map of 2020 swing states
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These Swing States Will Decide the 2020 Election

map of 2020 swing states
Original image by REVOLT on Unsplash

The race for president is heating up as the Democratic and Republican parties wrap up this year’s unconventional national conventions. If nothing else, the 2016 race taught us that a whole lot can happen in two and half months. Adding to the unpredictable impact of the evolving COVID-19 crisis, there are a number of newly-minted swing states along with old faithfuls that could make it anyone’s game.

With 69 days until Election Day, Nathaniel Rakich at FiveThirtyEight took an average of national polls and found Joe Biden with an 8.8 point lead over President Donald Trump, a slight post-convention bump. This looks pretty good for the former Vice President, until you consider that Hillary Clinton was up by 6.6 points over Trump at this point in 2016. But how could such a lead evaporate in just two months? Swing states have a lot to do with it.

What is a Swing State?

Swing states play an outsized role in US elections thanks to the electoral college system. Each state is allotted a number of electoral votes, or delegates, proportional to its population. With the exception of Nebraska and Maine, every state is winner-take-all. This means that whichever candidate gets the most votes in a state, regardless of the lead, they get all of the delegates in that state. Because of winner-take-all, states with large populations like Florida, Texas, and California, are big prizes on Election Day.

To win the presidency, a candidate must win 270 electoral votes, or just over half of the 538 that are up for grabs. Some populous states like California and New York have reliably voted Democrat for decades. Republicans rely on many of the midwestern states, which don’t individually hold many delegates, but help balance out the Democrats’ coastal heavyweights. The GOP has also been able to count on Texas since 1980 (more on this later).

It’s this relative balance that makes swing states carry such heavy sway. The last few presidential elections have come down to the results in 12 swing states: Colorado, Florida, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, Nevada, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and Wisconsin. These perennial swing states are reliably unreliable, and collectively comprise 156 electoral votes. Even in the most lopsided races, these twelve states can leave political analysts at the edges of their seats until Election Day.

Some states, like Colorado, now look more reliably blue and are likely to lose their swing state status. Others, like Michigan, maintain their swing status due to narrow margins despite reliable performance for a particular party (until recently, that is). Still more states, like Ohio, simply cannot make up their minds.

Which Swing States to Watch for in 2020

Florida

With its whopping 29 electoral votes, Florida served as ground zero for Democratic disappointment in 2000, but narrowly backed Obama twice before tipping toward Trump in 2016.

Polling for this top swing state currently shows Biden with a solid lead, and a win in Florida would plant the Democratic candidate on very solid ground. However, he would need at least one more battleground state to claim victory. Trump could, of course, eke out another narrow victory in the state which he calls home, so Florida is a state that everyone should watch closely this year.

Arizona

The Grand Canyon State has been a Grand Old Party stronghold since the election of President Eisenhower. But in 2016, Trump won the state by a smaller margin than any Republican predecessor. In 2018, Kyrsten Sinema became the first Democratic Senator in decades, and in this cycle astronaut Mark Kelly is running neck-and-neck with Martha McSally, the Republican Senator appointed by Governor Doug Ducey to Senator John McCain’s old seat.

Other factors boding well for the Democratic ticket are a growing population (and with it, a shift in political alignment), a backlash against the anti-immigration measure SB1070, and anger over Republican Governor Doug Ducey’s response to the coronavirus pandemic that led to one of the worst outbreaks in the country this summer. Taken together these factors make Arizona’s 11 electoral votes a toss up.

Michigan

With 16 electoral votes, Michigan is another important swing state. Despite delivering a consistent Democratic vote for president since 1992, the state flipped in 2016 when Trump beat Clinton by a razor-thin 0.2% margin – his narrowest state victory that year.

Whether the Trump campaign can count on another victory in Michigan is far from certain. In 2018, Democrat Gretchen Whitmer won the governorship, and 7 statewide seats flipped from red to blue. With Biden polling between 3 and 12 points ahead of Trump in Michigan, the state is looking decidedly blue in both the race for the White House and the Senate. It remains to be seen whether Republicans can convince all 10,704 voters who carried Trump over the top in 2016 to turn out for him again in 2020.

Pennsylvania

Trump’s 2016 win in Pennsylvania – affording him 20 electoral votes – came as a surprise to most pundits since no Republican had won the state since Reagan. An uprising of rural voters and improved Republican turnout in the cities helped bring home the bacon for the GOP.

Another advantage for Trump was one of the most highly GOP-gerrymandered congressional maps in the country, which the Pennsylvania Supreme Court threw out and redrew in 2018 but which continues to face challenges. And a win by Democratic Congressman Conor Lamb in Pennsylvania’s predominantly rural 18th (now 17th) district – even before the gerrymandered map was dissolved – foreshadows an uphill battle for Trump in his 2020 campaign.

Is Texas a Swing State?

There’s been a lot of buzz lately about Texas being the biggest, baddest, new battleground state, ever since it garnered national attention in its 2018 Senate race. Republican incumbent Senator Ted Cruz narrowly held off a formidable challenge from Democratic Congressman Beto O’Rourke. If Democrats manage to flip the state and win its whopping 38 electoral votes, Texas would virtually seal the deal for Biden. It would be the first time the Lone Star State backed a Democrat for president since Carter in ‘76.

But hold your horses – is Texas really a swing state? CNN’s senior political analyst Harry Enton declared it definitively so on July 12 based on national polling at the time. Bolstering his argument, he pointed to the rise of Beto, as well as the substantial number of college-educated whites – who tend to vote Democrat – in the suburbs of Houston, Austin, and Dallas.

Stuart Rothenberg, political analyst at Roll Call, disputes the “swing state” moniker for Texas. He admits that recent polling certainly makes it “competitive,” but not since Harley-riding Governor Ann Richards has a Democrat held statewide office. And Texas could be as much as a decade away from seeing comparable numbers of Democrats and Republicans, meaning it is far from a toss-up.

Ann Richards on Harley Davidson
Ann Richards, the last Democratic Governor of Texas

For now, it appears the Biden campaign is willing to explore their options in Texas. Granted, they have only forked over a meager $65,000 on ad buys, but Biden’s efforts, combined with unexpected poll numbers, have spurred the creation of Blue Texas PAC. The super PAC pledges to funnel small-dollar donations into the effort to generate “swing-state level attention” for the Biden campaign.

Whether such efforts are enough to move the needle in a state that hasn’t turned blue in over 40 years remains to be seen.

Smaller Battles Can Win the War

With multiple combinations possible in the upcoming election, smaller battleground states could easily play an outsized and decisive role in this election.

Wisconsin, with its 10 electoral college votes, flipped for Trump in 2016 after having backed every Democratic nominee since Dukakis in ‘88. With even more rural areas than Pennsylvania, it may be tough for Democrats to regain their foothold, despite gains in the 2018 election. 

The southern and predominantly conservative states of North Carolina (15 electoral votes) and Georgia (16) are other medium-small swing states which in combination could negate a loss by either candidate in Florida.

North Carolina elected a popular Democratic Governor the same day it elected Trump, and Roy Cooper is on the ticket again this round. Moreover, Trump’s move to cancel the Republican National Convention in the Tar Heel State in protest of its COVID-related safety requirements is likely to leave many former supporters feeling tarred and feathered by the President.

Iowa, with its 6 electoral votes, also leans Republican and elected a Republican governor in 2018 despite Democrats picking up 2 House seats. The Iowa Democratic party’s month-long delay in certifying its presidential caucus results likely does not help their cause either.

How to Win the Election

If you’ve read this far, you probably have a vested interest in the outcome of this election.  Maybe you live in one of these swing states or know someone who does. So what can you do to move the needle?

First and foremost, vote. Verify your registration beforehand or register if you haven’t already, and commit to making sure at least 10 of your friends vote too. Next, apply for a vote-by-mail ballot. Voting by mail is now a universal option in all but six states, and even those states offer absentee ballots under certain circumstances.

Finally, get in touch with the people you know in swing states. Remind them that their votes hold tremendous power to decide the outcome of the election. If they aren’t already registered, encourage them to do so as soon as possible. If they are registered, ask them to reach out to their friends too. This could be the year when we finally see historic voter turnout, and it would be a shame for anyone to miss out on the opportunity to participate.

Stay safe, and please, VOTE!

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