Less than a year out from the 2020 presidential election, 18 Democratic primary contenders remain in the field with the hopes of securing the party’s nomination. As the field continues to winnow, a number of key states will garner the attention of the media, pollsters, the public, and the candidates themselves.
Battleground states and recent trends
In every presidential election, consistent demographics and voting patterns mean that many states—and their electoral votes—are guaranteed to one of the two parties. Republicans have had success in the South, Midwest, and Western Plain states, while Democrats typically have success with the “blue wall,” a group of states in the Northeast, West Coast, and the states surrounding the Great Lakes. The remaining states are the so-called “battleground”, or “swing” states, where the results of an election hang. Along with perennial “safe” states and regions, there are fairly consistent swing states: Colorado, Florida, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, Nevada, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and Wisconsin.
The unpredictability of a race in these states plays a key role in presidential election outcomes, as a candidate’s success is dependent on securing voters in battleground states. Notable swing states for an election can be predicted by polling, historical trends, and recent elections. Although many of the same states remain swing states in every election, certain states fall into the spotlight in some years based on demographic shifts and changes in a candidates’ appeal.
The 2008 and 2012 elections revealed shifts in securing swing states and Democratic successes in states that were typically Republican wins. In 2008, only six states ended up with less than a five-point margin, compared to the 11 states with less than a five-point margin in the 2004 election. In 2012, Obama secured re-election and ultimately only four states were decided by a margin of less than five points.
Obama’s success in securing both battlegrounds and traditionally Republican states can be attributed to harnessing a different makeup of the electorate and the strategic use of campaign resources. In 2008, Obama barely won North Carolina, a state that Republicans had won in every presidential election since 1980. Obama visited North Carolina four times more than John McCain in the 2008 election cycle, and ended up receiving more than double the campaign contributions from the state. Obama used a similar strategy in the year leading up to the 2012 election, when he broke George W. Bush’s 2003 record for the most events in battleground states. Changes in the electorate were also crucial to Obama’s swing state wins. Obama’s success in Virginia, which had been red in every election since 1964, can be attributed to increasing minority populations that turned out to vote. Virginia’s partisan shift reflects the nationwide changes that allowed Obama to succeed with support from young and Black voters across the country.
Despite Obama’s success in 2008, Democrats did not expect an easy victory in 2012. Seven swing states that Obama won in 2008 had elected Republican governors, Republican voter enrollment was increasing in Florida and Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, and Florida passed more restrictive voting laws. Although Obama won re-election, the election results revealed that Republicans had gained support in many states.
Battleground states were also key to Donald Trump’s win over Hillary Clinton in the 2016 election. 11 states were won with a margin of less than five points—almost double 2008 and over double the amount in 2012. Trump narrowly won in Florida, Michigan, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin. Trump also safely secured Iowa and Ohio, which Obama won in 2012.
Pre-election analysis predicted there would be a higher number of battleground states due to Trump’s appeal to Rust Belt swing states, like Michigan and Pennsylvania, that had been blue in previous elections. In addition to candidate appeal, demographic shifts also created more uncertainty. Pundits predicted that North Carolina and Virginia would be decided by close margins due to increasingly diverse population growth.
Looking ahead to 2020
The high number of states won by close margins in 2016, shifting demographics in the electorate, and recent election results have once again made battleground states a key consideration for candidates in 2020.
A number of states in the Midwest region are identified as battlegrounds. Michigan, Minnesota, and Wisconsin had margins of less than two points in 2016, and Ohio (while won with a larger margin) is currently rated as Lean Republican by the Cook Political Report. Pennsylvania, on the edge of the blue wall, was won by Trump with a slim margin of 0.71 percentage points. Winning most of these states could very well tip the scale of the electoral college, at 74 total electoral college votes. Trump’s success in the region is largely attributed to support from white voters without a college degree, who flipped from Obama to Trump and were crucial to the election outcome. Trump’s re-election will also be contingent on his continued support from rural voters in Midwest states, some of whom have been negatively affected by trade policy and tariffs.
The Sun Belt—a region that has long been safe for Republicans—is also expected to be competitive in 2020. Trump won Arizona by less than four points, and in 2018 Democrats won their first Senate race in the state in three decades. Democrats could also tip the scales in Texas, Georgia, and North Carolina by relying on suburban voters. The changing partisanship of suburban voters was seen in the 2018 midterms when Democrats won 43 suburban districts, 22 of which were districts that Romney won in 2012. Texas, with 38 electoral college votes, is historically a red state, but suburban voters outside of major cities could have the power to flip the state blue.
There are many indications that a large voter turnout—in line with the blue wave seen in the midterms—could benefit the Democratic vote. Recent Democratic wins, like Louisiana’s 2019 gubernatorial election and Virginia’s state legislature, indicate that red and purple states are highly affected by turnout of Democratic voters.
Battleground states have already started to play a role in the 2020 election. President Trump held his 2020 campaign kick-off in Florida, a state he won by less than two points in 2016. Since the 2016 election, he has held 10 rallies in states that Clinton won. In addition to visits, a Trump Super PAC announced that it plans to spend $250 million in six battleground states with high numbers of electoral votes.
The prospective swing states are also of importance for Democratic candidates. Democratic primary voters have named electability in the general election as one of their top reasons for their preferred candidate. For these primary voters, looking ahead to who will win in swing states will be a key part of their decision.
To learn more about battlegrounds states in recent elections and their role in 2020, download National Journal’s Battleground states deck.