A lot of ink in recent months has been dedicated to trying to predict what the electoral landscape may look like next fall ahead of the 2020 Presidential Election.
One of the most commonly discussed and highlighted aspects of the election is that, if the election were held today, the Electoral College would likely come down to the same states that were ultimately decisive to determining the outcome of the 2016 Election: Florida, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin (which many view as THE tipping point or deciding state right now).
Some experts, such as Dave Wassserman of Cook Political Report, have gone as far as to say that a similar scenario to 2016 could happen again, one where President Trump could realistically win re-election by winning the Electoral College by an extremely narrow margin while losing the popular vote by over 5 million votes (he lost by just under three million in 2016).
As panic-inducing as that scenario might sound, however, I’d like to use my background and expertise to ease some of those concerns. For as predictive our data has become to projecting the outcome of elections, a lot can and will change between now and Election Day 2020.
That’s because even slight shifts among certain demographic groups in both turnout, and voting margin, can change the electoral map in a fundamental way.
Let’s look at a few examples of assumptions that didn’t hold up in recent elections.
The 2016 “blue wall” for Democrats
One common myth that persisted ahead of the 2016 Presidential election was that there were several structural advantages Democrats had when it came to winning the Presidential election that Republicans didn’t.
One of these was advantages for Democrats was that they allegedly had an edge in enough states to give them 269 Electoral College votes, just one shy of what is needed to win a majority in the Electoral College. These states were ones where Democrats had won every Presidential election since 1992. These states were referred to as the “blue wall“
A 2015 analysis from Nate Silver at FiveThiryEight pointed to the flaws in that assumption. He argued that the data showed that Democrats had actually done about as well in the Electoral College, particularly in 2012, as you would expect in their victories based on the margin that they won the national popular vote by. If anything, the one very close election where the Electoral College really mattered to deciding the outcome (2000), Democrats were actually hurt, not helped by it.
Despite Silver’s sounding the alarm on this, many ignored this analysis and continued to push the narrative that Democrats had a distinct advantage in the Electoral College. Three “blue wall” states in particular (Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin) were assumed to be unbreakable, even if the 2016 election were close. This is essentially what Barack Obama’s former campaign manager, David Plouffe, argued consistently before the election, as did many others.
The reasons for arguing this were obvious: Barack Obama had won those three states by substantial margins both in 2008 and his 2012 re-election. To win them, Trump would need to benefit from a substantial shift (by high single digits to double-digits) in the electorates in those states to win. That seemed unlikely to occur in a country where demographics suggested Democrats should continue to gain an edge over time.
As we know, this assumption turned out to be catastrophically wrong. Democrats lost all three of these decisive states by the narrowest of margins. Hillary Clinton almost lost Minnesota as well, a state that hasn’t voted for a Republican for office since 1972. This happened despite Clinton winning the national popular vote by 2.1%.
Trump caused a shift in the electorate that is still reverberating throughout it today. Non-college educated whites voted even more heavily for him than they did for Mitt Romney in 2012 (from R+25 to R+39). These voters are more concentrated in these decisive states than they are in the electorate at-large. His substantial improvement with these voters helped him off-set the loss of some college educated white voters (he won them by just an estimated 4% margin compared to 14% for Romney in 2012).
When coupled with a drop in turnout among some key groups in deciding states like Michigan and Wisconsin, and a worse performance for Clinton in her margins with non-white voters than Barack Obama did in 2012, Trump was able to win.
Though some political scientists, like Silver, pointed out this possibility, many ignored it. Democrats paid the price for making assumptions that proved to be wrong.
President Obama’s Landslide in 2008 Moves Some Traditionally Red States Blue
The 2008 Presidential Election is another good example of how much things can change in a four year cycle.
In the 2004 Presidential election, George W. Bush won re-election over John Kerry by a 286-251 margin in the Electoral College. Bush won the national popular vote by 2.4% while doing so.
Though many of the trends of polarization continued to occur at the national level in 2008, Barack Obama managed to win the Electoral College by 365-173 margin while winning the popular vote by 7.2%.
In the process, Obama flipped several states that hadn’t voted for a Democrat in a long time such as Colorado (last voted Democrat in 1992). It even included him flipping states that hadn’t gone blue in decades including North Carolina (last voted Democrat in 1976), Virginia, and Indiana (Democrat last won those two states in 1964). Obama wasn’t expected to win in Indiana, though it was expected to be tight.
Obama only won 2% more of white voters (43%) than Kerry did in 2004 (41%). However, white voters made up 3% less of electorate. Black voters made up 2% more of the electorate than they did in 2004, and Obama won these voters by a 95-4% margin compared to Kerry’s 88-11%. Obama also won Hispanic voters, who made up 1% more the electorate, by a 67-31% margin compared to Kerry’s 9% win in 2004 (53%-44%).
Few would have anticipated such a fundamental shift happening in just four years, especially in some states that had been reliably Republican for decades. Obama’s election in 2008 reshaped the electorate, much like Trump’s election 2016 has. States like Colorado and Virginia have moved reliably into the Democratic column since that year, in part, because of the shifts that occurred in 2008.
2018 House Elections Defy The Odds
One final recent example we have of how much things can change in a short period of time is the 2018 Congressional Elections.
Because of the gerrymandering done by the GOP in the wake of them winning several states in a census year (2010), many experts in the field assumed that Democrats had little chance at winning back control of the House for the foreseeable future after the 2016 elections.
To win the House back, it was going to take some substantial shifts in the electorate for Democrats to win. One study, done by the Brennan Institute, estimated that Democrats may have had to win the total votes cast in the House elections in 2018 by 11% just to get a bare majority in the chamber. Even more conservative estimates put the number at closer to 7%.
Despite these seemingly insurmountable odds, Democrats were able to take the House back by a comfortable margin of seats. Democrats won 53.4% of all votes cast in Congressional races last year, to just 44.8% for Republicans. They picked up 41 seats in the process, giving them a 17 seat majority.
Democrats didn’t just win back control of the chamber by significantly improving on the level of turnout and their voting margins among key demographic groups, they also did so by improving on their margins with college-educated white voters.
According to the most detailed post-election survey, the CCES Congressional study by Harvard University, Democrats won college-educated white voters by a 55-42 margin. Remember, Democrats lost those exact same voters by an estimated 7% margin just two years earlier in the 2016 Presidential election.
Because those voters tended to be heavily represented in the suburban districts Democrats flipped, they were able to the win House back by doing significantly better among these voters. This shift, when coupled with improved turnout and voting margins among non-white voters over past mid-terms, put Democrats over the edge in the House.
What Does All of This Tell Us?
For as much as polarization is continuing to occur in this country, every election is different in its own unique way. That makes conclusory statements about what states will be in play or not dumb, especially this far out from Election Day. These examples show us that even seemingly minor shifts in the electorate can have major consequences on how an election plays out.
There’s also good reason to think the electoral map could be significantly broader in 2020 too than what many experts see it as right now. That’s because Trump is extremely unpopular.
According to FiveThiryEight’s approval rating tracker, Trump’s national approval rating stands at a polling average of just 41.3% compared to 54.2% disapproving of his job. He’s been well under water in their tracker for almost his entire presidency.
Morning Consult, which does polling in all 50 states to track his approval rating in each state, suggests he’s in serious trouble too in several states he won in 2016, including some that are currently listed as lean or likely Republican by Cook Political.
Trump’s approval rating is well under water in Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin, the three states which earned him the Presidency in 2016. He’s even under water in several other states he won in 2016 that have crucial senate races in 2020 such as Iowa, Arizona, and North Carolina. These are states he HAS to win in order to have any chance at re-election.
Trump’s polling in traditionally red Texas has been poor as well thanks to some significant shifts going on in the electorate there. That’s led Harry Enten of CNN to say that Texas could be realistically in play in 2020, especially in light of how well Democrats performed there in 2018. If Texas flipped, Trump would lose the Electoral College, even if he kept every other state he won in 2016.
If Trump were to lose all of these states where his approval rating is negative right now, he would lose the Electoral College by a 358-180 margin. If Texas and Georgia shift further too, Democrats could be looking at a 413-125 win.
The only thing that’s keeping Trump re-election hopes alive for the time-being is the economy. However, even that may not be there by election day since we may be heading towards a recession, one that’s largely being fueled his reckless policies.
Beating Donald Trump in a tight race can’t be what we settle for. If we’re going to fundamentally change things, we need to obliterate the GOP at the ballot box next November. That means competing in every state, especially the ones where his approval rating is under water.
Trying to expand the map would not only send a message to him, it could be what puts us over the top in the Senate. Without flipping that chamber next year, none of our presidential candidates will be able to accomplish any of the policy goals they’ve been discussing on the trail. We have to win senate races in states where Trump won by 1% or more in 2016 like Georgia, Iowa, North Carolina, and Texas if we want to get to a majority in the chamber.
We need a change election that can sweep the GOP out of power.
Doing this will be extremely difficult. We should absolutely treat this election like it’s razor close too. However, I believe if we execute things rights, it’s not unrealistic for us to expand the map beyond the current battlegrounds. It’s what we NEED to do if we’re going to resoundingly reject this President and this Republican Party.
Given his unpopularity, especially in so many states he won in 2016. a landslide win is possible. It’s incumbent on us to make that happen. Our country’s survival may depend on it.