vision 2020

Democrats Still Have Multiple Routes to 2020 Electoral College Win

The map mattered most in 2016. Photo: Drew Angerer/Getty Images

The sizable gap between Donald Trump’s 304-227 Electoral College majority in 2016 and the paltry 46.1 percent of the popular vote he commanded (trailing Hillary Clinton’s 48.2 percent) has made political observers looking forward to the 2020 contest more focused than usual on state battlegrounds as opposed to the national balance of power. And obviously, most Democrats have obsessed about flipping the three Rust Belt states Trump won that shocked everyone: Pennsylvania and Michigan (Democratic since 1988) and Wisconsin (Democratic since 1984). That Democrats made gains in 2018 in these three states has made them a continued focus for 2020, and moderate presidential candidates Joe Biden, Pete Buttigieg, and Amy Klobuchar have emphasized their supposed strength in the Rust Belt.

A 2016 map with the winning candidates’ popular vote margin in the various states. Photo: Courtesy of University of Virginia Center for Politics

But all along there have been arguments for alternative routes to 270 electoral votes that might be open to a Democrat, and at Larry Sabato’s Crystal Ball, Seth Moskowitz has laid them out in fascinating detail.

As he notes, flipping back the three big Rust Belt states would require (with all else staying the same) a conversion of a mere 78,000 votes — or 1,690 popular votes per electoral vote. But there’s been a lot of talk lately about Wisconsin being more obdurate MAGA country than it was in 2016. So is there a simple way for Democrats to win with Pennsylvania and Michigan? Well, yes: If they can win Arizona, which Trump carried by 91,000 votes in 2016, that would get the job done.

There is an even simpler route for a Democratic electoral vote majority: flip Florida, one of the closest 2016 states (Trump won it by just under 113,000 votes), and flip Michigan, too, and the Democrat would win even if the GOP retained Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Arizona, Georgia, and North Carolina. Thanks to the narrow but consistent Republican margins in the Sunshine State in 2016 and 2018, it could be a reach, but the payoff in 29 electoral votes would be well worth the investment. As Moskowitz says:

Michigan was the closest state in the Rust Belt and Florida was the closest in the Sun Belt. If Clinton had edged out victories in both of these, she would have won an additional 45 Electoral College votes. This would have brought her total to 277 and dropped Trump to 261.

An alternative Rust Belt/Sunbelt combo platter for Democrats would add Arizona to the mix:

Arizona has been trending Democratic as densely populated Maricopa County, home to Phoenix, becomes less Republican. Trump, however, still carried the county by just under three points in 2016. Substituting Arizona for Wisconsin — which gave Trump his largest percentage margin of the three Rust Belt states — substantially increases the number of voters Clinton would have had to win and the cost per Electoral College vote. Substituting Arizona for Michigan does the same.

And there are scenarios for a Democratic win that won’t count on any of the lost Rust Belt states, with 270-plus electoral votes built on a combination of flipping Arizona, Georgia, and North Carolina (requiring a net gain of 475,000 popular votes) or more simply Arizona and Florida (requiring just 204,000 additional net votes).

There’s even a contingency in which a Democrat could lose all three of the Rust Belt battleground states Trump won in 2016 — plus lose Arizona, Florida, Georgia, and North Carolina — but still get to 270 electoral votes by carrying blue-trending Texas.

The bottom line is that the Democratic path to victory in 2000 is no more preordained than was a Republican path in 2016 that we thought might require wins in places Trump ultimately lost like Nevada, New Hampshire, and Virginia. But it will remain true that no one should place too much stock in national polls unless the race becomes something of an unlikely blowout.

Democrats Have Multiple Routes to 2020 Electoral College Win