Why fewer states than ever could pick the next president

Why fewer states than ever could pick the next president

The results of this month’s election point toward a 2024 presidential contest that will likely be decided by a tiny sliver of voters in a rapidly shrinking list of swing states realistically within reach for either party.

With only a few exceptions, this year’s results showed each side further consolidating its hold over the states that already lean in its direction. And in 2024 that will likely leave control of the White House in the hands of a very small number of states that are themselves divided almost exactly in half between the parties – a list that looks even smaller after this month’s outcomes.

Stanley Greenberg, a veteran Democratic pollster, speaks for many strategists in both parties when he points to the enormous “continuity among the elections” since Donald Trump emerged as a national figure. “We’ve now gone through 2016, ’18, ‘20 and ‘22 – and all looked pretty much alike,” he says. “And it has locked in the coalitions.”

Looking at the Electoral College, this year’s results offered more reason for optimism to Democrats than Republicans. Five states decided the last presidential race by flipping from Trump in 2016 to Joe Biden in 2020 – Arizona, Georgia, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. Democrats have already won six of the eight Senate and governor races decided across them this month and could notch a seventh victory if Democratic Sen. Raphael Warnock defeats Herschel Walker in a Georgia run-off in December.

“Republicans can’t be happy that in the states they have to win, we won – and by not just a little bit,” says Simon Rosenberg, founder and president of NDN, a Democratic research and advocacy group, who was the most visible skeptic in either party of the “red wave” theory this year. “It’s very encouraging as we go into 2024 because we were able to stare them down and beat them … [even] with inflation being so high. And it wasn’t just their bad candidates – its far more than that.”

Still, the results also showed Republicans tightening their grip on Ohio, Iowa and Florida: though Democrats won all three in both of Barack Obama’s presidential victories, each now appears securely in the GOP’s column for 2024 (and likely beyond). And the perennial liberal hope of putting a “blue Texas” in play clearly looks like it will be deferred again after Republican Gov. Greg Abbott’s double-digit victory against an energetic and well-funded opponent (former Rep. Beto O’Rourke) squashed the limited momentum Democrats had built there in the 2018 and 2020 elections. Republicans once again beat Democrats for all of Texas’ statewide offices, continuing a shutout that stretches back to the 1990s.

These offsetting and hardening partisan strengths could, once again, provide the power to decide the White House winner to a few hundred thousand voters in a very few closely balanced states. That’s a windfall for the owners of television stations who will be deluged with television advertising in states such as Nevada, Wisconsin, Georgia and Arizona. But it’s also another reason for the prodigious stress in our fraught modern politics. Each side in an intensely polarized nation of 330 million recognizes that the overall direction of national policy now pivots on the choices of a miniscule number of people living in the tiny patches of contested political ground – white-collar suburbs of Atlanta and Phoenix, working-class Latino neighborhoods in and around Las Vegas and the mid-sized communities of the so-called BOW counties in Wisconsin.

The partitioning of the nation into distinct and intractable partisan camps is one of the defining features of modern US politics. The Democratic and Republican presidential nominees have each carried 20 states in every election since at least 2008. That means 80% of the states have voted the same way in at least the past four presidential elections – a level of consistency unmatched through the 20th century. Even during Franklin D. Roosevelt’s four consecutive presidential victories from 1932 through 1944, only about two-thirds of the states voted the same way each time.

The 20 states that Democrats have carried in each presidential election since at least 2008 will award 232 Electoral College votes in 2024; the 20 states Republicans have carried in at least the past four elections will award 155.

But that tally offers a misleading picture of the parties’ real standing. Of the 10 states that have flipped between the parties in at least one presidential race since 2008, four have not voted for a Democratic presidential nominee since Obama and have clearly tilted red in the Trump era. Those four states – Ohio, Florida, Iowa and Indiana – add another 64 Electoral College votes to the GOP tally and raise the party’s total to 219. North Carolina, also one of the 10, isn’t as securely locked down. But the GOP still has to be favored to capture its 16 Electoral College votes again after Republican Rep. Ted Budd’s solid three-point victory in this month’s US Senate race exceeded the margin in Rep. Thom Tillis’ much narrower 2020 win.

In this month’s election, each side generally consolidated that dominance across its core 20 states. Democrats notched runaway gubernatorial victories in California and Illinois, recaptured governorships previously held by moderate Republicans in Maryland and Massachusetts and posted blowout 15-point victories in Colorado and Washington Senate races that Republicans touted as much more competitive.

In turn, Republican Govs. Ron DeSantis in Florida and Mike DeWine in Ohio won landslide victories in which their winning margins exceeded 1 million votes, while Abbott in Texas triumphed by over 700,000 votes. For all the controversy over restrictions or bans on abortion that proliferated across the red states after the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade last summer, the GOP did not lose control of a state legislative chamber in any of the states that acted.

On balance, Democrats showed more cracks than Republicans in their 20 fortress states. That may not be surprising, given that the first midterm election of a president’s term is almost always difficult for his party, especially when voters are as discontented over the economy as polls show them to be now. Democrats faced unexpectedly difficult contests for the governorship in New York and Oregon before toughing out narrow wins that probably represent a high-water mark for Republicans. In New Hampshire, another core 20 blue state that Republicans sometimes hope to target, Democratic Sen. Maggie Hassan’s decisive victory was likely more indicative of its leaning in a presidential contest than the easy reelection for moderate GOP Gov. Chris Sununu.

But Nevada, another of the Democrats’ base states, showed clear signs of vulnerability for the party, with Republican Joe Lombardo narrowly winning the governorship and Democratic Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto surviving in the Senate race by less than 10,000 votes. Those outcomes confirmed the trend that Nevada, after moving sharply toward Democrats under Obama, again tipped back toward toss-up status in the Trump era. Yet it also showed that the vaunted Democratic turnout machine in the state retains the ability to win very close contests.

Democrats did not demonstrate the capacity to threaten any of the GOP’s core 20 states, as Republicans did in Nevada. But for Democrats that inability to dent the red citadel was offset by clear indications of continuing momentum in the five states that decided the 2020 race.

In Michigan, Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer won by over 10 percentage points and nearly 500,000 votes over a Trump-backed opponent – bigger margins than she posted in 2018 even though about three-fourths of voters called the nation’s economy only fair or poor in the exit poll conducted by Edison Research for a consortium of media organizations including CNN. In Pennsylvania, against Trump-backed GOP nominees, Democratic gubernatorial nominee Josh Shapiro romped to an even bigger victory, and Lt. Gov. John Fetterman won the US Senate race by a surprisingly comfortable five-point margin despite his visible struggles with a stroke. Fetterman’s roughly 225,000 vote margin of victory nearly tripled Biden’s 2020 advantage in the state.

In Wisconsin, the picture was only slightly more mixed for Democrats. Even amid intense economic discontent, Democratic Gov. Tony Evers won reelection by about 90,000 votes – roughly triple his margin in 2018 when he unseated Republican incumbent Scott Walker in a much better year for Democrats. (Biden in 2020 won the state by only about 20,000 votes.) And while Republican Sen. Ron Johnson won reelection, he survived by only a little over 25,000 votes against an opponent, Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes, who Republicans (and even some Democrats) had considered much too liberal to viably contest the state.

Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin were the three Rustbelt states that Trump in 2016 dislodged from what I termed in 2009 “the blue wall” – the 18 states that had voted Democratic in every presidential election since 1992. But Biden recaptured all three of them, and this month’s results strongly encouraged Democrats hopes of holding them again in 2024, especially if inflation recedes and any possible recession passes through before then. The exit polls showed that solid majorities in each state supported abortion rights – and that preponderant majorities of those residents voted Democratic.

“On the blue wall states, I came away feeling better about Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin,” says Greenberg.

The remaining two Sunbelt states that flipped between 2016 and 2020 seemed to move in opposite directions. Arizona continued to drift toward the Democrats – at least when presented with GOP nominees in the Trump mold. Democratic Sen. Mark Kelly won reelection over Republican Blake Masters by a resounding 125,000 votes – roughly double the margin in Democratic Sen. Kyrsten Sinema’s breakthrough victory in 2018, and far more than Biden’s 10,457 vote edge in the state. And while Democrat Katie Hobbs only won the governor’s race by about 17,000 votes over Trump acolyte Kari Lake, that represented a huge advance from the Democrats’ nearly 340,000 vote loss in the 2018 gubernatorial contest.

In Georgia, by contrast, most results suggested a shift back toward the GOP. Gov. Brian Kemp’s roughly 300,000 vote margin over Democrat Stacey Abrams was nearly six times bigger than his 2018 victory over her. Republicans posted solid victories in all of the other major state contests as well. Only the US Senate race broke this pattern, with Warnock leading Walker in the initial results before next month’s run-off.

Georgia may offer the most revealing measure of the opportunities and obstacles for Republicans to reverse the Democratic advantage in the states that decided the presidency in 2020.

In the Senate balloting, Warnock crushed Walker, another Trump-backed nominee, in the populous Atlanta suburbs, including Cobb and Gwinnett counties. Despite unhappiness with the economy, Warnock essentially matched Biden in capturing nearly 60% of the vote in those two counties-which voted reliably Republican not long ago.

That was indicative of a larger pattern this month. Even without Trump on the ballot, Democratic Senate and governor candidates matched (or even exceeded) Biden’s 2020 vote share in white-collar largely suburban counties around the country that recoiled from the former president – a list that included Maricopa in Arizona, Montgomery and Delaware in Pennsylvania, Dane in Wisconsin, Arapahoe and Jefferson in Colorado, and Oakland and Kent counties in Michigan. Those populous counties provided Democrats huge margins; if they persist into 2024, it will be extremely difficult for Republicans to win those states. In suburban places like these, “if the Republican Party’s focus in the future is going to be enforcing loyalty to Donald Trump … then we’re done,” says Jason Cabel Roe, the former executive director of the Michigan GOP.

But Georgia also signals how Republicans might avoid that fate. Though Kemp lost Gwinnett and Cobb, he ran more competitively there than Walker. Kemp posted that relatively better showing even though he advanced a staunchly conservative social agenda that faced substantial resistance in such areas – including a ban on abortion after six weeks now blocked by a state judge – by stressing traditional Republican economic themes and demonstrating his independence from Trump in their battles over certifying the 2020 election.

Former GOP Rep. Tom Davis, who served as chair of the National Republican Congressional Committee, says that while such suburban areas “are lost for the foreseeable future for Republicans,” the GOP “doesn’t need to win them, you just need to improve” to tip some of the states it has lost in the Trump era. He’s confident that if Republicans choose someone other than Trump, such as DeSantis or Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin, the GOP can regain ground in these places, even if those candidates must adopt a conservative social agenda to win the nomination.

Democrats remain confident about their ability to defend these places, particularly against Trump, but also against other Republicans such as DeSantis echoing many of his culture war themes. Greenberg says the prerequisite to any such defense is Democrats defusing voter concerns about their positions on crime and the border by moving at least somewhat toward the center. But, he says, “if you deal with those issues, I don’t see anything about DeSantis … that is attractive on the whole set of issues that working people want to have addressed” around economic opportunity and corporate responsibility.

How big a map does this leave the two sides contesting in the 2024 presidential race? No GOP presidential candidate would entirely concede Michigan or Pennsylvania, but the magnitude of the 2022 Democratic wins there – extending the party’s recovery in 2018 and 2020 – show how difficult it will be for any Republican nominee to take them in 2024, especially if he or she supports further restrictions on legal abortion. (Under Trump, says Roe, Michigan has become “a wasteland” for Republicans.) The results even more emphatically extinguished the prospect of Democrats in two years seriously bidding for Ohio, Florida or Iowa.

That could leave as few as four genuine toss-ups in 2024: Wisconsin in the industrial Midwest, and Nevada, Georgia and Arizona across the Sunbelt. That list could shift slightly depending on circumstances and the candidates. Rosenberg, for instance, believes Democrats should now target North Carolina with the same intensive organizing efforts they mounted in the key battlegrounds this year. And Republicans may continue to push for Minnesota and New Hampshire. But all will be difficult to dislodge from their current allegiance.

A race with just Wisconsin, Nevada, Georgia and Arizona as true battlegrounds would begin with Democrats favored in states holding 260 Electoral College votes (including Washington, DC) and Republicans in states with 235. Democrats would need to win just one of Wisconsin, Arizona or Georgia to reach an Electoral College majority – yet that last piece could prove very challenging for them to secure. After 2022, the list of genuinely competitive presidential states may be shrinking, but, if anything, that could increase the tension as the nation remains poised on the knife’s edge between two deeply entrenched, but increasingly antithetical, political coalitions.

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