vision 2020

In 2020, the Electoral Landscape Continued to Shift

A scene from Ohio, a state that polls showed to be close that again turned out to be uncompetitive. Photo: Seth Herald/AFP via Getty Images

After every presidential election, it’s useful to look at the electoral map to determine whether the landscape of “battlegrounds” has significantly changed. After all, the perceptions of the states where presidential contests are won and lost don’t always change as rapidly as the underlying realities. And those realities change almost constantly.

For much of the late-19th century, control of the White House revolved around two states: Indiana and New York. The latter remained a critical “swing state” through much of the 20th century; its former governor Franklin D. Roosevelt, for example, defeated Wendell Willkie by only 3 percent of the vote in 1940. New York was joined and then eclipsed on the battleground map by California, which went Republican as recently as 1988. Florida was obviously the quintessential battleground state in 2000, but in 2004, it was Ohio that decided it all.

The 2016 election famously changed the map, with Donald Trump winning three states (Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin) that had not gone Republican since 1988 (in the case of Wisconsin, since 1984). Beyond those, five states were decided by three points or less (Florida, Maine, Minnesota, Nevada, and New Hampshire).

The general perception of the 2020 presidential election is that, in most respects, it was a rerun of 2016, with Joe Biden doing a bit better than Hillary Clinton in just enough states. There’s some truth to that; narrow Trump wins were replaced by narrow Biden wins in Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin. But the battleground did shift elsewhere: Florida, Maine, Minnesota, and New Hampshire dropped off the list of states carried by less than 3 percent and were replaced by Arizona, Georgia, and North Carolina.

Two states that were highly competitive bellwethers in most elections prior to 2016 — Iowa and Ohio — went for Trump by just over eight points, despite preelection polls showing both as highly competitive. They really just aren’t battlegrounds anymore. Texas, another state with close preelection polls, went for Trump by 5.5 percent — a disappointment for Democrats but nonetheless the best performance by a Democratic presidential candidate there since 1976. Texas will almost certainly be a future battleground, in part because of its 38 (soon to be 40) electoral votes and rapidly growing urban and nonwhite populations.

Iowa and Ohio aren’t the only recent battleground states to become uncompetitive. Colorado was carried by Barack Obama in 2012 by just over 5 percent and by Clinton in 2016 by just under 5 percent. Biden won it by 13.5 percent. Similarly, the last presidential candidate to win Virginia by double digits was George H.W. Bush in 1988 — until Biden won it by 10.1 percent. In Alaska, by contrast, Republicans won the presidential race by 30 points in 2000, 26 points in 2004, and 21 points in 2008. Trump won Alaska by ten points this year. Put another way: Alaska is now a more competitive presidential state than Virginia. Ain’t that a shocker?

Some deep-red and deep-blue states are just getting redder and bluer. Biden won by 20 points or more in California, Connecticut, Hawaii, Maryland, Massachusetts, New York, Rhode Island, and Vermont, while Trump won by 20 points or more in Alabama, Arkansas, Idaho, North Dakota, South Dakota, Tennessee, Utah, and Wyoming.

In changes in the popular-vote margin since 2016, the biggest pro-Democratic “swingers” were Vermont (9 percent), Colorado (8.6), Delaware (7.6), New Hampshire (7), and Connecticut (6.5). The states with the biggest net Republican swings were Oregon (3.9 percent), Hawaii (2.8), Utah (2.6), Florida (2.1), and New York (1.6).

We can’t always tell exactly where the next tectonic shifts in the map will occur, but we do know they never stop happening.

In 2020, the Electoral Landscape Continued to Shift