (48.8%). Back when Jimmy Carter was running for re-election, northern Alabama (the whitest part of the state) was still pretty strongly Democratic, thanks to long memories of the Tennessee Valley Authority and other federal spending that helped the area. But places like Huntsville swung sharply to the GOP after they benefited from Reagan's increased defense spending, and social issues have helped cement the state as a Republican stronghold.
ALASKA: Best at supporting the fringe
Third parties do relatively well here, maybe because it's almost always a foregone conclusion that the Republican nominee will get the state's electoral votes. This was Green nominee Ralph Nader's best state in 2000 (10.1%). It was also the best state for the Libertarian Party in its best presidential election ever: 1980, when nominee Ed Clark got 1.1% nationally and 11.7% in Alaska. (The vice-presidential nominee was a now-familiar name: David H. Koch.)
ARIZONA: Best at sending confusing messages to social conservatives
Arizona has been a touchstone of American conservatism ever since it gave the nation Barry Goldwater in the 1950s. But there's always been some question of how committed the state is to social conservatism, as opposed to Goldwater's strong and explicit economic conservatism. Goldwater himself became quite hostile to the religious right, but the electorate here has been harder to puzzle out. This was Steve Forbes's best showing in the 1996 Republican primaries, back when he was zealously against taxes but before he fully embraced social conservatism. (According to the Federal Election Commission, he got 33.4% here; the only other primary he won was in Delaware.) Then there is the zig-zag career of John McCain, who has been all over the map on social issues. As a favorite son, McCain won presidential primaries here in 2000 and 2008, but who knows what that means for 2012?
UPDATE: The Wall Street Journal's Tamara Audi has a good piece on the political split in Arizona between more liberal Pima County and the rest of the state, leading to talk of secession. And the Boston Review's Tom Barry profiles the state and in the light of its economic bust. ("Arizona’s politics are dominated by a potent mix of three ideological currents: support for a muscular national-security program, libertarian capitalism, and social traditionalism.")
ARKANSAS: Best at putting the final nail in the coffin of the Solid South
Arkansas was the last state in the US to vote Republican in a presidential election; it never did so until Richard Nixon won a second term in 1972. Since then, the state has reverted to old-fashioned type a few times; it was Carter's best state outside of Georgia in 1976, and it was native Bill Clinton's best state in 1992. But there's there's no such thing as a Dixiecrat state anymore. The biggest swing toward the Republicans in 2008 was here, as George W. Bush's 9.8-point margin swelled to a 19.9-point margin for McCain.
By 1980, California was the biggest state in the nation and the biggest cushion of votes for Republican nominee Ronald Reagan. He won the state by 1,444,197 votes, which was more than double the raw-vote margin in runner-up Texas. In 1984, Reagan won California by 1,544,490 votes, but this time Florida and Texas also gave the Gipper more than a million extra votes each.
Eight years later, California switiched sides, giving Democrat Bill Clinton his biggest raw-vote margin (1,490,751), partly because George H.W. Bush and Ross Perot had split the conservative vote so badly. It wasn't until 2008 that California decisively took the title of Biggest Vote Trove for the Democrats away from New York. Barack Obama's raw-vote margin (3,262,692) was the biggest any state has given to a presidential candidate in US history.
COLORADO: Best at being purple
Colorado is the only state not to give any presidential candidate at least a 10-point margin of victory since Reagan's landslide in 1984, thanks to having unshakeable bases for both Democrats (Denver, Boulder) and Republicans (Colorado Springs, Grand Junction). It may also be the most post-racial state, registering the biggest jump in the share of the white vote won by the Democratic nominee in 2008. According to exit polls, John Kerry got 42% of the white vote, but Obama got it up to 55% four years later.
CONNECTICUT: Best at giving cash
Connecticut is one of the richest states in the US, so it's not shocking that it ranked first, per capita, in campaign contributions to presidential candidates in the 2008 election cycle. According to the Federal Election Commission, the Nutmeg State kicked in a total of $26,877,082, or $7.68 per resident. It surely helped that Connecticut Sen. Chris Dodd was running for president, but he took in little more than one-tenth ($2.8 million) of the total. Obama got the biggest share of Connecticut dollars ($12.2 million) and will surely be looking to exceed that amount in 2012.
DELAWARE: Best pictoral representation of North/South partisan split
The tiny state of Delaware had a nice long run as a bellwether of presidential elections, picking the winner every time from 1952 through 1996. For most of its history, it's been seen as a microcosm of American politics because it includes a Northern industrial city (Wilmington) and a rural, agrarian section that looks to the South. Delaware has only three counties, stacked on top of each other, and for every election except one over the past 50 years, the Democratic candidate has done best at the top (Wilmington's New Castle County, where Obama got 70%) and worst at the bottom (Sussex County, where Obama got 45%). The exception was in 1976, when Democratic Southerner Jimmy Carter did best in the middle county of Kent. But that election, both in Delaware and nationally, turned out to be a one-time reversal for the Republicans in their long and steady takeover of the rural South.
FLORIDA: Best fairy tale ending for Barack Obama
Remember when Bill Clinton called Barack Obama's campaign "the biggest fairy tale I've ever seen"? He may have been on to something. Obama's win in Florida in 2008 was one of the biggest morale boosters for Democrats, since that state's electoral votes handed the presidency to George W. Bush in 2000. (Florida also had a one-time moment in the sun in providing the biggest raw-vote margin for George H.W. Bush in 1988, before Texas took over the title of the GOP raw-vote heavyweight.)
In 2000, Democrat Al Gore carried Orange County — home of the fantasy factory called Disney World — by 2 points and about 6,000 votes. But Obama carried Orange County by 19 points and 86,000 votes, accounting for almost half his statewide margin. If Florida remains a blue state in 2012, all those Disney workers in Mickey Mouse uniforms may be a key factor. It's also appropriate that Obama, considered the global favorite in the 2008 election whatever happened in the US, should be helped by a county whose unofficial theme song is "It's a Small World."
UPDATE: Florida may well have the highest percentage of US-born citizens prohibited from voting, due to the unusually restrictive laws that Erika L. Wood described on April 11 in The New York Times:
Under the new rules, even people with nonviolent convictions must wait five years after they complete all terms of their sentences before they are allowed to apply for restoration of civil rights; the clock resets if an individual is arrested, including for a misdemeanor, during the five-year waiting period. In some cases, people must wait seven years before being able to apply, and then they must appear in person for a hearing before the clemency board in Tallahassee. Remember: all of this has to happen just to have the opportunity to ask for one’s right to vote back. After the waiting period, the application and the hearing, you could be denied restoration with no reason or explanation. And if that happens, you have to wait another two years before starting the process all over again.
GEORGIA: Best at pruning its electorate
If you're a candidate in Georgia, your campaign ads are going out to a lot of adults who couldn't vote for you if they wanted to: 4,001 of every 100,000 voting-age residents in Georgia are ineligible to vote due to felony convictions, the highest rate in the US. (Source: The American Human Development Index, based on data from The United States Election Project. Maine and Vermont do not disenfranchise voters based on felony convictions; Massachusetts has the lowest rate among the states that do.)
In 2008, Georgia also distinguished itself by giving Obama his highest percentage in a Democratic presidential primary: 66.4%.
HAWAII: Best at boosting incumbents
Not that Obama needs any help in his strongest state (71.9% in 2008), but Hawaii has a habit of giving a boost to incumbent presidents. This is the only state where Reagan, Clinton, and George W. Bush all got at least a 7-point bump when running for re-election.
Hawaii also had the dubious distinction of being the best at boycotting the election: Only 50.5% of the adults eligible to vote in 2008 did so, according to the United States Election Project. The state also ranked at the bottom in 2000 and 2004. In the 2010 midterms, however, the lowest VEP (voting-eligible population) turnout was in Texas (32.3%)
IDAHO: Best at quarantining liberals
One of the most Republican states in the nation has exactly one reliably Democratic area: Blaine County, a bizarrely shaped jursidiction in the middle of the state that includes the Sun Valley ski resort. Obama got a best-in-Idaho 66% here, far more than in runner-up Latah County (51%), and it was the only county carried by Gore and Kerry. Blaine was also a outlier on the issue of gay marriage: It voted 66% against a "definition of marriage" initative that carried the state with 63%.
ILLINOIS: Best at shattering a bellwether
For most of the 20th century, Illinois was a pretty good bellwhether state, voting for the winner every time from 1920 through 1972. Then it seemed to lean slightly to the Republicans, backing Ford over Carter in 1976 and then going twice for Reagan. Indeed, "Reagan Democrats" seemed to be especially numerous in Chicago's Cook County — as evidenced by Republican Bernie Epton's near-upset of Democrat Harold Washington in Chicago's racially divided 1983 mayoral race and Reagan's strong 48.4% in Cook County in 1984.
But as the Republican Party moved to the right in response to its new adherents in small-town America, it lost altitude in both Chicago and its suburbs. Democrat Bill Clinton was elected president in 1992 by establishing a tentpole Electoral College strategy resting on the country's three biggest metropolitan areas: New York (and the Northeast states), Los Angeles (and the West Coast states), and Chicago (and the Upper Midwest states). The GOP's share of the vote in Cook County plunged to 28.2%, and it was down to 22.8% when McCain was the nominee in 2008. Illinois, which was the 23rd most Democratic state in 1980, placed 4th in 1992 and hasn't falled out of the Top Ten since.
Result: No more bellwether in the Land of Lincoln.
INDIANA: Best at confounding expectations in 2008
The Hoosier State was the only one to defy the prediction of political statistics wunderkind Nate Silver in 2008, going narrowly for Obama and voting Democratic for the first time since 1964. The Democratic ticket jumped from 39.3% for Kerry in 2004 to 49.9% for Obama in 2008, a bigger gain than in any state outside of Obama's native Hawaii. Another stats blogger, Bob Wuerth, attributes the upset to Obama's "ground crew" of organizers. Will they be up to the task in 2012?
IOWA: Best at turning up its nose at the South
Obviously, Iowa caucus-goers are pretty good at destroying presidential candidacies, since so many White House aspirants quit after poor showings in the first significant contest of the season. The curious thing about the fall electorate in Iowa is an apparent distaste for candidates from the former Confederacy. Consider that the most successful Democrat in Iowa since LBJ was Michael Dukakis, who took 54.7% of the vote here in 1988. (Obama was a close second.) In contrast to the rest of America, Dukakis did better here than did Southern nominees Carter, Clinton, and Gore. And this was the only state where really-a-Yankee George H.W. Bush came closer to winning in 1992 (against Clinton) than in 1988 (against Dukakis). However well they do among GOP caucus voters (and general-election voters nationwide), Mike Huckabee and Haley Barbour might not be so electable here.
KANSAS: Best at neighborly love
Kansas and Nebraska have voted the same way (almost always Republican) in every election since 1908, the longest string of agreement between neighbors. Oddly, Kansas is also the only state to vote for the eventual winner in every Democratic Party primary or caucus going back to 1976, thought that's partly because it's tended to hold constests after most of the candidates have dropped out.
KENTUCKY: Best state to illustrate the thesis of What's the Matter with Kansas?
Four of the five poorest counties in the US, as measured by median household income, are in eastern Kentucky, and all of them voted Republican in 2008. Owlsey County, which had the lowest median household income in the US ($18,869) as of 2010, voted 76-23 for McCain over Obama.
Another notable factoid from Kentucky: It ranks first in the percentage of residents (20.4%) claiming "American" as their chief ancestry, according to 538.com's "Road to 270" state profiles.
LOUISIANA: Best at being a cornerstone for the GOP's Southern Strategy
As the only state outside Arizona to vote for both Dwight Eisenhower and Barry Goldwater, Louisiana was ahead of the curve in coming around to the new, Southern-based GOP. (It was also the only Deep South state to give Reagan an absolute majority against Carter in 1980.) Louisiana looks especially bleak for Democrats after 2008, when Obama finished 4 points behind Dukakis's 1988 showing here. This was also the site of the biggest drop in support for the Democratic ticket among white voters (down from 24% for Kerry to 14% for Obama, according to exit polls).
Finally, post-Katrina Louisiana has the highest share of residents who were born in the state (79.2%), according to the Census Bureau. WIth few transplanted Northerners to change the political complexion here, Louisiana must rank near the bottom on any Democratic strategist's wish list.
MAINE: Best prospect for the No Labels movement
Maine has long been among the most hospitable states in the US for independent candidates. Voters here elected independents as governor in 1974, 1994, and 1998, and came within 2 percentage points of doing so again in 2010. This was also the best state for independent presidential candidate Ross Perot in both 1992 (30.4%) and 1996 (14.2%). In contrast to Alaska (see above), Maine seems to prefer third-party options that play to the middle rather than to ideological extremes.
MARYLAND: Best pride in being a Democrat
Maryland, strong on almost all the constituencies that lean Democratic (black, urban, college-educated, public-sector workers), now has a greater percentage of self-identified Democrats (54.2% of the electorate) than any other state, according to Gallup.
MASSACHUSETTS: Best at producing presidential-size egos
Over the past half-century, Massachusetts has been the launching pad for seven strong presidential candidates ("strong" defined as winning at least one seriously contested presidential primary outside one's home state), or more than twice as many as any other state: John F. Kennedy in 1960, Henry Cabot Lodge in 1964, Edward Kennedy in 1980, Michael Dukakis in 1988, Paul Tsongas in 1992, John Kerry in 2004, and Mitt Romney in 2008. And that's not counting natives Robert Kennedy in 1968 and George H.W. Bush beginning in 1980.
There's a four-way tie for second place, with each state launching three candidacies: California (RIchard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, Jerry Brown), Minnesota (Hubert Humphrey, Eugene McCarthy, Walter Mondale), New York (Nelson Rockefeller, Robert Kennedy, Hillary Clinton), and Texas (Lyndon Johnson, George H.W. Bush, George Bush).
MICHIGAN: Best at providing useless victories to GOP candidates
Earning the gratitude of political junkies across America, Michigan has a habit of prolonging the candidacies of doomed Republican presidential candidates, whether for hours or for weeks. It has handed defeats to ultimate nominees three times in the past 35 years (Bush I over Reagan in 1980, McCain over Bush II in 2000, and Romney over McCain in 2008), a record matched only by Massachusetts, and none of these defeats have mattered much in the end. Michigan was also Pat Buchanan's best state in the 1996 primaries (he got 33.9% here), but Dole had already wrapped up the nomination by then.
One reason for Michigan's odd outcomes is that independents and even Democrats can vote in GOP primaries here, though the number who do so fluctuates wildly from election to election. Assuming the rules don't change in 2012, we could see a frontrunner lose here again, only to dismiss the result as tainted by mischief-making Democrats.
MINNESOTA: Best at voter turnout
According to the United States Election Project, 77.7% of voting-eligible residents turned out to vote for president in 2008, the highest in the nation. In the 2010 midterms, it was tied for first place with Maine (55.5%). Minnesota also holds the current record for voting Democratic the most consecutive times, having done so in every election since 1972. That does not mean it's part of the Democratic Party's bedrock base, however. Minnesota was only the 21st-most Democratic state in 2008 (when Obama's 54.1% was but a point or so above the national average), and Gore won it by less than 3 points in 2000.
MISSISSIPPI: Best at being proudly conservative (and polarized)
At 50.5%, Mississippi has the highest percentage of voters who describe themselves as conservative, according to Gallup. But the political geography here is a bit more complex. The state's two biggest electorates went in wildly different directions in 2008, with Hinds County (mostly black, including the city of Jackson) going 69.2% for Obama and DeSoto County (overwhelmingly white, including suburbs of Memphis) voting 68.8% for McCain. That's a bigger gulf between the two counties with the most votes than in any other state.
UPDATE: Nate Silver recently characterized Mississippi as the least elastic state in the US, owing to the small number of "swing voters" who might cross party lines.
MISSOURI: Best at being close (2008)
Missouri provided the tightest race for electoral votes in 2008: McCain got 1,445,814 to Obama's 1,441,911. This was the closest margin both in terms of raw votes (3,903) and percentage (0.13 points). By tipping to McCain, Missouri lost its title as the reigning bellwether state (it voted with the winner every time from 1960 though 2004) to Ohio.
One possible reason for Missouri's fall as a bellwether is that its urban vote is on the wane even as it rises in the US as a whole. To wit: The city of St. Louis cast 303,000 votes in 1960, or 16% of Missouri's total. In 2008, it was down to 170,000 votes, or a bit less than 6% of the state's total.
MONTANA: Best at snubbing incumbents
Obama lost Montana by only 2.4 points in 2008, so it might be tempting for him to target the state next time. But recent history carries a warning for incumbents: Montana was the only state where Reagan, Clinton, and George W. Bush all failed to get a bump of at least 4 percent percentage points in running for re-election.
Also of note: Montana gave Ron Paul his best percentage in the 2008 GOP presidential primaries (24.5%), though he was helped by the fact that Mitt Romney and Mike Huckabee had dropped out of the race by that point.
NEBRASKA: Best at being Republican (Mad Men era)
While the title of Most Republican State was migrating from Vermont to Utah, it stopped in this Farm Belt state, which was Richard Nixon's best in 1960 (62.1%) and in 1968 (59.8%). In the Democrats' wildest dreams, the GOP will nominate someone so far to the right that it will finally alienate this loyally Republican state (much as it did, over time, with Vermont). It hasn't happened yet; thought Nebraska was only the 11th most Republican state in 2008 (behind Tennessee), McCain still won here by 15 points.
NEVADA: Best at dissolving the Reagan Coalition
Nevada was the sixth most Republican state in the US in 1980, giving Reagan 62.5% of its vote. In 2008, it ranked 33rd by the same measure and gave McCain only 42.7%, the biggest drop in the nation. The change is certainly connected to Nevada's status as the fastest-growing state over the same period, which has brought a growing Hispanic population and increased urbanization; it now has the has the lowest share of residents (23.2%) who were born in-state.
Despite its rootless population, Nevada somehow ended up as the state most likely to vote with the winner in presidential elections. It's been "wrong" only one out of 25 times, narrowly supporting Ford over Carter in 1976.
NEW HAMPSHIRE: Best at primary politics
New Hampshire's insistence on holding the first presidential primary every four years could earn it the title of Most Arrogant State in America, but at it justified its position somewhat by having the highest turnout among voting-eligible citizens (53.8%) in the 2008 presidential primaries. It was followed by Oregon (43.2%) and Ohio (42.4%).
NEW JERSEY: Best at rewarding Bubba
Whether because New Jersey liked BIll Clinton's school-uniforms-and-welfare-reform brand of Democratic politics or because it was simply a wealthy state in a growing economy, this was the site of the biggest swing from 1992 to 1996, as Clinton increased his victory margin from 2.4 points to 17.9 points.
There may be a pro-incumbent tendency at work in the Garden State: George W. Bush lost here in 2004, but his 6.7-point deficit was an improvement over the 15.8-point drubbing he got in 2000. So while Chris Christie's election as governor in 2009 will surely make the GOP think about targeting this state in 2012, Obama is just as surely hoping that New Jersey voters will again break toward the guy already in charge.
Also of note: New Jersey gave McCain his highest percentage (55.4%) in a GOP primary held before Romney dropped out of the race — which probably makes this a must-win state for any GOP candidate with the cojones to call himself a moderate in 2012.
NEW MEXICO: Best at selecting popular-vote winners
This state has given its electoral votes to the popular-vote winner in every election since it narrowly backed Gerald Ford in 1976. New Mexico holds the current record mainly because it was one of only two states (Iowa was the other) to flip from Al Gore (who won by 0.06 points) in 2000 to George W. Bush (who won by 0.79 points) in 2004. New Mexico is also second only to Nevada in the number of times (23 out of 25) it's voted for the winner of every presidential contest in the past century.
New Mexico, of course, is also the most Hispanic state in the US, something that apparently has not prevented it from being a highly accurate reflector of American political attitudes.
NEW YORK: Best at union membership
Not that Republicans have much hope of winning here anyway, but Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker's attempts to break public-worker unions may hurt the Republican Party the most in New York, which has the most unionized (24.9%) workforce of any state.
New York gave Democratic nominees their biggest raw-vote margins in 2004 (1.4 million), 2000 (1.7 million), and 1996 (1.8 million), but California took over the job of providing the biggest Democratic surplus in 2008. New York's electoral votes were also essential in electing Kennedy in 1960 and Carter in 1976 despite their losses in California. Given the state's sluggish population growth and reduced electoral growth, however, such a scenario is almost inconceivable over the next couple of decades.
NORTH CAROLINA: Best at boosting turnout in 2008
The VEP (voting-eligible population) turnout in North Carolina jumped by 10.8 points to 66.5% in the last election, the strongest improvement in the US. National turnout was 62%, and North Carolina rose from 35th to 21st in state rankings. Nonprofit Vote notes that a record 57% of North Carolina voters cast ballots ahead of Election Day in 2008, presumably boosting turnout; the state also has same-day registration during its early voting period.
The vote total in North Carolina's two largest counties both jumped by more than 20 points, and Obama carried both easily: Mecklenburg (Charlotte) by 62-37 and Wake (Raleigh) by 57-42. Since he won the state overall by only 0.32 points, any civic-duty backsliding in those counties could cost him 15 electoral votes in 2012.
NORTH DAKOTA: Best at withholding mother's milk
As Jesse Unruh quipped, "Money is the mother's milk of politics," but North Dakota is pretty dry. According to the Federal Election Commission, the state ranked last in per-capita contributions to presidential campaigns in 2008, giving a total of $605,574 or 94 cents per person.
Cheapness + heavy Republican tilt + three measly Electoral College votes = nobody caring about North Dakota in 2012.
OHIO: Best at picking Electoral College winners
The Buckeye State has voted with the winner of the Electoral College in every election since 1960, a current record. It's not completely neutral, though. It was way off in 1960, giving Nixon his biggest raw-vote margin in the nation, and it's been at least a skosh more Republican than the US as a whole in all but two elections since then. (The exceptions being LBJ's landslide in 1964 and Nixon's landslide in 1972, when the Electoral College was irrelevant.)
So does Obama need Ohio to win re-election in 2012? Two New Republic writers, Bill Galson and Jonathan Chait, have recently arrived at different answers, with Chait taking the position that newly Democratic states like Colorado and Virginia could make up for a Ohio loss. Then again, Chait may have a personal bias:
First of all, as a Michigan native, I wish to strenuously emphasize that America is not like Ohio. If it was, I would be routinely be assaulted by illiterate drunks when I walked down the streets.
UPDATE: Much more on Ohio's bellwether status here: "Brainless, 'Old South' Ohio is not the key to the 2012 presidential election." In general, I think a bellwether state (or county, city, etc.) is not something a candidate must win, but if he or she is not at least competitive there, it's a very bad sign.
OKLAHOMA: Best at backing McCain
Oklahoma took the title of most Republican state in 2008 by giving McCain 65.7% of its vote, besting former GOP champ Utah by 3.5 points. (In fact, Wyoming pushed Utah down to third place.) This was also the only state where McCain won every single county (no pesky Democratic ski areas here!) and where McCain had his strongest support among self-identified Democrats (33%, according to exit polls).
OREGON: Best at voting without going to the polls
Oregon is the only state that conducts elections completely via the mail — good if you think convenience should be a primary goal of election overseers, bad if you think there's value in the tradition of everyone trooping to the polls at the same time. BTW, despite the ease of voting here, Oregon tied for ninth place in turnout for the 2008 presidential election.
PENNSYLVANIA: Best at fooling visitors to its biggest city
If you're writing about Pennsylvania politics, you'd best spend some time away from your Philadelphia hotel. In 2008, Obama got a crushing 83.0% in Philadelphia County but won statewide with only 54.5%. That was the biggest difference between a state result and the result of its biggest county in the US.
Pennsylvania's second-biggest county, Allegheny (which includes Pittsburgh), gave Obama a healthy 57.1%, which means there was a lot of anti-Obama voting in the less-populated parts of the state — and those areas have a lot more influence over the final result than, say, Upstate New York or Downstate Illinois.
By the way, a similar dynamic plays out in Republican primaries here: In 2004, then-incumbent Sen. Arlen Specter got 59.6% in Philadelphia County, but rival (and now Sen.) Pat Toomey got enough support elsewhere to pull Specter's statewide total down to 50.8%.
UPDATE: Electionate has a good post describing Pennsylvania as "the most demographically misunderstood state." based on the outdated image of its being dominated by white working-class voters:
As Democrats have made gains in the big suburban counties outside of Philadelphia, Democratic candidates can win with smaller and smaller shares of the white working class vote in Pennsylvania, and that has big implications for 2012. National polls suggest that Obama is holding relatively firm among college educated voters, but suffering heavy losses among white voters without a college degree. Should this trend manifest in Ohio and Pennsylvania, as we should assume it will, then Obama’s chances in Ohio will be imperiled to a much greater extent than in Pennsylvania, where white working class voters are a far smaller share of the Democratic coalition.
RHODE ISLAND: Best at ignoring the Republican nomination process
Little Rhody is the least Republican state in the US, according to Gallup, with only 29% of residents claiming allegiance to the GOP. Not surprisingly, Rhode Island also consistently cast the lowest number of votes in Republican presidential primaries: 27,237 in 2008, compared with 239,793 in similarly-sized New Hampshire. This raises the possibility that a long-shot candidate (Ron Paul? Rick Santorum?) could prevail here without having to win over too many voters. Then again, most candidates typically drop out of the race long before Rhode Island gets around to voting.
UPDATE: Nate Silver recently gave Rhode Island another distinction, as the most elastic state in the US, meaning that it's most likely to change results due to changes in the national economic and political climate. This is partly because of its high number of independent voters. Unfortunately for the GOP, however, there are few committed Republicans here compared with the large numbers of Democrats and independents. So what changes in Rhode Island during presidential years is the size of the victory for the Democrat, not which party carries the state.
SOUTH CAROLINA: Best at picking Republican nominees (until 2012?)
For a while New Hampshire boasted about it, but South Carolina can now say that no one has been elected president without winning a primary here (at least since the state moved near the start of the season in 1980). And while Dukakis and Kerry got Democratic nods after losing here, no one has secured a GOP nomination without winning the state that has become a tie-breaker after Iowa and New Hampshire. South Carolina resolved such split decisions by siding with Iowa in 1996 (Dole over Buchanan) and 2000 (Bush II over McCain); and by siding with New Hampshire in 1980 (Reagan over Bush I), 1988 (Bush I over Dole), and 2008 (McCain over Huckabee).
UPDATE: South Carolina's State newspaper reported in mid March that there has so far been a "mere trickle" of visits by presidential hopefuls, thanks to uncertainty over the primary's date, the question of whether independents will be allowed to vote, and the unusually late declarations of candidacies:
Without a set field, South Carolina Republicans aren't in a rush to support or raise funds for anyone.
Consider that by March 2007, half of the state's House GOP caucus already had endorsed Arizona Sen. John McCain, the eventual nominee, and DeMint was backing Romney. McCain had 20 people on his South Carolina payroll. Romney had a dozen and Huckabee had five.
Not this year.
2012 UPDATE: Newt Gingrich's victory in the South Carolina GOP primary breaks its string as a bellwether. Florida, which hasn't supported a losing candidate for the GOP nomination since the rise of the primary system, is the prime candidate to take its place.
SOUTH DAKOTA: Best at loyalty to the Republican Party
Though it hasn't been the most Republican state since it went for Wendell Willkie in 1940, South Dakota has shown the most loyalty to the GOP over the past century, voting for the party in 21 of the past 25 elections. The exceptions were the FDR and LBJ landslides of 1932, 1936, and 1964 — and 1912, when this was Teddy Roosevelt's best state in his doomed attempt to return to the White House as a Progressive.
TENNESSEE: Best at snubbing a prodigal son
Tennessee is just one of several states that can plausibly claim responsibility for keeping Democrat Al Gore out of the White House in 2000. In denying its electoral votes to its former senator, Tennessee became the first state since New Jersey in 1916 to vote against a home-grown winner of the national popular vote. (New Jersey gave back of its hand to its former governor, Woodrow Wilson.)
In one indication of how determined Tennessee has been in its drift toward the Republican Party in recent years, this is the only state where George H.W. Bush won by a bigger margin in 1988 than Ronald Reagan had in 1984.
TEXAS: Best at padding the Republican vote
Once a regular source of the biggest Democratic margins in the nation (last time: Truman in 1948), Texas has given the Republican Party its biggest raw-vote margins in the past five consecutive presidential elections (including a cushion of 950,695 for McCain in 2008) and has no clear challenger for the title in 2012.
Texas also had the widest spread of changes to the Democratic vote in 2008: In Maverick County, overwhelmingly Hispanic and on the Mexican border, Obama ran 19 points ahead of Kerry's 2004 showing, but in Newton County, on the Louisiana border, he fell 11 points behind Kerry.
UPDATE: Matt Yglesias looks at new Census data and points out that Texas "is a state becoming radically less rural as remote areas decline in population while central cities and (especially) suburbs boom at an incredible rate." The Republican advantage here depends on the suburbs remaining conservative and not trending Democratic as they have in Northern states.
UTAH: Best at being proudly Republican
With 56.0% of the population expressing a preference for the GOP, Gallup pegs Utah as the most Republican state in the US. It was McCain's third-best state in 2008, and it's been in the Republican Top 10 in every election beginnng in 1976. But Utah also ranked first in 2008 in the percentage of the vote cast for minor parties (3.5% for the Greens, Libertarians, and others). And it was the only state where Democrat Bill Clinton placed third, behind Bush and Perot, in 1992.
VERMONT: Best at being proudly liberal
The most Republican state in the US as late as 1956, Vermont was Obama's best state (67.5%) outside of Hawaii in 2008. It also has the highest percentage of self-described liberals (30.5%), according to Gallup. Oddly, given that Democratic support is increasingly correlated with urbanization, Vermont has the most rural population in America, with only 38% of residents in what the Census Bureau considers urbanized areas.
VIRGINIA: Best at turning topsy-turvy
During the past half of the 20th century, suburbanizing Virginia was consistently more Republican than blue-collar West Virginia; now Virginia is close to a must-win state for Democrats, while West Virginia is considered almost unwinnable in 2012. This upended geography can also be seen within Virginia, where the Democratic base has shifted from the rural mountain counties of the southwest to the Washington suburbs of the northeast.
From 1976 (when Carter narrowly lost here) to 2008 (when Obama won comfortably), there was at least a 30-point swing toward the Democrats in Arlington and Fairfax counties, as well as the cities of Alexandria, Charlottesville, and Falls Church. Over the same period there was at least a 30-point swing toward the Republicans in southwestern counties like Bedford (near Lynchburg), Franklin (including Rocky Mount), and Henry (including Martinsville). Since the DC suburbs have been growing at a much faster rate than the rest of Virginia, this polar shift has made the Democrats competitive in a state that seemed out of reach in the Reagan Era.
UPDATE: Interesting finding from a December 2011 survey by Public Policy Polling: 34 percent of Virginians do not consider themselves Southerners, while 66 percent still do.
WASHINGTON: Best at keeping alive the Dukakis Coalition
Washington was one of three states to turn up its nose at John F. Kennedy and Jimmy Carter but then give its Electoral College votes to Michael Dukakis (the others were Iowa and Oregon), and it's now the most reliably Democratic of the bunch. Highly educated and with a large gay population, Washington is as good a state as any to represent the "creative class" society, and it's No. 1 in the Starbucks vs. Walmart ratio.
Not that Washington is locked up for the Democrats: US Sen. Patty Murray had a tough re-election race in 2010, and her support dropped among voters of all education levels.
WEST VIRGINIA: Best at being contrarian
Ballot Box's Josh Goodman has callsed Utah the "ultimate anti-bellwether" state, thanks to its habit of voting anywhere from 16 to 41 points more Republican than the US as a whole. My quibble is that a perfect bellwether picks up on shifts from one election to the next — meaning that it moves from one party to the other and back again, in much the same fashion that the entire nation does. The reverse would be a place that shifts from one party to another in the opposite direction from the nation as a whole. So Utah doesn't really qualify because it's always an outlier on one side of the partisan divide.
My candidate is West Virginia, which is the only state to have voted for losers from different parties during the past six elections: Democrat Michael Dukakis in 1988 and Republican John McCain in 2008. In contrast to neighboring Ohio, which has backed every successful presidential nominee since 1960, West Virginia has been a deceiver. If you had planted yourself there during the past few decades and never left the state, you would have thought that the first George Bush and the only Barack Obama had no chance of becoming president.
West Virginia was at outlier in two other respects in 2008: It was the worst Democratic primary for Obama (he got only 25.7% here against Hillary Clinton), and this was the state with the highest percentage of "spoiled" ballots in the general election (2.98% were ruled invalid by the state).
WISCONSIN: Best at being close (during the past half-century)
Wisconsin has a fairly liberal reputation, partly because it's voted Democratic in the past six elections and partly because its capital of Madison is indeed one of the most liberal large counties in America. But outside of Madison and Milwaukee there are a lot of conservative voters here (how else did Scott Walker get elected governor?), and the presidential candidates who have taken Wisconsin's electoral votes have prevailed by less than 5 points in eight of the past half-century's 13 elections (1960, 1968, 1976, 1980, 1988, 1992, 2000, and 2004). That's more close calls than in any other state.
WYOMING: Best at keeping its eye on the Second Amendment
A consistently Republican state, Wyoming was No. 1 for the Bush-Cheney ticket in 2000, giving the GOP 67.8% of the vote. It's perhaps also the state where the NRA can feel most confident that its preferred candidates will win: According to one federal survey, 59.7% of all residents live in homes with firearms here, the highest such figure in the US.