As American Legal News discussed in a previous story, American politics has become sharply divided along demographic lines. Speaking very broadly, the Republican Party dominates with white voters without college degrees, while Democrats rely heavily on voters of color and voters who have graduated from college. Both base coalitions have their advantages and their disadvantages, and neither party has, at present, a decisive numerical edge.
But that’s the broader national picture, and the US doesn’t have national elections. Instead, electoral battles are fought at the state and local levels, and these municipalities do have unique demographics that make them more inclined to one party or another.
The news organization Governing recently put together a list ranking the states in terms of the demographic advantages for one of the country’s two major political parties. It’s a fascinating list, and reviewing it can provide a clear picture of which states will come to define the 2020 presidential election.
But it’s also fascinating for the states that don’t quite vote the way their demographics predict they would. The old saying “demographics are destiny” might prove true in the long run, but when it comes to 2020 and the Electoral College, it might be more accurate to quote the famous line from the Terminator movie franchise: “no fate but what you make.”
The Governing List
The full Governing ranking can be found at the link provided above. The important thing to remember is that the publication was not ranking states by how much they voted for each party – instead, it’s a ranking of how demographically friendly each state is for each party. It’s structured so that the number one state has the most GOP-friendly demographics, while the number 50 state has demographics that are most pro-Democrat.
Governing assembled the list by averaging together three other lists – the most and least rural states, the most and least ethnically diverse states and the states with the lowest and highest rate of residents possessing an undergraduate degree.
According to Governing, the five states with the most GOP-friendly demographics are, in order, West Virginia, Kentucky, Maine, Wyoming and Arkansas. Meanwhile, the five most Democrat-friendly states are Massachusetts, Maryland, Hawaii, California and New Jersey.
As one might expect, you can find the more competitive battleground states toward the middle of the list. Wisconsin, which flipped to Donald Trump in 2016 after voting for Democrats for decades, ranked 18th, while tiny but competitive New Hampshire ranked 19th. Michigan, another Rust Belt state that flipped to Trump in 2016, is 22nd, while Pennsylvania is 28th.
In many of the competitive states, there’s a rough political equilibrium between demographics that vote Republican and those that vote for Democrats. Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania, for example, have a disproportionate percentage of whites without college degrees, a reflection of those states’ prominent roles in the country’s manufacturing past. However, each state has a handful of heavily Democratic urban areas that balance the scales – Milwaukee and Madison in Wisconsin, Pittsburgh and Philadelphia in Pennsylvania and Detroit in Michigan. Those groups (broadly speaking) cancel each other out, and so elections in those states are about turnout and which candidate can win in the competitive suburbs and blue collar towns near major cities. In 2016, Trump was able to flip many formerly Democratic counties and towns in the Rust Belt states, and slightly decreased African-American turnout in the big cities doomed Hillary Clinton.
The Unusual States
However, as the Governing piece lays out, the demographics of these states don’t always result in predictable election nights. A handful of states routinely vote in ways that their demographics would not predict.
Maine, for example, has the second-most GOP-friendly demographics in the country, per the Governing ranking, a result of the state’s lack of racial diversity and heavily rural economy. However, Democrats won complete control of the Maine government in the 2018 midterms and successfully flipped a GOP-controlled House seat. And while Trump won one of the state’s Congressional districts in 2016 (and, thus, a single electoral vote), Clinton won the state as a whole – a Republican hasn’t won Maine since 1988.
On the other side of the coin, Florida has the 12th-most Democratic friendly demographics in the country, yet Republicans maintain a small but consistent edge in the Sunshine State. While Florida is a deeply diverse state with a massive Hispanic population, a significant percentage of that Hispanic demographic is Cuban-American, a group that routinely leans Republican.
One important takeaway from the Governing analysis is the importance of state parties. In Florida, the state Democratic Party has done a poor job registering and turning out voters, consistently getting out-worked by the Florida GOP. In Minnesota, the state Republican Party’s financial difficulties have prevented Republicans from taking advantage of the state’s white, rural demographics.
Of course, it’s impossible to discuss Republican dominance of diverse states without also acknowledging the GOP’s systematic voter suppression efforts. Republicans in North Carolina, Georgia and Texas have responded to their states’ increasing diversity by instituting a range of voter suppression laws designed to make it harder for Democratic-leaning demographics to cast ballots.
With the 2020 election a little less than a year and a half away, the results in somewhere between 35 and 40 states can already be safely predicted. The election is almost certain to come down to a small handful of states in the Rust Belt and Sun Belt – Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin, Florida and Arizona look to be the only true “toss-up” states, while a few other states (North Carolina, Texas, Georgia, Nevada, Maine and New Hampshire) could become competitive depending on the national environment.
For anyone already obsessing over the 2020 election, these are the states to keep an eye on. The effectiveness with which the respective campaigns and the state parties organize in these decisive states will go a long way toward determining whether or not Donald Trump will continue to be President until 2024.