The Battle for the Battleground States

AW
December 21, 2020

The last two successful Democratic candidates for president, President Barack Obama in 2012 and former Vice President Joe Biden in 2020, each won the national popular vote with 51 percent of the vote and beat their GOP opponent by four points (51-47). Yet, we also know these similar national popular vote margins, did not produce similar electoral college outcomes. Obama won 26 more electoral votes than Biden (332-306).

What’s more interesting, however, is to see the difference in how each Democrat performed in the key battleground states. And, what it may tell us about the 2024 map.


Obama 2012 Vote Vs. Biden 2020 Vote


Here we see the drop in Democratic performance in the Midwest – especially the significant declines in Ohio (-5.6) and Iowa (-7.1) as well as the increase in Democratic performance in the sunbelt states of Arizona (+4.8), Georgia (+4.2) and Texas (+5).

Democrats seem to be stuck in North Carolina at just under the 50 percent mark, while in Florida, they have backslid every year since 2012. 

Virginia and Colorado, once the gold standards of swing states are now firmly planted in the Democratic column.

Another way to show how much the electoral map has changed between 2012 and 2020 – even as both candidates took a similar share of the popular vote - is to look at how close (or how far from), the 51 percent popular vote margin each candidate performed in the key battleground states. For example, in 2012, Pres. Obama took 51.5 percent of the vote in Colorado, just a half-a-point better than his national average. In 2020, Biden’s margin in Colorado (55.4 percent), was more than 4 points better than his national showing of 51 percent.


Obama 2012/Biden 2020 Vote Vs. Popular Vote Margin


One of the first things you notice is how many states Biden carried with less than his national margin of 51.3 percent: Arizona (-1.8), Georgia (-1.8), Michigan (-0.7), Nevada (-1.3), Pennsylvania (-1.5), and Wisconsin (-1.9). Obama won just two states with less than his 51 percent national average: Florida (-1.1) and Ohio (-0.4).

In other words, Biden’s 51 percent national popular vote margin is not as reflective of his showing in battleground states as Obama’s 51 percent showing was. In 2020, the red states got redder (South Carolina, for example, went from R+10 in 2012 to R+12 in 2020), while the blue states got bluer (Maryland went from D+26 to D+32).

The Blue Wall is a Purple Wall, and has been for a while:

Compared to Obama’s performance in 2012, Biden did 3 points worse in Wisconsin and Michigan and 2 points worse than Obama did in Pennsylvania. But, if you go back to 2004, the Democratic vulnerability was already showing itself. In fact, Biden’s margins in those three states look more like Sen. John Kerry’s 2004 showing than Obama’s 2012 performance. Another way to look at it: Romney’s performance in these states in 2012 was the outlier, not the standard.

In fact, for all of the hand-wringing about the Democrats “crumbling” Blue Wall, Biden outperformed Kerry in eight other battleground states: Arizona, Nevada, Colorado, Florida, Virginia, Georgia, Texas, and North Carolina. Meanwhile, Trump outperformed Bush in just two other battleground states: Iowa and Ohio.


Blue Wall Election Results


Nevada is a better target for GOPers than New Hampshire or Minnesota:

It's easy to see why many picked Minnesota and New Hampshire as top targets for the Trump campaign to flip red in 2020. Clinton barely squeaked out wins in both states with just over 46 percent. Yet, in 2020, Biden increased his win margin in both states by about 6 points. But, in Nevada, a state Clinton also narrowly carried in 2016, Biden improved on Clinton's margin by just 2 points. 

A big part of the reason Nevada didn't get the attention of Minnesota is the fact that it has a large non-white population; about 35 percent of the electorate was non-white in 2016. Minnesota and New Hampshire, of course, are heavily white. The often overlooked fact is that Nevada also has a tiny white, college-educated population (just 22 percent compared to Minnesota's 35 percent). Meanwhile, 43 percent of the electorate is white and non-college. 

We also know that Trump performed better with Latino voters in many key regions of the country, suggesting he did so in Nevada as well. 

Figuring out how much of Trump's improved performance in the state is due to bigger margins with white, non-college voters or improvement with Latino voters from 2016 is going to take a while to sort out. We don't have updated voter file data yet, and I'm wary of using Exit Poll data given its poor track record on accurately capturing non-white voters. But, it's likely to be a combination of both. An American Election Eve Poll conducted by political research groups Asian American Decisions, Latino Decisions and the African American Research Collaborative and reported on by The Nevada Independent showed Biden won 70 percent of Nevada's Latino vote compared to Trump's 25 percent. Even so, the Independent reports, that was a 20 point improvement from Trump's 2016 performance when a  Latino Decisions' 2016 Election Eve poll, found Trump losing the Latino vote to Hillary Clinton, 16 percent to 81 percent. 

My colleague David Wasserman crunched the numbers from the state’s four congressional districts and argues that Trump’s improved showing in the state was most likely due to a shift in the Latino vote. Trump improved his performance in the Las Vegas centered 1st CD – the most heavily Latino in the state – from 33-62 percent in 2016 to 36-61 in 2020 (a four-point shift in his favor). Meanwhile, in the white suburban Henderson 3rd CD, it went from Trump +1.0 to Biden +0.2. And, in the northern NV (whitest) 2nd CD, it went from 52-40 Trump to 54-44 Trump.

After every presidential election, we use the performance of the two major candidates as a way to assess which states will be in play for the next election. But, that exercise can miss the more important trend lines that are playing underneath. While each campaign is different – and each candidate brings his/her own unique coalition to the polls – it's also true that some states are more elastic (have shown real change over the years), while others are more rigid. As the two parties think about making investments for the future, they will need to assess what kind of return they can get for their investments. For example, is it better for Democrats to spend more resources on trying to move the Democratic share of the vote 4 points in Texas, or two points in Florida? Or, should Republicans spend more money in Nevada, where they lost by two points, or in New Hampshire, where Republican candidates have been trapped in a 46-49 percent range for the last 16 years?