(October 2004) As the 2000 election made clear, the presidential election actually is a series of 51 “winner take all” contests in each state and the District and Columbia. The candidate who wins a particular state is entitled to all of that state’s electoral votes—the equivalent of that state’s total number of senators and representatives.

For example, California has 55 electoral votes in the 2004 presidential election—one of the state’s two senators and each of its 53 representatives, a number determined as a result of the 2000 census apportionment.

A wrinkle to the “winner take all” rule exists in Maine and Nebraska. In those states, the winning candidate statewide gains two electoral votes, with the remainder determined by which candidate wins each congressional district.

And this year, Colorado may introduce yet another wrinkle. Voters there will decide whether to divide their nine electoral votes according to the popular vote result—a measure which, if approved, could result in a five-to-four split.

All Bellwethers Are Swing States, But Not All Swing States Are Bellwethers

With three electoral votes awarded to the District of Columbia, presidential candidates vie for a total of 538 electoral votes—270 of which are needed to win an election.

Theoretically, a presidential candidate can win the election by capturing only the union’s 11 most populous states—California, Texas, New York, Florida, Illinois, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, New Jersey, Georgia, and North Carolina (see table).


Minimum States Needed to Win Presidential Election in 2004

State Resident Population,
April 1, 2000
Electoral Votes in 2004  Cumulative Electoral Votes in 2004
California 33,871,648 55 55
Texas 20,851,820 34 89
New York 18,976,457 31 120
Florida 15,982,378 27 147
Illinois 12,419,293 21 168
Pennsylvania 12,281,054 21 189
Ohio 11,353,140 20 209
Michigan 9,938,444 17 226
New Jersey 8,414,350 15 241
Georgia 8,186,453 15 256
North Carolina 8,049,313 15 271

Source: PRB analysis of data from data from Voter News Service, the Federal Election Commission, and the Alaska Division of Elections. (The data appeared in The World Almanac and Book of Facts 1999 and the U.S. Census Bureau, Historical Statistics to 1970. The data also are available from the National Archives and Records Administration, Electoral College home page, accessed online at www.nara.gov/fedreg/elctcoll/ecfront.html on Aug. 1, 2000; and www.nara.gov/fedreg/elctcoll/2000popres.html on Jan. 12, 2001.)


However, a single candidate is unlikely to sweep all of these states because of regional differences in voting patterns.

Instead, major-party presidential candidates tend to focus their campaigns on “swing states”—states where polls show the race is competitive. Many of the largest states fit that category, including California and New York.

California voted Republican from 1968 through 1988, but Democrats have carried California in each of the last three elections. And while New York has voted Democratic in the last four elections, Ronald Reagan carried New York in both 1980 and 1984.

Some swing states can also be called “bellwethers” for their ability to vote reliably for the presidential winner. Several industrial “Rust Belt” states fall in this category—for example, the victorious candidate usually wins Illinois, Pennsylvania, and Ohio.

In fact, Ohio has voted for the winning candidate in every election since 1964, and no Republican candidate has ever been elected without winning Ohio. Winning presidential candidates have also carried Missouri in every election since 1960, and Kentucky and Tennessee since 1964.

But not even the “bellwether” states always go with the winning candidate. For example, Illinois, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and New Mexico all voted for Al Gore in the 2000 election. And Gore won Delaware as well—the first time since 1952 that the candidate carrying the First State ended up losing the election.

And don’t forget the “favorite son” factor: When Gore failed to carry Tennessee in 2000, he joined Adlai Stevenson of Illinois (1952 and 1956) and George McGovern of South Dakota (1972) as the only presidential candidates in the post-World War II era who failed to carry their home state. This suggests good news for George W. Bush in Texas and John Kerry in Massachusetts.

The Bluest and the Reddest

Historical trends indicate that some states tend to be reliably Democratic or Republican (see Box 1 below). For example, except for the Republican landslide victories of 1972 and 1984, Hawaii and Rhode Island have voted for the Democratic candidate in every election since 1960. That trend also held for West Virginia—until Bush carried it in 2000.

In addition, Massachusetts has not voted Republican in a presidential election since Ronald Reagan’s 1984 victory, and a Republican candidate hasn’t carried Minnesota since Richard Nixon won there in 1972.

Lastly, there’s the District of Columbia, which the Democrats have been able to count on since ratification of the 23rd Amendment in 1961 allowed its residents to vote in presidential elections.

The list of reliably Republican states is even longer. Since Lyndon Johnson’s 1964 landslide victory, no presidential candidate from the Democratic party has carried Alaska, Idaho, Indiana, Kansas, Nebraska, North Dakota, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Utah, Virginia, or Wyoming.

Several Southern states—once solidly Democratic—also tend to be reliably Republican in presidential politics. While Jimmy Carter carried Alabama, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Texas in his 1976 victory, no Democrat has carried any of those states since. And Bill Clinton’s 1996 win in Arizona makes him the only Democrat to win there since Harry Truman in 1948.

Although these historical trends can help us predict the voting patterns of states in the 2004 election, such factors as campaign issues, the relative strengths of the two major-party candidates, and the ability of third-party candidates to draw votes in key states also play important roles in determining the outcome of presidential elections.


Kelvin Pollard is a senior demographer at PRB.


Box 1

Historical Presidential Election Patterns

Reliably Republican States

States that have voted Democratic only once since 1964 (year in parentheses)

  • Alabama (1976)
  • Colorado (1992)
  • Montana (1992)
  • North Carolina (1976)

States that have voted Democratic only once since 1952, and not since 1964

  • Idaho
  • Oklahoma
  • Utah
  • Virginia
  • Wyoming

States that have voted Democratic only once since 1940, and not since 1964

  • Indiana
  • Kansas
  • Nebraska
  • North Dakota
  • South Dakota

Other states that are reliably Republican

  • Alaska: has voted Democratic only once since 1959 statehood (1964)
  • Arizona: has gone Democratic only once since 1952 (1996)
  • Mississippi: has voted Democratic only once since 1960 (1976)
  • South Carolina: has voted Democratic only once since 1960 (1976)
  • Texas: has voted Republican seven of last eight elections (all except 1976)

Reliably Democratic States

  • District of Columbia: since being granted the vote in Presidential elections through the 23rd Amendment (1961), has never voted for a Republican
  • Hawaii: since 1959 statehood, has voted Republican only twice (1972 and 1984)
  • Massachusetts: has voted Republican only twice since 1960 (1980 and 1984)
  • Minnesota: has voted Republican only once since 1960, and not since 1972
  • Rhode Island: has voted Republican only twice since 1960 (1972 and 1984)
  • West Virginia: since 1932, has voted Republican only four times (1956, 1972, 1984, and 2000)

Bellwether States

  • Arkansas: voted for the winner each year since 1972; has only missed once since 1960 (1968)
  • California: since 1964, has voted for the winner every year but 1976 and 2000
  • Delaware: until 2000, had voted for the winner each year since 1952
  • Illinois: since WWII, has voted for the winner every year but 1976 and 2000
  • Kentucky: voted for the winner each year since 1964
  • Louisiana: voted for the winner each year since 1972
  • Missouri: voted for the winner each year since 1960; 1956 was the only post-WWII election where it did not vote for the winner
  • Nevada: since WWII, has voted for the winner every year but 1976
  • New Hampshire: since 1964, has voted for the winner every year but 1976
  • New Jersey: since 1952, has voted for the winner every year but 1976 and 2000
  • New Mexico, since 1912 statehood, has voted for the winner every year but 1976 and 2000
  • Ohio: voted for the winner each year since 1964; 1960 was the only post-WWII election where it did not vote for the winner—also, no Republican has won without carrying it
  • Pennsylvania: since 1952, has voted for the winner each year but 1968 and 2000
  • Tennessee: since WWII, voted for the winner each year but 1960
  • Vermont: since 1964, has voted for the winner every year but 1976 and 2000

Sources: PRB analysis of data from data from Voter News Service, the Federal Election Commission, and the Alaska Division of Elections. (The data appeared in The World Almanac and Book of Facts 1999 and the U.S. Census Bureau, Historical Statistics to 1970. The data also are available from the National Archives and Records Administration, Electoral College home page, accessed online at www.archives.gov/federal_register/electoral_college/index.html on Oct. 19, 2004.)