A funny thing happened as I was looking at the political map of this year’s presidential election: It began to look like the map of the presidential election of 2004.
I’m not talking about the superficial similarity, the fact that in both elections an incumbent president beat a challenger from Massachusetts by a 51 to 48 percent popular vote margin.
I’m talking about the fact that the large majority of states voted just a little bit more Democratic in 2012 than they did in 2004.
Enough to give 2012 nominee Barack Obama 332 electoral votes, far more than 2004 nominee John Kerry’s 252. But not enough to change the political balance of the nation or the various regions very much.
At current count — the numbers may change a bit as California and a few other states waddle in with late tabulations — Barack Obama’s 50.73 percent of the popular vote exceeds John Kerry’s 48.26 percent by 2.46 percent. (Eerily, George W. Bush’s final percentage was also 50.73 percent.)
Using rounded-off whole percentages, Obama ran 1 or 2 percent ahead of Kerry in nine states and the District of Columbia, with 81 electoral votes. They include target states New Hampshire and Pennsylvania, which Kerry won, and Ohio, which he lost.
Obama ran 3 or 4 percent ahead of Kerry in more states, 20. These states have 243 electoral votes. They include 2012 target states Colorado, Florida, Iowa, Nevada and Wisconsin.
George W. Bush carried all of those target states in 2004 except Wisconsin, which he lost by 11,384 votes. Clearly Hispanic voters, and the differences between Bush and Mitt Romney on immigration and in attitude, helped move Colorado, Nevada and, by a very narrow margin, Florida from the Republican column in 2004 to the Democratic column in 2012.
But Obama’s winning percentages in these three states — 50 percent in Florida, 51 percent in Colorado and 52 percent in Nevada — don’t suggest that Republicans will never be competitive there again.
As for Iowa and Wisconsin, they were both exceedingly close in both 2000 and 2004, both were solid for Obama in 2008, and this time they gave him 52 and 53 percent of their votes.
What about the other 21 states? Some produced big increases for Obama over Kerry — 17 points in the president’s birth state of Hawaii, 8 points in increasingly liberal Vermont.
Obama also improved on Kerry’s percentage by 6 points in Maryland and Virginia, the two states most positively affected by increases in federal spending. His percentage went up only 2 points in the District of Columbia because it’s hard to improve much on Kerry’s 89 percent there.
The Democratic percentage also went up 5 percent in California, where high taxes are driving out middle-income families, and in North Carolina, which the Obama campaign shrewdly targeted in 2008. Obama carried it by 1 point then and lost by only 2 points this time.
The Republican percentage increased by 8 points in coal-country West Virginia and in the now Clintonless Arkansas. It also increased in other states with the warlike Jacksonian tradition — Kentucky, Tennessee, Missouri, Louisiana and Oklahoma.
Obama ran 1 point lower than Kerry in the latter’s Massachusetts and in Utah and Wyoming. His percentage was almost precisely the same as Kerry’s in Arizona, evidence that its increasing Hispanic population is not tipping that state Democratic.
I draw two conclusions from these figures — one with some certainty and one tentatively.
One is that Democrats have a structural advantage in the Electoral College. An extra 2.46 percent of the popular vote netted Obama 80 more electoral votes than Kerry. Obama won 58 percent or more in 11 states and the District of Columbia, with 163 electoral votes. He needed only 107 more to win.
In 2004, the 16 states Bush won with 58 percent or more had only 130 electoral votes. He needed 140 more to win and barely got them.
My tentative conclusion is that we may be back to the nearly even balance between the parties we saw between 1995 and 2005. Since then, we’ve been in a period of open field politics, with big swings to the Democrats in 2006 and 2008 and a big swing to the Republicans in 2010.
Both sides hoped those swings would prove permanent. 2012 suggests both sides were disappointed. It looks like we’re back to trench warfare politics at the national level.