What Nate Silver's Analysis Misses About 2016

06/05/2015 05:11 pm ET | Updated Jun 05, 2016

Psychology matters in elections. Throughout my career I've seen how having confidence from start to finish impacts campaigns. Understanding your strengths puts the wind at your back. It emboldens candidates and allies, and energizes volunteers, donors and supporters. And it can set the stage for sweeping victories.

The Washington Post election observer Chris Cillizza wrote in a recent piece: "It's easy to overthink elections...But at its most basic level, demographics tend to be political destiny."

Progressives should feel confident entering the 2016 election. If we engage and maintain strong support among minority, youth and women voters, America's changing demographics are creating a structural advantage for us in the presidential electorate and Electoral College. The next 18 months will feel like a rollercoaster ride, but we are poised for success from the White House down to state houses - so long as we focus on the fundamentals and play to our strengths.

I was surprised reading Nate Silver's recent FiveThirtyEight piece dismissing any Democratic advantage in the Electoral College and handicapping the 2016 election as a 50/50 tossup. While Silver is so often right (even when I wish he wasn't), his conclusion in this instance was uncharacteristically...well, wrong.

Some observers have claimed there is "Blue Wall" virtually sealing the Electoral College for the Democratic candidate. They base this on a number of states that have consistently gone to the Democratic candidate in the last five presidential elections, totaling 247 electoral votes - or just 23 votes shy of the 270 magic number. Silver explains that this theory of an impenetrable "Blue Wall" could crumble every bit as quickly as the supposed "Red Wall" prior to the 1992 election, and maintains that the Electoral College itself was a small factor in recent Democratic victories.

Silver is right that Democrats by no means have the Electoral College in the bag. And let's be clear: this will be a hard-fought and likely close election. Either side is capable of winning the presidency.

However, the Blue Wall debate misses the important reality that there is a Blue Tilt - not a lock - in the Electoral College. And it's tied to ongoing trends in critical swing states that can't be fully understood just by looking at past elections alone.

Let's start with the map. Several leading analysts assessing the presidential map consistently place 247 electoral votes in the Democratic column (19 states and DC at least "lean" blue), which assumes Democrats will be able to keep critical states Wisconsin and Pennsylvania at "lean blue" status. The Republican column consistently amounts to 191-206 electoral votes (23-24 states at least "lean" red), depending on whether analysts give North Carolina "lean red" or "tossup" status. That leaves seven or eight tossup states totaling 85-100 electoral votes, including notorious mega-swing states Florida (29 electoral votes) and Ohio (18 electoral votes).

No matter how you slice it, Democrats' 247 is a lot closer to 270 than Republicans' 191-206. If these projections hold up into the general election, Democrats would have numerous obtainable paths to 270. For example, the Democratic candidate could win by taking Florida alone, or Ohio plus one other sizeable swing state, or through a number of other paths without either state. On the other hand, Republicans would absolutely need to win both Florida and Ohio - and most of the other remaining battleground states - to add up to 270.

More fundamentally, the Blue Tilt in the Electoral College isn't simply based on the states already leaning Democratic, as Blue Wall proponents and as Silver's static analysis suggests. The Blue Tilt exists within critical swing states and others where the electorate is continually changing, and the growing number New American Majority voters - African Americans, Latinos, Asians, youth, single women and others - comprise a greater share of the electorate every year.

Over the last two decades, demographics have driven several states from red to purple - or in some cases, almost light blue. Colorado, Florida and Nevada were red-leaning heading into the 2004 home stretch, and North Carolina and Virginia weren't even considered battleground states. Today all five of these states are considered tossups or nearly-tossups because of their growing, changing populations. Demographics have even moved Arizona and Georgia into the "lean red" category in many analysts' ratings.

The increasingly diverse American electorate will be a fundamental reality of 2016 and every future election. White voters are a rapidly declining component of the electorate, falling from 88% in 1980 to 72% in 2012. In the last presidential election, President Obama won reelection with only 39% of the white vote, took 332 electoral votes, and won the popular vote by nearly 5 million votes. By comparison, Michael Dukakis won a slightly larger share of the white vote in 1988, but won only 100 electoral votes and lost the popular vote by over 7 million votes. That's an enormous shift in a single generation.

Republican pollster Whit Ayres, whose client roster includes Senator Marco Rubio, analyzed how demographics are impacting his party. According to Ayres, if the next GOP nominee matches Mitt Romney's 17% of the nonwhite vote, they would need a staggering 65% of the white vote to win - a level only Ronald Reagan pulled off in the 1984 landslide. In fact, Ayres noted that George W. Bush's 2004 winning math of 26% of the non-white vote and 58% of the white vote couldn't pull off a victory for the Republican nominee in 2016.

The fundamentals of this election give progressives a strong hand - but it's far from a sure thing. We need to play our cards well, and that includes winning more support among white working class voters in addition to mobilizing the New American Majority to ensure broader victories. Our demographic advantage didn't stop conservatives from sweeping the last two midterms, and given the state of power in Congress and in the states, we can't afford a lonely victory at the top of the ticket. The importance of the White House can't be overstated, but progressives need much broader victories that extend down to statehouses and local races as well.

So remember: we need to focus on these strengths. We can't overthink the small stuff or get caught up in the minutia of every news cycle. If we work effectively to engage, energize and mobilize our voters, progressives are primed for a big - and hopefully very broad - victory next November.