In politics, as in military conflict, there is a tendency among generals and journalists alike to fight the last war. But battlegrounds often change. Thanks to our atavistic Electoral College system, presidential elections do indeed revolve around specific states, and close contests can create nearly indelible, searing impressions of those small slices of the country that matter most. So it’s important to keep the intel current on which states are battlegrounds during this election cycle.
There are, however, three different kinds of “battleground” states that are often conflated: bellwethers (those that track the national outcome most closely); tipping points (those most likely to elevate the winner past 270 electoral votes); and simply close states. There is also arguably a fourth kind of battleground, though it’s mostly in the minds of television viewers: the last states to be “called” by media outlets. In very close national elections like 2000 and 2004, the four categories tend to converge, with Florida occupying that all-important role in 2000 and Ohio in 2004. There can be small and debatable differences as well, as in 2016, when Wisconsin was, by most standards, the tipping-point state for Trump while Pennsylvania was the one whose “call” put him over the top and made him president-elect (the bellwether, the state that most reflected the national popular vote, was Nevada, which Hillary Clinton carried by 2.5 percent).
Time of “call” doesn’t always matter as much as it seems: In 1976, Hawaii put Jimmy Carter over the top, but Carter carried three states, including the much more important Ohio, by narrower margins. Conversely, Georgia was one of the first two states called for Bill Clinton in 1992, but it ultimately became the closest state he carried. And the closest states obviously don’t matter that much in elections that aren’t that close: In 2008, when Barack Obama won 365 electoral votes, the two closest states were North Carolina and Missouri, which were redundant after the Democrat won all the really key states.
Sticking to tipping-point and bellwether states — the close states in close elections — their identity can change pretty dramatically over time. It was all about Ohio in 2004, and the state was the second closest in 2012, but in 2016 Trump carried it by over eight points. Similarly, Trump won Iowa (almost dead even in the razor-thin 2000 and 2004 elections and won by Obama by over three points in 2012) by over nine points. 2012’s tipping-point state for Obama was Colorado, and the next he carried was Virginia; in 2016, Hillary Clinton carried Colorado by 4.9 percent and Virginia by 5.3 percent. There are pretty clear explanations for all these 2012 to 2016 changes: Trump made major gains among white non-college-educated voters heavily represented in Ohio, Iowa, and, for that matter, Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin. Colorado and Virginia were states with rising minority percentages of the electorate and a well-educated white electorate.
Another similar state where Trump made gains over his Republican predecessors was Minnesota, a state that hasn’t gone Democratic since 1972 but that Clinton won by only 1.5 percent. The trend has made Minnesota the most likely blue state to turn red in 2020, as FiveThirtyEight’s Nathaniel Rakich observes:
In 1984, the state was 18.2 points more Democratic than the nation as a whole. But in 2016, for the first time since 1952, Minnesota voted more Republican than the rest of the U.S.
And Minnesota may be even further right in 2020. According to the current FiveThirtyEight forecast, Joe Biden is on track to defeat Trump by 4.2 points in Minnesota — 1.9 points better for Trump than our forecast for the national popular vote.
Some things don’t seem to change, however: Florida, the be-all and end-all of 2000, is still a battleground; Obama won it by 0.6 percent in 2012 and Trump by 1.2 percent in 2016. FiveThirtyEight’s current polling averages show the Sunshine State as 2.6 percent more Republican than the country as a whole, which puts it near the tipping point for either candidate.
Confusing things even more this year is the fact that there is every indication the speed of vote-counting is going to vary enormously on and after November 3. Potential tipping-point states like Michigan and Pennsylvania, which will experience unprecedented levels of voting by mail, could be especially slow, while Florida could be quite fast. If things go sideways, we may not know the actual tipping-point state until the Electoral College votes are counted in Congress on January 6, 2021. And then the tectonic plates will continue to shift until 2024.