2020 has a massive number of battleground states worth 201 electoral votes, possibly the largest number of electoral votes in contention in recent political history, with vastly different trendlines and political leanings.
2020’s competitive states can be split into two groups, on different demographic and political trends. Let’s analyze them individually.
When Trump won the election on 70,000 votes in three Midwestern states in 2016, Democrats’ path back to 270 seemed simple — win those states, namely Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin, back. But Trump’s presidency has accelerated the demographic changes already in motion, putting the South in play.
“I think Texas is a battleground”
Most southern electorates, namely in Georgia, Texas, and Arizona, used to be ironclad for the GOP. Their coalition consisted of white voters, pivotally rural and suburban ones, which were enough to consistently net Republican candidates 50–58% of the vote in elections.
While Democrats in these states had strong support with Black voters by a 70% margin and were winning Latino voters, disproportionately represented in Southern states, by a 2–1 margin, Latino turnout remained disappointingly low compared to white turnout, trailing by almost 20 points.
Despite discouraging election results time and time again, Democrats continued to hold out hope for statewide victories in these states, buoyed by the following trends in their favor:
- A rising share of the Asian vote. In the 1990s, Asian-Americans actually supported the Republican party — Bush won them by 24% in 1992. But in the decades since, Democrats have made huge gains, with Kerry receiving 56% of their votes, Obama 62%, and then 73% in the 2004, 2008, and 2012 elections respectively. This, combined with the high numbers of Asian-American voters in states such as Texas and increasing turnout, is improving Democratic prospects.
- A shift in college-educated white voters, suburban voters, and white women. In 2008, white college graduates broke for McCain by 4 points, 3 points closer than in 2000, but in 2018 Democrats carried white college graduates by 8%. And polls in the Sunbelt show Democrats could carry these voters by 14%! Democrats are also making gains with suburban voters, of which their numbers are fast-growing in the Atlanta, Phoenix, Houston, and Dallas suburbs. These suburbs are becoming more diverse and educated, which along with Trump’s election helped propel Democrats to a House majority in 2018 and look set to increase.
- Increasing Latino population share and turnout. In the past few decades, the Democratic share of the Latino vote has grown from 30 points to 34, but the most significant changes have been with turnout, where numbers have increasing fast in the past decade and are likely to grow again in 2020 with Trump’s polarization. Latinos are also the fastest-growing segment for the population and while the US may not be majority-minority until 2045, the trend towards greater racial diversity which is already apparent in heavily minority states such as Texas, Arizona, Georgia, and Florida, is good news for Democrats. (In Florida, Donald Trump leads Cuban Americans, which narrows the margin but Democrats still lead amongst Latinos.)
“We win Florida, and it’s all over”
This year, Democrats are favored to win in Arizona, in Florida, and Georgia is a tossup while Texas is lean R. While it may not look like much, Democrats have made enormous gains in the past few decades and are increasingly competitive, and may continue to improve in the next decade and beyond.
Midwestern states with high numbers of union members used to be Democratic bastions — until the 2016 election. A surprise, to be sure, but also still roughly in line with where the Midwest had been trending recently. However, this may not necessarily continue since this is less a demographic trend and more a political one.
Democrats have traditionally been viewed as the pro-labor party and continue to still support unions, but the automation of manufacturing and the decline of union power has meant union members are less and less likely to vote Democratic. This is also partly due to the increasingly left-wing social views espoused by Democrats, on gay marriage, on abortion, etc. But even so, Democrats still won union households by 18 points in 2012, to win Michigan by 10, Wisconsin by 7, and Pennsylvania by 6. So how did Donald Trump pull out a victory not just in these three states but also solid margins of victory in Iowa and Ohio?
- Republicans made white working-class gains. Trump was unique from other previous Republican candidates in he tapped racial and economic resentment that was brewing in declining towns and former manufacturing cities. He was also able to consolidate votes in rural and suburban areas that provided him with a significant lead. In Minnesota, which Clinton won, Trump’s margin with rural voters was lower, thus showing how important they were to his win in other Rust Belt states.
- Black turnout was lower than in previous elections. In 2008 and 2012, with Obama on the ballot, black voters understandably powered him to victory. But in 2016, Clinton never found a good message and was framed as the status quo candidate. Turnout amongst minorities, Blacks especially, and urban turnout all dropped.
Notably, unlike in the South, these are political changes — meaning they can shift quickly between elections. And we can see that now — polls show Joe Biden with solid leads in the three Trump flips and tossups in Iowa and Georgia. But the blue wall has been broken — Biden is taking no chances and continuing to spend money and resources in these states.
“I just don’t see him (Trump) getting more votes.”
Kevin DeWine, former Ohio Republican party chairman
Biden’s poll numbers are driven by a staggering number of shifts in his direction across most age groups, most notably with the non-college-educated white voters pivotal to Trump’s victory in 2016. Biden is also leading with seniors, a group that he lost in 2016, and has improved with white women. Additionally, turnout amongst the groups crucial to the Democratic base seems to be higher and now that Trump has a record, his framing as the change candidate no longer works.
In 2016, Trump got the best of both worlds — The South’s demographic trends had not developed enough for a Clinton victory, while he barely tipped into his column the three crucial states in the Upper Midwest.
But in 2020, Biden may have those advantages — a political rebound with Rust Belt voters and shifting demographic and political trends that currently look very good — Biden is winning in the vast majority of the competitive states described above, and a two-point polling error for Biden in these states, much smaller than the 2016 polling error, would win all the battleground states in an electoral college landslide victory.
Regardless of how the election goes, let it be known for posterity that weeks before the election, Biden is in a very good place for a 413–125 Electoral college landslide, a thing that points to just how much Trump has slid since his election in 2016.