Before the voting begins, remember when government wasn’t reviled

Given the pandemic distaste for today’s politics, it is consoling to remember that things change. In the late 19th century, Robert Ingersoll, a.k.a. “The Great Agnostic,” was the nation’s most outspoken atheist and a leading Republican, a combination unlikely today. In the third decade of the 20th century, even a politician with national aspirations could be proudly parochial: The Democrats’ 1928 presidential nominee, New York Gov. Al Smith, reportedly said he would rather be a lamppost on Park Row than the governor of California, and when asked his thoughts about the problems of states west of the Mississippi, he supposedly replied, “What are the states west of the Mississippi?” In 1952, the Democratic presidential nominee, Adlai Stevenson, dismayed by the mainstream media’s conservatism, fretted about “a one-party press in a two-party country.”

Today, there is a sense in which there are few two-party states. In the presidential election 40 years ago, Carter against President Gerald Ford, 20 states were won by five points or less, including the six most populous states: California, New York, Pennsylvania, Texas, Illinois, Ohio. (Note the absence of Florida, now the third-most populous state.) In 2012, just four states were decided by five points or less (North Carolina, Florida, Ohio, Virginia). Today, Larry J. Sabato, Kyle Kondik and Geoffrey Skelley of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics identify just seven states they consider “super-swingy”: Colorado, Florida, Nevada, Ohio and Virginia, all of which voted for George W. Bush and Barack Obama twice, and Iowa and New Hampshire, which have voted Democratic in three of the past four elections.