While unloading the dishwasher the other day, my eye chanced on an old faded coffee mug. The mug emblazoned with “Bush Country 2004” and “My America!” also displays a predominately red map of the USA. The image, originally bright red (but faded to pink after 16 years of washing), illustrates all the counties won by George W. Bush in his 2004 reelection campaign.
Conversely, counties won by his opponent, then-Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry, are in blue, seen mainly around the coasts with splotches sprinkled amid continuous stretches of red.
The mug reminds me of the vast electoral transformation that has occurred since 2004.
For example, formerly “ruby red” Arizona, with 11 electoral votes, now ranks among the most hotly contested 2020 battleground states. Arizona? Really? For longtime Republicans, that is almost unthinkable considering the state’s political history.
Starting with Richard Nixon’s reelection in 1972, every GOP presidential candidate won the state up until 1996 — when Bill Clinton worked some reelection magic.
After that blue blip, the Grand Canyon State stayed “red” from 2000 to 2016. Bush won 54.9% of Arizona’s vote in 2004 — compared with Donald Trump in 2016, who eked out a 48.7% to 45.1% victory over Hillary Clinton.
Now, RCP’s “battleground” poll average has former Vice President Biden leading President Trump by 4.4 percentage points.
If Trump loses Arizona, the GOP can point to an increase in Democrat-leaning Hispanic voters, along with an influx of baby boom retirees, many of whom moved from east and west coast “blue” states for a lower cost of living (and possibly better weather).
Perhaps with Arizona at center stage in 2020, the state should be substituted into that old presidential election adage: “As Ohio goes, so goes the nation.”
My “Bush Country 2004” mug map is also a reminder that the GOP lost four reliably red states in the three presidential elections since Bush’s victory — Virginia, Colorado, Nevada, and New Mexico — with a combined total of 33 electoral votes. Today, only the most die-hard Republican optimists predict that any of these states will swing back to red in 2020.
Talk about predictions, here is a prescient one: In an interview on Feb. 23, 2008, the late Tim Russert, then host of “Meet the Press,” expressed that “Virginia, New Mexico, Colorado, and Nevada will also be crucial this year as changing demographics make them more winnable for Democrats.”
And starting in November 2008, that is precisely what happened.
Below are the four states with the percentage of vote that Bush won in 2004 — compared to Trump’s losing percentage in 2016. The states’ electoral votes are displayed in parentheses.
Virginia (13) Bush: 53.8 – Trump: 44.4
Colorado (9) Bush: 51.7 – Trump: 43.3
New Mexico (5) Bush: 49.8 – Trump: 40
Nevada (6) Bush: 50.7 – Trump: 45.5
My question is: Where does the GOP go to “find” 33 once-reliable electoral votes?
Fortunately for Trump, he found the answer in three of the formerly most reliable blue states with their combined total of 46 electoral votes. Back in 2004, the Bush campaign only dreamed of winning Pennsylvania (20), Michigan (16), and Wisconsin (10). (Note that in 2004, the three states’ combined electoral vote total was 48, with 21 for Pennsylvania, 17 for Michigan, and Wisconsin unchanged at 10.)
To Trump’s credit, he bulldozed his way into the hearts and minds of white working-class voters with a message of nationalism and populism — barely winning all three states with a combined victory margin of just under 80,000 votes.
Meanwhile, with the election less than six months away, that once impenetrable “blue wall” now trends purple on a shaky red foundation.
The latest RCP battleground poll average has former Vice President Joe Biden leading in Pennsylvania by 6.5 percentage points, Michigan by 5.5, and Wisconsin by 2.7. But at Team Trump, strong confidence prevails. All the most ardent supporters I know are still in lockstep, saying, “All the 2016 polls showed Hillary winning” as they don battle gear.
With that thought in mind, I suggest relabeling the fight for the “blue wall” to “Gettysburg on steroids.” All the “blood” and “treasure” both parties will politically expend equates to that horrific battle — far exceeding the ho-hum generic “battleground” states label.
Now I look southeast on my faded coffee mug map, stopping at North Carolina with its 15 electoral votes. Bush won it handily with 56.1% of the vote in 2004.
I believe that North Carolina is underplayed as a decisive battleground state — overshadowed by Florida, “the mother of all swing states.” Consider electorally that North Carolina is more significant than Wisconsin, but receives less national media attention, even with five additional electoral votes.
Let’s review North Carolina’s revealing presidential voting history.
The Tar Heel State went red for seven straight presidential elections stretching from 1980 to 2004. Then, in 2008, due to rapidly changing demographics and Barack Obama’s unique appeal to African American voters, he broke the GOP’s long stranglehold — narrowly winning by 49.7% to 49.4% over Sen. John McCain.
In the 2012 election, Mitt Romney brought the state back to red — defeating Obama by a margin of 50.4% to 48.4%.
Four years later, in another squeaker, Trump defeated Clinton there 49.8% to 46.2%.
Again, it bears repeating: On election night, watch this New South bellwether state because “As North Carolina goes, so goes the nation.”
Finally, the message visually symbolized by my old “Bush Country 2004” mug is “red map fading.” Remember that Bush won reelection in 2004 without Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin. (See the 2000 election for the most dramatic example of a GOP presidential win without penetrating the blue wall.)
Bush’s “mission accomplished” was achieved in part because there were just enough solid red, leaning red and could-be-red states to forge a very narrow path to 270. That was in addition to a hard-fought, well-funded, strategically messaged, expertly managed and executed battle plan.
But on election night, it all came down to Ohio. If not for Bush’s slim 2.1 percentage point lead that won him 20 electoral votes, he — like his father — would have been a one-term president. Instead, Bush stands as the last GOP president to be reelected. (In six months, that could change.)
Speaking of tight, decisive Ohio races, the latest poll has Trump leading Biden within the margin of error. Way too close for comfort after the president initially won the state by a whopping margin of 8.1 percentage points.
“Red map fading” means the muddy red road that Bush slogged along in 2004 is gone. Trump’s only path to 270 is the aforementioned “Gettysburg on steroids” with a full-frontal charge into the blue wall and other major states that he barely won in 2016 — Florida by 1.2 percentage points, Pennsylvania by 0.7, Michigan by 0.2 and North Carolina by 3.7.
Then, when Arizona is tossed into the equation as a battleground, Trump’s electoral math — perilous well before the COVID-19 economic crisis — appears more troubled.
Worse news of all for my fellow Republicans, and potentially the most earth-shattering in modern American political history, is the once bright red “star” on my mug map that has dimmed over Texas.
RCP lists the Lone Star State, with its game-changing 38 electoral votes, in the 2020 “toss-up” column. Is Texas on tap to be the greatest of all battlegrounds? Even the RCP poll average has Trump and Biden tied within the margin of error.
In 2020, Hispanic voters will be the largest minority voting group with the potential to shift major swing states blue. The Pew Research Center found “about 62% identify with or lean toward the Democratic Party, while 34% affiliate with or lean to the Republican Party.”
If Hispanic voters turn out in record numbers, as they did for the 2018 midterm elections, that means my formerly bright red and shiny mug could fade to barely pink after Nov. 3, 2020.
Now more than ever, my Grand Old Party and old mug need an infusion of color — without it, both will fade away.