The Brainstorm Long Read: results in these states in November will tell us if Donald Trump gets four more years or if Joe Biden is heading to the White House
Electoral systems profoundly shape the nature of electoral contests, as is the case with presidential elections in the United States. With the Electoral College system used for these contests, the winning candidate is the one who wins the most electoral college votes and not necessarily the one who wins the popular vote. With 538 electoral college votes divided between each of the 50 states, as well as the District of Columbia, a candidate needs to win 270 electoral college votes to secure the presidency.
Each state is allocated a number of electoral college votes based on the number of senators and congress members elected by each state. It's roughly proportional to each state’s population, but not directly related, given that even the District of Columbia and the very small (in terms of population) states such as Wyoming and Vermont all have three electoral college votes. In the states of Maine and Nebraska, some of the electoral college votes are determined based on who wins in those states' congressional districts.
In this winner takes all system, the candidate who wins the most votes in a state takes all that state’s electoral college votes, regardless of the size of their winning margin. For instance, George W Bush won all the electoral college votes in Florida in 2000 by a margin of just 537 votes and took the White House as a result.
From RTÉ's States of Mind podcast, RTÉ Washington correspondent Brian O'Donovan and RTÉ foreign desk reporter Jackie Fox delve into the world of the Electoral College
Given the increasingly polarised US political landscape of the late 1990s and 2000s - and with a number of "red states" and "blue states" being won by consistently large margins by Republicans and Democrats respectively - the contest for the presidential elections has increasingly boiled down to a handful of competitive swing, or purple, or battleground, states. This is usually reflected in candidates’ campaigning and campaign spend geographies in the run-up to the November election.
Only a relatively small proportion of the states would be classed as swing states. For instance, 37 of the 50 state races have been won consistently by the same party across the five presidential elections contested during the 2000s. The exceptions are southern states Nevada, New Mexico and Colorado; midwestern states Ohio, Iowa, Indiana, Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania; and east coast states New Hampshire, Virginia, North Carolina and Florida (as well as Maine Congressional District 2 and Nebraska Congressional District 2). With some exceptions (Indiana, for instance), the key swing states for November will largely be drawn from this list.
Votes obviously matter when it comes to determining who wins a presidential election contest, but where you win those votes is also important. As with Donald Trump in 2016, Barack Obama in 2012 and Bush in 2000, candidates with a more efficient geography of support – where votes are not "wasted" by large surpluses in your strong states and narrow losses in the swing/purple states – will be at an advantage in this electoral system.
From RTÉ Radio 1's Morning Ireland, Brian O'Donovan assesses Donald Trump's performance at the Republican National Convention
Clever campaigning focuses on the winning of effective votes, those votes that are crucial in terms of winning seats in parliament for a party, or, in the case of this election, winning electoral college votes. For Democrats, there is no point chasing after more votes in solid blue states, such as New York or California, as they know they will take the electoral college votes in these states, irrespective of their winning margins. Between 2012 and 2016, the number of surplus votes won by the Democrats in California increased from just over 3 million to just under 4.3 million, but these extra surplus votes had no impact whatsoever on the number of electoral college votes won in that state. In a similar vein, it is pointless for Democrats to chase votes in solid red states they know they will lose, as there will be no electoral college votes for these efforts.
But swing states are not set in stone. Major swing states may become states that are "safe" Republican or Democrat states over time, while solid red and blue states may move into the swing state category. Shifting demographics and the political realignment of certain regions or social or demographic groups can drive these changes.
The shifting demographics of the Sunbelt States in the southwest, resulting in higher numbers of Latina/Latino votes in these states, has led to New Mexico, Arizona and Texas, as well as California, becoming more Democrat-leaning in recent decades. Increasing numbers of college educated voters in certain states – in some cases driven by inward migration from "blue states" – has also resulted in some states, such as Colorado and Virginia, becoming more Democrat-leaning.
From RTÉ Radio 1's Morning Ireland, Brian O'Donovan on Joe Biden's speech as he accepted his party's nomination for the White House race
By contrast, Republicans have come to command higher support levels from white working class and rural voters over the same time period. States in the midwest, such as Ohio, Iowa and Minnesota, as well as the "Blue Wall" states of Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Michigan, tilted strongly to the Republicans in the 2016, while some red states in the South, such as Kentucky, West Virginia and Tennessee, have become even more Republican-leaning.
Look at the winning margins for Republican and Democrat candidates in the 2004 (Bush and John Kerry) and 2016 (Trump and Hillary Clinton) elections in a number of states in Table 1 below. This shows increased support levels for Democrats in formerly red states such as Virginia and Georgia and increased support levels for Republicans in formerly blue states, such as Maine, or traditional swing states, such as Ohio and Iowa. But in showing increased winning margins for the Democrats in safe blue states (California) and Republicans in safe red states (West Virginia and Arkansas), these trends are, in part, symptomatic of the growing polarisation of US politics during the 2000s.
While trends in national opinion polls are of interest, the main focus of most electoral geographers over the coming weeks will be on opinion polls in swing states. It is here, after all, that the election will be won or lost. In 2012, opinion polls in the swing states were more likely to suggest that Obama would win the electoral college than the messages coming from national-level polls, some of which had Mitt Romney ahead in the weeks leading up to the actual contest.
Even though there was a swing against Obama nationally relative to his stronger performance in 2008 (although he did win the popular vote in 2012), he still won the electoral college vote in 2012 by a very comfortable margin. He only lost North Carolina and Indiana, as well as Nebraska District 2, out of the states that he had won in 2008. The Obama campaign fared better where it really mattered, namely the swing states. The ability to perform stronger in areas where these increased votes really mattered – namely the swing states in the Midwest region – was also key to Trump's win in the electoral college in 2016 (even though he lost the popular vote by almost 2.9 million votes).
So, what are the crucial swing states for this year's presidential election? Which states will ultimately determine whether Trump gets four more years or whether Joe Biden takes the presidency instead. The "close contests" at the 2016 election (Figure 1) offers useful pointers here. It is more than likely that most of the key swing states in 2020 will include those that Trump won narrowly in 2016 (Wisconsin, Michigan, Pennsylvania Florida, North Carolina, Arizona), but also states that Clinton won by a narrow margin (New Hampshire, Minnesota, Maine, Nevada, Colorado). Recent opinion polls, as well as results in the 2018 mid term elections, suggest that states, such as Texas and Georgia, could also be competitive in 2020.
Based on an overview of past voting trends and recent state-level opinion polls, as well as the excellent polls analysis from 270 To Win, FiveThirtyEight and Real Clear Politics, here are the 10 key swing states in 2020 (in order of "swinginess") I reckon will decide this year's election.
The most crucial of the three "Blue Wall" states that flipped to the Republicans at the last presidential election accounts for 20 electoral college votes. It is also probably the "Blue Wall" state where Biden currently commands the least convincing leads in state-level opinion polls. Unless Democrats can compensate with gains in the more southern states (Florida, North Carolina, Georgia and Arizona), it is hard to see them regain the presidency unless they can take the Keystone State.
From RTÉ's States of Mind podcast, a look at the life and times of Joe Biden
Trump won Pennsylvania in 2016 by a very narrow 0.7% margin, but this was the first time that Republicans won here at a presidential election since the 1988 election. If the Trump-Biden contest is a very close one, then this could well be the state that decides the election. If so, it may well be voter turnout that determines the result here (as was the case in 2016). Can Biden get a high turnout of Democrat supporters, particularly from the Democrat stronghold of Philadelphia and its surrounding counties? Or will Trump benefit again from a massive turnout of his supporters in the more rural counties of northern and western Pennsylvania?
Democrats succeeded in winning this state at every presidential election between 1988 and 2012, but this changed in 2016 when Trump won Wisconsin, albeit by a very narrow 22,748 vote margin (0.8% margin). On present poll trends, Biden is tipped to win here, with estimated leads of roughly six to seven percentage points, based on the most recent poll averages (see Table 2). However, should the race tighten over the next few weeks – and there is every likelihood that it could – then Wisconsin will be very competitive. Should the race boil down to close contests in a handful of states, then Wisconsin is very likely to be one of these states.
The most famous swing state of all. With 29 electoral college votes up for grabs, it is also the largest swing state - or at least it was before Texas started to edge into swing state territory. The winning candidate in Florida has gone on to win the presidency at every election between 1964 and 2016, with the exception of 1992, when Bill Clinton lost to George H.W. Bush in Florida by a very narrow margin.
Mid-term elections in 2018 further point to Florida remaining as a swing state, with the Republicans winning the gubernational election by a 0.4% margin and the Senate election by a wafer-thin 0.1% margin. Had Hilary Clinton won the "Blue Wall" states of Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin in 2016, she could still have secured the presidency despite losing Florida to Trump. The sense is that the Democrats could afford to lose Florida and go on to win the electoral college by regaining some of the states they lost in the Midwest in 2016, but Florida appears to be a must-win state for Trump.
Although a swing state over the past few decades, the Democrats did win Michigan at every contest between 1992 and 2012 and Obama enjoyed very comfortable wins here in 2008 and 2012. This changed in 2016, when Trump won Michigan by just 10,704 votes (a 0.2% winning margin). As with Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, Trump's win here was based, in part, on his ability to get higher turnout levels among his supporters in the more rural parts of the state, as compared with lower turnout levels in the Democrat-stronghold of Detroit, the largest city in the state.
From RTÉ's States of Mind podcast, inside the Trump campaign for November's election
A Biden path to victory in November needs to include a win in Michigan. Based on recent opinion polls, Michigan seems to be the most winnable of the "Blue Wall" states for the Democrats. It’s hard to see Biden secure the presidency without taking Michigan, especially given that it accounts for 16 electoral college votes.
Arizona is one of a number of traditionally "red states" in the southwest which have started to lean more towards the Democrats in recent electoral cycles. This state has only been won once by the Democrats (in 1996) across all the elections held between 1952 and 2016 and the Republicans held this state by margins of between eight and 10 percentage points between 2000 and 2012.
But Latina/Latino migration into Arizona has changed the state’s demographics and the higher percentage of Latina/Latino voters among the state’s electorate resulted in a much closer contest here in 2016. Trump won by a narrow 3.5% margin, but changes in demographics could help to edge this state towards Biden in 2020, especially as he has enjoyed a lead here (albeit not a very large one) in most recent opinion polls. Arizona accounts for 11 electoral college votes and the candidate that wins these will receive a substantial boost towards their ambitions of reaching the 270 target.
From RTÉ One's Prime Time, a special report on the outcome of the 2016 US presidential election
Jimmy Carter won North Carolina at the 1976 election, but the state has been nearly always won since then by Republicans, bar a narrow Obama win here in 2008. North Carolina was very much a safe red seat across the 1980s, 1990s and early 2000s, but the state's changing demographics have allowed Democrats to make inroads here over the past two decades.
North Carolina is probably the fastest growing state on the east coast in population terms as large numbers of people have moved into the Tar Heel State from traditional "blue states" in the northeast, thus giving North Carolina a distinctly bluer hue. The changing demographics helped Obama win here in 2008, but the Republicans held this state in 2012 and 2016, albeit by relatively narrow margins. Recent opinion polls point to a very close contest here again in 2020. North Carolina accounts for 16 electoral college votes and is a major target for both campaigns.
No state has been more consistent than Minnesota as regards Democrat wins in US presidential elections: the Democrat candidate has carried Minnesota at every election since 1976, even though the winning margins have been relatively tight in recent contests. Just as other midwest state started to lean more towards the Republicans at the 2016 election, Trump also made gains in Minnesota, although Clinton held on to edge out a very narrow victory here (1.5% margin).
From RTÉ's States of Mind podcast, a deep dive into the Republican National Convention's five F’s: faith, family, feelings, fear and future.
Recent polls suggest Trump's support levels are holding up better in Minnesota than in the three Blue Wall states he won in 2016. Should the race tighten over the next few weeks, there is a good chance that Trump could lose Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Michigan, but gain Minnesota. If all other states voted the same way as they did in 2016, then a win in Minnesota would be enough to ensure Trump retains the presidency.
One of the closest contests in 2016 came in the Granite State, with Clinton narrowly winning here by 2,736 votes (0.4% margin). New Hampshire has been the most significant swing state in the northeast region over the past few decades, although Democrats have won New Hampshire at every contest out of the last seven, apart from the 2000 election. While there was much focus then on how Bush’s narrow win in Florida helped to secure him the presidency, Al Gore would have won the presidency had Bush lost New Hampshire (a state he won by 7,211 votes). Recent poll trends suggest that Biden currently commands a pretty comfortable lead in the state, but New Hampshire cannot be ignored by either party.
Since Carter’s two wins in his home state in 1976 and 1980, the state of Georgia had tended to be a solid red state, with Republican candidates winning Georgia in all but one of the nine presidential contests held since the Carter years. Bush carried the Peach State by margins of more than 10 percentage points at the 2000 and 2004 elections, but the gap between Republicans and Democrats in Georgia has narrowed in more recent years. This can again be, in part, related to changing demographics and African American, Hispanic and Asian people now account for well over 40% of Georgia’s population. A very closely fought gubernational election contest in 2018 further underpinned the tightening of the margin between Republicans and Democrats in this state and Georgia’s growing swing state status, which has been further underpinned by recent polls, points to a closely fought contest here.
From RTÉ Archives, Mary Wilson reports for RTÉ News on the visit of Jimmy Carter to Dublin in 1995
Although Carter won Texas in 1976, Texas has been a solid red state for most of the last half century and most Republican candidates carried this state by very large margins. Homeboy George W Bush won Texas by a 21.3% margin in 2000 and by a 22.9% margin in 2004, while Mitt Romney won Texas by a 15.8% margin in 2012. But due to increasing numbers of Latina/Latino voters in the Lone Star State, the Democrats are becoming increasingly competitive here. Democrat support is especially strong here in the larger cities of Houston, Dallas, Fort Worth and Austin, and in the southern parts of the state, along the border with Mexico.
Growing evidence that Texas might move from a red state to a swing state was provided by the 2018 Senate contest, when the Republican incumbent Ted Cruz had a narrow 2.6% winning margin over Democrat Beto O'Rourke. Different recent opinion polls have shown both Trump and Biden ahead, which seem to suggest that Texas will be competitive in 2020.
It may well be the case that the 2020 election comes too early for the Democrats to push for a win in Texas. However, if Biden was to win here, it would be almost impossible to see any path to victory for Trump, given the loss of 38 electoral college votes from what used to be the largest of the red states.
From RTÉ One's Six One News, report on Beto O'Rourke's 2018 Senate contest with Ted Cruz
Other states to watch
There will be close contests in Maine Congressional District 2 – a largely rural district in the Democrat-leaning state of Maine – and Nebraska Congressional District 2 – a mainly urban district, focused around the city of Omaha, in the otherwise solid red state of Nebraska. If the national contest tightens over the coming weeks, expect competitive races in Nevada, Colorado and Virginia. The latter two states have become more Democrat-leaning across recent electoral cycles and polls there show commanding leads for Biden. Nevada polls, however, point to a much tighter race there and a very close contest could ensue here, as happened in 2016.
Ohio and Iowa are also swing states, although these have become more Republican leaning in recent years and Trump won both by relatively comfortable margins in 2016. Some recent polls have shown Biden ahead in Iowa and Ohio, however, and Democrats will expect to be competitive here. However, if Biden is winning in Iowa and/or Ohio in November, then the likelihood is that he is already well on his way to securing the presidency. In any case, as with the other swing states focused on here, Iowa and Ohio will be a focus of significant campaign activity and campaign spending over the coming weeks, while the "safe" red and blue states get largely ignored.
The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ