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Omens, Harbingers And Bellwethers — A Guide To The Election 'Guides'

Washington played Cincinnati in London on Oct. 30. The game ended in a tie, a puzzling bellwether to say the least.
Matt Dunham AP
Washington played Cincinnati in London on Oct. 30. The game ended in a tie, a puzzling bellwether to say the least.

Voters fill out their ballots at the Nativity School polling place today in Cincinnati, in the bellwether state of Ohio.
John Minchillo AP
Voters fill out their ballots at the Nativity School polling place today in Cincinnati, in the bellwether state of Ohio.

There's got to be a bellwether in there somewhere.
Daniel Ochoa de Olza AP
There's got to be a bellwether in there somewhere.

Polls are not the only place people look to for guidance to Election Day outcomes. Lots of people believe in bellwethers.


The first two things to know about bellwethers is that there's no letter "a" in the word, and bellwethers don't have anything to do with predicting the weather. The name refers to the neutered rams that shepherds use to guide flocks in the right direction. The wether trots along when the shepherd calls, the bell at his neck jangles, and the other sheep come ambling after him.

In the political usage, the bellwether is a state that signals the direction of the whole flock. Folks once said "as Maine goes, so goes the nation." That nostrum was quite popular until 1936, when Maine was one of just two states voting against incumbent Franklin D. Roosevelt, who joked: "As Maine goes, so goes Vermont."

Missouri had a near-perfect record in the 20th century, voting with the winner every time with the exception of 1956. Lately, however, the Show Me State has moved rather decisively to the right, voting against Barack Obama twice and standing strong for Donald Trump this year.

Ohio alone has held its longstanding bellwether reputation into a third century. No Republican has ever won the White House without carrying Ohio, and very few Democrats have done so either. In fact, Ohio has been with the winner a remarkable 28 times in the 30 presidential elections beginning with William McKinley in 1896. (It also voted for Thomas Dewey against FDR in 1944 and for Richard Nixon over John F. Kennedy in 1960.)

Ohio's feat has owed much to its close resemblance to the nation as a whole in demography, economics and political party identification. But that resemblance may be fading, as Ohio has not kept pace with the demographic change in the country as a whole. The average age in Ohio is now well above the national average. Not a shock, then, that Ohio is a better bet to vote Republican this fall than any other Northern industrial state.


Illinois is now a closer fit when it comes to the national profile, largely thanks to a sizable Hispanic population in Chicago. Illinois' record of voting with the winner is also pretty good (26 of the past 30 cycles). But it is not likely to qualify as a bellwether any time soon, as it now leans Democratic even more than Ohio tilts GOP. Hillary Clinton had a double-digit lead in her childhood state throughout the fall.

Another state with a stellar predictive voting record is, surprisingly, New Mexico. Despite its location far from the major urban centers and its historically high percentage of Hispanic Americans, New Mexico has been with the winner 24 times in the 26 elections since it became a state in 1912 — and only one of its misses should really count. That would be the close election of 1976, when it went for incumbent Republican Gerald Ford. The other "miss" was in 2000, when it preferred Democrat Al Gore by a few hundred votes. Gore actually won the national popular vote but lost narrowly in the Electoral College. New Mexico's final tally also tends to come pretty close to the national result.

Over the past 30 presidential cycles, New Mexico has deviated from the national result by only 2.8 percent on average — second only to Ohio with its average deviation of just 2.2 percent.

And while we are out West, it is worth noting that Nevada is once again a battleground state. Less well-known is the Silver State's recent status as a bellwether. It has voted with the national winner every time save once (1976) since 1912. Nevada voted with the Republicans through their winning streak of the 1980s, switched to the Democrats in the 1990s, then went back to the GOP for both of George W. Bush's elections and then to Obama for both of his. That makes the state all the more desirable a prize this fall, and both parties express assurance they will carry it this time.

One other way to look at the states' bellwether records is to consider the better bellwethers as a group. There are 11 states that have been with the winning ticket 80 percent of the time or better in the past 30 elections (since 1896). Of these, eight are now leaning toward Clinton in the polls, one (Missouri) is clearly for Trump and two (Ohio and Nevada) are still considered toss-ups.

Counties know how to pick them too

If states cannot be relied upon to signal the winner, perhaps smaller jurisdictions can still do so.

Surely we must tip our hat to Vigo County in Indiana, which has been with the winner, regardless of party, in every election save two since 1888. The home county of Terre Haute whiffed in 1908 (they liked the populist firebrand William Jennings Bryan) and in 1952 (they voted for Adlai Stevenson, the Democratic governor of neighboring Illinois).

Ottawa County in Ohio has been on target every four years since 1964, and Bexar County in Texas (San Antonio) has had only one miss since 1928 (preferring the Democrat Hubert Humphrey in 1968). The same can be said for Hidalgo County in New Mexico.

All these bellwethers at least have the virtue of representing results that are not only real but relevant. The same cannot be said for some of the other talismans you will see noted and quoted.

Now what about sports

For many years the World Series has been cited as a mystical omen for the presidential outcome. Although there is no relationship between the two contests, there had been a longstanding correlation between the fates of the two leagues and the two major parties.

When the American League team won in October, the Republicans won in November. And when the National League team won, the Democrats won. This pattern held pretty well from the 1950s through the 1970s. But it hasn't been reliable since. (Although lots of Chicago Cubs fans hope it will bring home one of their number, Hillary Clinton, this week.)

Now, of course, no one can find any substantive correlation between who wins a baseball title and who gets picked as president. So this amounts to a classic example of the coin-toss phenomenon. The occurrence of a win by one league or the other in a presidential year is always a 50-50 proposition. Any time you toss the coin, the odds of heads or tails are the same, no matter how many times in a row it comes up heads.

The World Series myth has not been the only attempt to link outcomes in sports to the presidential vote. There are those in the nation's capital who will tell you the fate of Washington, D.C.'s NFL team coincides with the fate of the party in the White House.

If Washington wins its last football game before Election Day, the president gets re-elected or the nominee of his party wins. Laugh if you will, but it's held true since a Washington victory presaged the re-election of FDR in 1936. This year, the team's most recent game ended in a tie. So go figure.

Then there are the more commerce-minded harbingers. If the stock market is up from Labor Day to Election Day, that's a good sign for the party in power. This one may not qualify as an omen so much as a contributing factor (a rising market usually means greater economic confidence, a good sign for the incumbent party).

But again, in 2016, the omen is sending mixed messages. The Dow Jones Industrial Average is down several hundred points from its highs in August, but its biggest down days have been associated with news developments that appeared to favor a Trump win. That would reverse the usual portent of a falling market.

For example, the Dow fell sharply in the hour after FBI Director James Comey said his agency was looking at more emails potentially related to its earlier investigation of Clinton's private email server (Oct. 28). All the stock indices continued losing ground the following week, as the polls showed Clinton's lead over Trump dwindling.

But the Dow and other measures shot up dramatically Monday, the day after Comey announced the new emails would not alter his earlier judgment that there was no criminal case against Clinton for her handling of information as secretary of state.

So what do all these signs and signals tell us? What should you believe?

Probably just as much as you wish to believe.

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