KEY POINTS FROM THIS ARTICLE
— The 2020 election may effectively be decided by six crucial swing states, all of which featured margins of less than two percentage points in 2016.
— While these states are up for grabs in 2020, there are signs that these states have been becoming more hospitable to Republicans over the past couple of decades.
The trends in 2020’s key swing states
There are six states that will be key to winning the 2020 presidential election if it is at all close. Whoever wins most of them will in all likelihood win the presidency. The six are Florida, Michigan, Minnesota, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin.
Donald Trump won Florida, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin in 2016, while Hillary Clinton won Minnesota and New Hampshire.
All were decided by two percentage points or less in 2016. Trump won the 2016 election by unexpectedly carrying Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin. It is important to note that these three and many other “heartland” states have many white working-class men and women — defined as those who do not have a four-year college degree. Nationally, Trump beat Clinton among this group by 66% to 29%, according to the national exit poll. This group was key to Trump’s surprising victory in 2016. The Democrats cannot win in 2020 without reducing the victory margin among this demographic group, especially in the six key swing states.
Other states like Arizona, Colorado, Nevada, North Carolina, and Ohio will get serious attention, but the winner in all likelihood will have to carry most of the Big Six Swing States. With the six states so closely divided between the parties, either party could win them in 2020. Who wins will depend on the candidates, the campaign quality, and external circumstances like the economy and any potential major war.
Because these states are so crucial for 2020 and future elections, it is important to analyze how they have been trending over recent years. A good comparison is to look at the 2000 election, when George W. Bush narrowly defeated Al Gore, compared to the 2016 election. Both were very close: Clinton won the popular vote by 2.1 points in 2016 but lost the electoral vote count, and Gore won nationally by 0.5 points in 2000 but lost in an Electoral College squeaker because he lost Florida by less than 600 votes. Another similarity between the two years was that each had three serious third party contenders who won a total of 3.5% to 4.9% of the votes. In 2000, Ralph Nader may have caused Gore’s loss, while in 2016 the third-party candidates may not have affected the outcome. That’s because according to the exit poll, nearly a fifth of respondents said they held an unfavorable view of both Clinton and Trump. Unsurprisingly, nearly all of the third-party voters fell into this category. Overall, Trump won this group 47%-30%, suggesting that in a two-way race, Trump may have still won because of his advantage among these voters.
Beyond that, we’ll see that it is important to note whether these third-party or independent candidates were liberal or conservative leaning.
The liberals in 2000 were Al Gore and Ralph Nader (Green). The conservatives were George W. Bush, Pat Buchanan (Reform), and Harry Browne (Libertarian). In 2016, the liberals were Hillary Clinton and Jill Stein (Green). The conservatives were Donald Trump, Gary Johnson (Libertarian), and Evan McMullin (independent Republican).
In Table 1, you can see the political shifts that occurred nationally from 2000 to 2016.
Table 1: Left vs. right, 2000 vs. 2016
Note: The “All Liberals” column includes the Democratic nominee in addition to the left-leaning candidates identified above. The “All Conservatives” column includes the Republican nominee in addition to the right-leaning candidates identified above.
There was not much change nationally. The numbers reflect Clinton’s slightly larger popular vote win over Trump and the fact that the major third-party candidate in 2016 was the Libertarian (and former Republican) Gary Johnson, as compared to the liberal Ralph Nader in 2000.
But the picture changes notably when we look to the Big Six Swing States.
Table 2: 2000 vs. 2016 in six swing states
For all six of these key states, the conservatives added substantially to their margin from 2000 to 2016. The lowest gain for conservatives was 3.4% in New Hampshire and the highest was 10.6% in Minnesota. The nominated Republican candidate gained in five of the six states. In New Hampshire, the Republicans lost a bit of ground.
Third-party voting was very high in 2016, almost surely because both Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton were disliked by many voters. Both had unfavorable ratings well above their favorable ratings. 4.9% of the 2016 votes went to third party candidates, thus rejecting Trump and Clinton, while in the 2012 election just 1.7% rejected both Barack Obama and Mitt Romney.
The three main 2016 third-party candidates — Johnson (Libertarian), Stein (Green), or McMullin (anti-Trump Republican independent) — do not appear to be planning to run in 2020. So it is likely that both the Libertarian and Green parties will run different candidates. But they probably will not take as many votes in 2020 as they did in 2016. Howard Schultz, the Starbucks founder and longtime Democrat, may run as an independent as he fears the Democratic Party has moved too far left, although he has not made much news in recent months after a flurry of activity earlier in the year. If Schultz does run, he likely would draw more votes from the Democrat than from Trump — which helps explain why so many Democrats have been very hostile to his candidacy. If they vote at all, more 2016 Libertarian/Johnson voters may be likelier to go to Trump than to the Democrat. Green Party voters who do not stick with that party’s nominee may be likelier to go to the Democrat next year.
Both the long-term conservative trend in these six key swing states and the likely 2020 configuration of third parties favor Trump in the states that are likeliest to collectively choose the 2020 winner.
We don’t know what the overall lay-of-the-land will be in November 2020. A recession or major war could cripple Trump. The nomination of a too-liberal or unpopular Democrat could destroy Democratic chances. These are what political scientists call short-term factors.
But the long-terms trends favor the Republicans in the Big Six Swing States.
|Al Tuchfarber is Professor Emeritus of Political Science at the University of Cincinnati and a guest columnist at Sabato’s Crystal Ball. He founded the well-respected Ohio Poll and now writes a weekly global political-economic blog at the TuchfarberReport.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.