I remember back to July 2000, almost exactly 15 years ago and before the era when the results of new political polls were readily available on election websites moments after their release online. I was looking through my hometown Minnesota newspaper and seeing a story on a series of polls from every state between respective party nominees Al Gore and George Bush before their party's conventions. Bush was out to an early lead both nationally and in the individual states, but the performances of two states really stand out to me looking back. Back in July 2000, Bush had a 17-point lead in Oregon and Gore had a 4-point lead in Louisiana. Now these may very well have been junk polls with terrible methodologies, but if we saw polls like this today, we would immediately discount them as laughable outliers. But in the summer of 2000, these results seemed within the realm of the possible. For all intents and purposes, it could be argued that 35 states were credibly part of the Election 2000 "battleground" four months before the election, all places where either Gore or Bush could have won in November. The public was disengaged and open to persuasion in a way that had defined most prior Presidential elections in the generation that preceded it. Any outcome seemed viable moving forward, but I doubt many could have predicted the formation of the long-term realignment with rigid geographic fault lines that have defined American political life ever since.
The fluid electorate of 2000 continued on through the conventions with wild swings from Bush to Gore that kept the race unpredictable. The debates started approximately a month before the election and only then did we start to see battle lines forming and a steady diet of state polling that was beginning to show the formation of the divide of what we would come to know as "red states" and "blue states". In some cases, it wasn't a huge surprise to see certain states realign as blue or red as they'd been trending that way in the previous couple of elections, but there were a few genuine surprises in the degree to which some states (and regions within states) abruptly drifted into the opposing party's coalition. And while there always felt like there was a degree of permanence to the fault lines that emerged in 2000, there was enough ambiguity that going into Election 2004, political prognosticators (and myself) had missed the realignment that had occurred in some states deemed part of the 2004 battleground in the early stages of that cycle.
The 2000 election wasn't the beginning and the end of the realignment obviously. Several states were behind the curve still in 2000 and didn't change until subsequent election cycles. However, there were signs in most of those states in the 2000 cycle that political change was right around the corner. Below I will profile each region of the country and look at their politics through a pre-2000 lens and a post-2000 lens.
--In 2015, everybody who analyzes politics looks at the Northeast as the most Democratic part of the country, a region where Democratic Presidential candidates are likely to shut out the opposition with New Hampshire being the only swing state (and one that's been trending left for a generation) with an outside chance of a GOP win in Pennsylvania. But going into the 2000 election cycle, it was not clear without a reasonable doubt that the northeast was gonna be Gore country. Maine was right there along with New Hampshire as part of the 2000 battleground until the very end of the campaign, ultimately coming within a few hundred votes of giving Bush one of their electoral votes.
And while Connecticut, New Jersey, and Delaware were never really considered battlegrounds in the late stages of the 2000 campaign, they had been Republican-leaning battlegrounds only two cycles earlier where Clinton prevailed over Bush-41 narrowly and had definitely not yet solidified in early 2000 as the uncontested "blue states" that they've been ever since. Vermont was pretty widely accepted as a blue state in 2000, yet Gore only won it by 10 points....it definitely wasn't the "bluest state in the nation" then as it is now.
The center of gravity of the Republican Party shifted more Southern and more conservative in the new millennium so it's not hard to see why the northeast used to a more moderate and secular Republican Party realigned towards Democrats but that certainly wasn't obvious in July 2000 when Bush's national margins and those state polls suggested the real possibility of Gore only reassembling the Dukakis states of New York, Massachusetts, and Rhode Island in the northeast. I definitely wouldn't have predicted he'd miss a clean sweep of the region only because Nader's support likely denied him the four electoral votes of New Hampshire. It would have been interesting to see what Gore's margins in the northeast would have been if he had not selected northeasterner Joe Lieberman as a running mate, which I think helped him in New England generally and in particular in running up the score with millions of Jewish voters in the Northeast. The lack of Lieberman on the ticket and the politics of 9/11 were brief hiccups on the Democratic trendline in the region in 2004, but Kerry swept the region and Obama has done so with rising PVI margins in the two elections since. Perhaps another realignment will be in the works some day to reverse the region's blue trend, but it's very hard to imagine in the foreseeable future.
The Mid-Atlantic South
--Two states that were behind the curve of the 2000 realignment were Virginia and North Carolina, both of which have seen their politics change since that election. At least in Virginia's case, however, there were signs in the 2000 election that change was afoot and the state would not be defined as conventionally "Southern" for much longer, with George W. Bush underperforming Bob Dole in the fastest-growing region of the state, the D.C. suburbs and exurbs of northern Virginia. The state was not a battleground in 2004 beyond the very early imaginations of the Kerry campaign but the trendline of sinking GOP margins continued in NOVA and Virginia's transformation happened at lightning speed thereafter. Any election analyst worth his or her salt could tell by the 2000 results that Virginia was poised to become a purple or blue-leaning state, but I doubt many would have predicted it would happen so fast that Virginia would match the national PVI outcome only two cycles later!
North Carolina is another story. There was nothing one could glean from the 2000 results that suggested the state would be a battleground at all in the foreseeable future. There may have been the faintest hint in 2004 as Bush did no better in NC than he did in 2000 while the country went three points redder in 2004, but that could be dismissed on the grounds of Kerry's running mate being the native son and possibly helping Kerry on the margins at home. If I had been given 15 guesses (or maybe even 20!) in 2000 on which nine Bush states would flip Democratic by 2008, I'm pretty sure North Carolina would not have been one of my guesses. The state's demographic shift has been that sudden and transformational, even though it appears that purple state coalition is far more fragile than Democrats may have liked to believe back in 2008. Still, I said at the outset there were a handful of states that the 2000 realignment missed entirely, and North Carolina was one of them.
The Deep South
--In my opening paragraph, I cited Gore's four-point lead in Louisiana four months before the 2000 election. Crazy as that sounds now, it was not surprising at the time given that Bill Clinton won Louisiana by 12 points in 1996! But in the final stages of the 2000 campaign, it was becoming clear that George W. Bush was winning over Southerners and compiling a pretty solid regional base. While everybody assumed Mississippi, Alabama, and South Carolina would be solid Bush states, there was speculation in the summer of 2000 that Georgia would be part of the battleground, possibly more so than Florida, and early polls showed Bush leading in Georgia, but by a smaller margin than he was nationally. The Deep South had not yet realigned as a solid block of crimson red at that point.
Since then, the South has become only more inhospitable, and while an African American becoming the face of the national Democratic Party had something to do with that, I suspect it was inevitable anyway that conservative Southern whites would further disconnect from Democrats. There was a hiccup in this momentum beneath the Presidential level in 2006 and 2008, however, as Democrats were winning surprise victories in deep red Southern Congressional districts at the height of "Bush fatigue", but that seems light years ago compared to where the Deep South is now and it's much harder to see it happening again anytime soon, certainly at the Presidential level. Changing demographics in Georgia resemble what we were seeing in Virginia in 2000 and could very abruptly alter that state's identity, but it still seems a cycle or two away and is definitely the only spot on the map in the Deep South where Democrats have any hope of being competitive anytime soon.
--The Sunshine State deserves a geographic category all its own. The first sign that change was afoot in the formerly Republican stronghold of Florida came in 1996 when Bill Clinton won the state by a healthy six points. Yet it was still rather baffling four years later when the 2000 cycle began to fully take form and Florida was showing up as a key battleground, with most polls showing Gore narrowly ahead, even as Gore was having to fight for victories in traditionally blue states like Oregon and Wisconsin. In retrospect, it was an electoral masterstroke for Gore to select Lieberman as his running mate, allowing him to heighten enthusiasm among Jewish seniors and run up the score in the Gold Coast counties. It almost worked, and probably would have if not for the "butterfly ballot" kerfuffle.
But Florida by no means realigned towards Democrats. In fact, 2000 was the state's best year for Democrats proportionate to the rest of the country. The state's PVI was the same as the country's in 2000 but, despite Obama's narrow 2008 and 2012 victories, has been a couple or more points to the right of the country in the cycles since. The rightward trendline of seniors, particularly non-Jewish seniors, in recent cycles has been the biggest impediment to Florida moving leftward, but is countered by positive demographic trends elsewhere. Cuban-Americans, once the GOP's reliable base in Florida, continue to trend towards Democrats while Puerto Ricans in the Orlando area have dramatically shifted that region's politics leftward. These cross-currents have likely shaped Florida to be one of if not the biggest swing state in Presidential cycles in the foreseeable future.
Appalachia and the Southern Border States
--If the northeast is the region of the country where the Republicans have seen the biggest collapse in Presidential cycles, Appalachia and the the border states have produced the biggest collapse for Democrats. In some cases, this collapse was predictable heading into 2000 while other cases it was not. Bill Clinton only barely held on to Kentucky and Tennessee in 1996 and it wasn't a huge surprise that either flipped red four years later. While Gore took a lot of flack for losing his home state in 2000, his presence as his party's standard-bearer is probably the only thing that kept Bush from scoring a double-digit blowout in Tennessee similar to that of Kentucky. Missouri is another state that showed signs of moving towards Republicans in 1996 as Clinton's margin against Dole was quite a bit weaker than that of Bush-41 four years earlier. Still, Clinton's six-point margin in Missouri in 1996 was stronger than his margins in Kentucky or Tennessee and seemed like it should position the state to be competitive for Gore. Indeed, it was a battleground state till the end but one that Bush won by nearly four points, the start of a realignment that has put the former bellwether state of Missouri squarely into the GOP column and a little bit further to the right of the country with each passing cycle.
The states in this region where Gore's fortunes were less predictable heading into 2000, and even 2004, are Arkansas and West Virginia. Obviously, Arkansas being Clinton's home state was worth a lot in 1992 and 1996 as he dominated by more than 15 points both cycles and made it hard to judge where the center of gravity would be in the 2000 cycle. Arkansas was a battleground till the end but most late polls in 2000 showed Bush opening up a lead, a lead that ultimately stuck with a five-point statewide win. West Virginia was deep blue in 1992 and 1996 even without a home state assist from the Democratic nominee. Gore was a uniquely bad candidate for West Virginia given his environmentalism and previous assertions about the coal industry, but it still was a bit of a surprise that the state slipped away to the degree that it had, where state polling showed a clear lead for Bush in the weeks before the election, ultimately shifting from a 17-point Clinton win in 1996 to a six-point Bush win in 2000.
But something about the results in these two states suggested Bush's win may have been more of a fluke than a realignment. At least early on in the 2004 cycle, both states were part of the Presidential battleground. Apparently bad polling showed Kerry and Bush statistically tied in Arkansas the weekend before the election! And typically savvy election prognosticator Larry Sabato's early summer map in 2004 suggested West Virginia was perhaps the biggest swing state of all, to the point of him tilting it very narrowly Kerry's direction based on apparent displeasure among coal miners towards the Bush administration over lax safety regulation at the time. In the end, the 2000 results in these states merely represented the first phase of a more permanent and resounding realignment positioning both states as among the brightest red in the country, especially in Presidential elections. Bush won West Virginia by double digits in 2004 and came very close to doing the same in Arkansas, and those margins have gotten much better for Republicans in the Obama era.
There are regions within Midwestern and northeastern states generally considered parts of greater Appalachia that are worth mentioning here for experiencing the same trendlines. The counties north of the Ohio River in southern Illinois, Indiana, and Ohio leaned Democrat for quite some time but were especially strong for Bill Clinton in 1992 and 1996. But like the areas south of the Ohio River, this area began to realign towards Republicans in 2000 as well and has continued to do so to the point that home state Senator Barack Obama twice lost a huge swath of southern Illinois counties that Clinton won twice while Obama lost most southern Indiana and Ohio counties even as he was winning both states in 2008. The same is true in western Pennsylvania, also part of Greater Appalachia, and an area long part of any winning coalition Democrats could expect out of the Keystone State. The first signs of weakness emerged there in 1996 as Bob Dole decisively outperformed Bush-41's numbers in southwest Pennsylvania. The trend continued in 2000 with Gore barely hanging on in a number of counties that went 2-to-1 for Michael Dukakis 12 years earlier, and the bottom has fell out in the cycles since with every county outside of Allegheny in southwest Pennsylvania having decisively realigned to Republicans.
Going into 2004, one of my biggest miscalculations was expecting the trends in northern Appalachia, particularly Ohio and Pennsylvania, were gonna be reversed. I remember posting on political websites in the summer of 2004 that I expected some of Kerry's primary gains in Ohio would come in the belt of Appalachian counties stretching from Steubenville to Portsmouth which had suffered staggering job losses during Bush's first term. I was pretty shellshocked come election night when Kerry actually lost ground to Gore in this area, in some cases decisively. I was similarly surprised that Kerry lost even more ground to Gore in working-class southwest Pennsylvania. Bush probably had a secret weapon in this area, however, that didn't get much ink at the time but may well have positioned him for winning over hearts and minds in western Pennsylvania, and that was the 2001 steel tariffs. They were widely panned as bad policy and a tactical failure, but I could easily imagine a bunch of embattled and culturally conservative steelworkers thinking Bush did something for them that Clinton never did. It never helped Bush or any Republican nominee since win Pennsylvania, but only because suburban Philadelphia has shifted so Democratic that it's offset steep Republican gains in the southwest part of the state, and in 2004, it got Bush to within two points of victory in PA.
--Democrats have experienced generally positive trendlines in the Midwest since 2000, but the trendlines have been unambiguously strong in the region typically considered the Industrial Midwest versus much more ambiguous trendlines in the Upper Midwest. Due primarily to demographic changes and a leftward shift in Greater Chicago, Illinois has been the biggest Midwestern success story for Democrats, going from a borderline swing state in 2000 to a Democratic stronghold in Presidential elections today. Michigan and Ohio have been realigning in a Democratic direction since 2000. Michigan was right up there with Pennsylvania and Florida as the nation's key swing states in 2000, but Gore prevailed comfortably and the state's PVI has been shifting leftward ever since. While Michigan still seems like the kind of state conceivably vulnerable in a Republican wave year in a way that Illinois probably is not, it's not likely to be put in a category of battleground states the way it was in 2000 anytime soon.
As for Ohio, it seems crazy to think back to 2000 when nobody really even looked at it as a swing state. It was considered a foregone conclusion that Bush would win it decisively and Gore put few resources in the state. In the end it may have been a mistake as Bush prevailed by only four points in the state, less than what most polls showed. As with so many other results from the 2000 election, the dynamic had changed moving forward and in 2004 Ohio was ground zero in the electoral battleground. While Bush still won the state, the PVI shifted leftward and set the stage for two narrow Obama victories in Ohio in 2008 and 2012. Looking at the demographics I have concerns about Ohio trending back to the GOP, but as yet there's no evidence of that at the Presidential level. Even Indiana, the heart of the Republican Party in the Midwest for decades, is to the left of where it was in 2000 proportional to the country, to the point of Obama's surprise (and flukish) victory there in 2008.
Moving onto the trio of states that make up the Upper Midwest, Democrats have had mostly favorable electoral results, but the realignment of 2000 did not portend any discernible trendlines there. Minnesota, Iowa, and Wisconsin all saw dramatic movement towards Republicans in 2000, even though Gore won all three of them by the skin of his teeth. While Nader strength in Minnesota and Wisconsin could account for some of rising Republican fortunes, it felt like there was more going on and that the region may well be realigning towards Republicans. All three states were at the epicenter of the battleground in 2004 and the results were again ambiguous. While Iowa flipped to a narrow Bush win after a narrow Gore win four years earlier, Kerry held on to Minnesota and Wisconsin and actually did better than Gore in all three states proportionate to the whole country. I was surprised by Bush's strength in the Upper Midwest that cycle, expecting the dovish Upper Midwest to more soundly rebuke Bush's Iraq War adventurism, but just like the steel tariffs in Pennsylvania, I think Bush did well for himself with another move early in his administration....siding with the ethanol industry that forced coastal critics to abide by the mandate. Doing so kicked the farm economy into unprecedented prosperity that likely won Bush votes he otherwise wouldn't have won in the rural areas of all three states. The Obama years have been kind to Democrats in the Upper Midwest, producing decisive victories and likely catapulting Minnesota out of "battleground state" status in coming cycles. Still, the area remains one of the more unpredictable regions on the political map.
The Plains States
--Prior to 2000, the Plains States were all strongly Republican but could be broken down into three categories. The most predictable were Nebraska and Kansas, which were and mostly still are a sea of crimson red from corner to corner. Kansas has changed less politically than almost any other stats going back to the 80s and 90s. Nebraska, however, while still safely Republican, is no longer up there with Idaho and Utah as among the brightest red states in the country as it was in the 80s and 90s, and with Omaha trending blue, is not likely to return to that level of redness. The only thing worth reporting since 2000 in either state is Obama's one electoral vote out of Nebraska in 2008 which doesn't say much other than Nebraska's proportional allocation of electoral votes is not something we'd ever want to see go national.
North and South Dakota are full of prairie populists and prior to 2000 had a decent array of counties that leaned blue. But the prairie populists moved towards Bush in 2000 and have probably realigned there for the foreseeable future. The combination of Obama's temperamental fit for the northern Plains and dovish views on the Iraq likely contributed to the Dakotas and neighboring Montana moving leftward PVI-wise in 2008 (despite McCain still decisively winning) but the states shifted back in 2012 to numbers closer to Bush's 2000 and 2004 numbers suggesting 2008 was the outlier.
Lastly, Oklahoma and Texas were Republican in the 80s and 90s but had residual Yellow Dog Democrat strongholds that kept the numbers from getting too lopsided. Almost entirely at once in the 2000 cycle, those conservative counties shifted to Bush. Given that Bush was the Governor of Texas, it wasn't surprising that he swept all the West Texas cotton counties that had been strong for Clinton four years earlier, but Bush's gains in eastern Oklahoma were more impressive and indicated a comprehensive realignment that was completed in the Obama years with dozens of counties dominated by Clinton in both states having become 2-1 or better GOP strongholds. In Texas, there are cross currents in diversifying metro areas canceling out at least some of these gains. In Oklahoma, there are none and it has become one of the most Republican states in the country in the last two cycles as a result.
The Rocky Mountain West
--Most Western states moved towards Democrats since 2000. The bright red strongholds of Idaho and Utah have only seen modest movement towards Democrats (Utah backslid in 2012 with Mormon nominee Mitt Romney) and of course both were already among the reddest states in the country, while coal-heavy Wyoming is the only Western state that has gotten progressively more Republican in the past generation. Montana took a considerable right turn in 2000 but has moderated since then, coming within two points of going Obama in 2008 before drifting back rightward in 2012.
On the other end of the spectrum is New Mexico, a state that very narrowly and somewhat surprisingly went for Al Gore in 2000. Bush eked out a narrow victory four years later with his strong showing among Hispanics, but the state still drifted leftward PVI-wise and has continued to in the Obama years, almost to the point of being outside of the electoral battleground in all but the most lopsided cycles, as the growing Latino vote consolidates in the Democratic column. Ethnic diversification has also swung Nevada quite considerably towards Democrats. New Mexico was a swing state even 25 years ago but Nevada was at the time bright red. Clinton got two consecutive assists from Ross Perot that helped him narrowly win the state twice, but most considered the state pretty solid for Bush in 2000. Nevada did go Bush, but by less than four points and the trendline was clear that Nevada was drifting towards Democrats. It took two more cycles but it happened abruptly in 2008 when Obama won the state by 13 points, winning re-election decisively four years later and putting in question whether Nevada will be part of the battleground in subsequent cycles as its demographics become less and less hospitable towards Republicans.
Most would argue that the 2000 realignment came one cycle too soon for Colorado. In some ways that's true as the state was never part of the 2000 battleground and Bush won it decisively. It came as a bit of a surprise four years later when polls began showing Kerry was competitive in the state, but a strong performance by Nader that likely came at Gore's expense seems to have masked some Democratic momentum in Colorado in 2000. As with Virginia and Nevada, the realignment occurred very quickly by 2008 and moving forward Colorado looks like it will be a blue-tilting swing state. One of the few states where the 2000 election failed to predict a realignment is Arizona. After a decisive victory for Clinton in 1996 ended a long streak of Republican dominance in the state, Bush's modest five-point win in Arizona in 2000 suggested the state was about to follow the same trendline as Nevada and New Mexico. But most likely as a consequence of its white senior population which has become much more Republican in the past 15 years, Arizona has backslid towards Republicans in subsequent cycles and shows no realistic signs of being competitive in Presidential elections at least for the next couple of cycles.
The West Coast, Alaska, and Hawaii
--As recently as November 2000, the entire West Coast was in play at the Presidential level, as crazy as that seems now when all three states are uncontested Democratic strongholds. In reality, California was not in play in 2000 either, but a combination of some bad polling and a dumb multimillion-dollar ad buy from Karl Rove on Bush's behalf attempting to overwhelm Gore ended disastrously for the Bush team on election night when Gore won the state by 12 points, proving just how far gone California had become for Republicans and removing it from the Presidential battleground ever since. California may have been a pipe dream for the GOP already in 2000, but Washington and Oregon were very much swing states that cycle. In fact most polling indicated Bush had the advantage in Oregon right up until election day. The tightness was partially but not entirely due to Nader, who polled strongest in the Pacific Northwest but underperformed on election night. There was also pending Clinton administration lawsuit against Microsoft back in 2000 that created some question marks about Washington state and both states saw their PVI move rightward from the 1996 cycle compared to 1992, suggesting possible movement to the Republicans. In the end, would-be Nader voters came home, helping Gore win Washington decisively and ekeing out a Gore victory in Oregon. And there's been no turning back since with the PVI of both states moving at a rapid leftward clip to become some of the most inhospitable territory in the country for Republicans.
Alaska and Hawaii have both had more complicated trajectories. A huge Nader performance in Alaska in 2000 made Bush's two-party performance seem more dominating while increasing racial diversification appears to be shifting the state towards Democrats generally, albeit slowly enough to where the state's bright red hue shows no serious signs of tipping anytime soon. Hawaii saw a surprising burst of competitiveness late in the 2004 cycle, where Bush held Kerry to a single digit win, but favorite son Obama has dominated the last two cycles to the point where it's nearly impossible to discern where the real center of political gravity is.
The 2000 election felt quite realigning at the time, certainly more so than either of the Clinton-era elections that have preceded it, but the passage of a decade and a half has helped reinforce how consequential the 2000 cycle was. I can't think of another election in the modern era that produced the same kind of impenetrable coalitions for such a sustained period. FDR had an impressive coalition but it began to wither away when he ran for his third term and was gone completely by 1952. Reagan's coalition was blown up three cycles later by Bill Clinton. With only a handful of exceptions, the results of the 2000 election have locked in place the nation's geopolitical fault line for nearly a full generation, and that fault line is only getting stronger with each passing cycle. Sadly I think the country is worse for it, even aside from the regional polarization. Politicians now feel the need to make a play for fewer than 10 states every cycle and elections are not really national affairs the way they were up until the 2000 cycle. History suggests the cycle will eventually end and new fault lines will emerge, creating a red state vs. blue state dynamic we would never recognize or even imagine today, but at least for the foreseeable future I suspect the America that was defined by the election map in the year 2000 will be sticking around awhile.