|Dear Readers: Please join the Center for Politics and the Jefferson Council for the University of Virginia next Tuesday (April 25) at 7 p.m. for an evening with Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist George Will. He will be speaking at Minor Hall Room 125 on the Grounds of the University of Virginia. The discussion is entitled “The Bad Ideas Fueling Today’s Attack on The Best Idea — Free Speech.” The event is free and open to the public. Tickets are available via Eventbrite, and the event will be streamed virtually at https://livestream.com/tavco/aneveningwithgeorgewill
— The Editors
KEY POINTS FROM THIS ARTICLE
— In the 2020 presidential election, Joe Biden carried 6 states — that were collectively worth 79 electoral votes — by a margin less than his national showing. In some ways, this made his electoral coalition less efficient than that of Barack Obama’s in 2012.
— No state has been within 5 points of the national popular vote in each of the past 6 presidential elections, but Pennsylvania has come the closest, though it has taken on a slight GOP lean.
— Aside from Virginia and Georgia, North Carolina, despite a persistent 6-point GOP lean in recent elections, seems like Democrats’ best southern prospect.
Left vs right of the nation
As most of our readers already probably appreciate, the 2020 election was an unprecedented contest. More votes were cast in 2020 than in any previous election. The then-incumbent, Donald Trump, became the only sitting president to stand for reelection after an impeachment trial. Then there was the age of the candidates: if successful, Trump, at 74, would have been the oldest president to secure reelection — but he was replaced by now-President Joe Biden, who was even older.
Getting down to a more granular level, 2020 was unique, at least compared to presidential elections since 2000, in that no single state tracked especially closely with the national popular vote. In the 2000 election alone, for instance, 4 states — Oregon, Iowa, Wisconsin, and New Mexico — voted within half a percentage point of the national popular vote (Florida, infamously close that year, was actually just outside that range).
In 2020, Biden ousted Trump by 4.5 points. Lining every state up on a continuum, Biden’s national spread fell in between his margins in Michigan and Minnesota — he carried the former by about 3 points and the latter by just over 7. In absolute terms, Michigan, on the “under” side, was closer to Biden’s national margin than Minnesota, on the “over” side. Put somewhat differently, even though Biden carried Michigan, it still voted slightly less Democratic than the nation as a whole. As Map 1 shows, Michigan was among 6 Biden-won states that leaned right of the national vote.
Map 1: 2020 presidential election showing the lean of Biden-won states
With the exception of Nevada, all of the dark blue states on Map 1 supported Trump in 2016 but flipped to Biden 4 years later.
One implication of Map 1 is that if the national popular vote was tied 50/50 in 2020, we would have expected Trump to gain an additional 79 electoral votes — that type of windfall would have been more than enough for reelection. In that sense, Biden’s coalition was less efficient than, say, what Barack Obama had in 2012. When Obama was reelected, he won by 4 points nationally (which was on par with what Biden got 8 years later). But in 2012, the only Obama-won states that leaned right of the national popular vote were Florida and Ohio. Those states were certainly not trivial prizes, as they accounted for 47 electoral votes at the time. But even ceding Florida and Ohio, Obama would have still claimed 285 electoral votes — and another term in office.
Of course, this is all somewhat theoretical. For one thing, as the 2016 election showed, with their current coalition, Republicans arguably have little incentive to win the national popular vote. And this is not to say that Biden’s coalition didn’t have some advantages vis-a-vis Obama’s: that Biden’s strength was more spread out among urban and suburban counties across the nation probably helped Democrats hold the House in 2020.
Central to all this, though, is the concept of how individual states vote in relation to the nation as a whole. Using the regions that Managing Editor Kyle Kondik established in his survey of the last 6 decades of House races, we’ll consider how each state has voted relative to the national popular vote over the last 6 presidential elections. Today, we’ll start with the Northeast and Greater South — a duo that offers a clear partisan contrast — and will conclude with the rest of the country in a second installment.
We’ll start with the Northeast, but first a quick not on how to read the following tables. To use an example we discussed earlier, in 2020, Minnesota gave Biden a 7.2-point margin of its two-party vote. After subtracting Biden’s national 4.5 margin, Minnesota’s Democratic “lean” in 2020 would be 2.7 — essentially, we are using the term “lean” as shorthand for a state’s deviation from the national popular vote. Since Michigan only gave Biden a 2.8-point margin, its Democratic “lean” would be -1.7 for 2020 (or slightly Republican). Assigning Democratic values as positive and Republicans as negative isn’t necessarily a comment on the parties, but simply makes for a convenient spectrum.
Table 1: 2000-2020 Democratic presidential lean of Northeast states
Note: The table considers the two-party vote each year
Source: Dave Leip’s Atlas of U.S. Presidential Elections
All of the 11 Northeast states have leaned more Democratic than the national popular vote in at least 4 of the 6 presidential elections since 2000.
In 2000, New Hampshire was the sole New England state that George W. Bush carried, and no New England state has voted GOP since. The Granite State voted about 2 points to the right of the popular vote that year, but 4 years later, Sen. John Kerry (a New Englander himself) flipped the state even as he lost overall. Kerry’s relative showing in New Hampshire — he pushed it nearly 4 points left of the popular vote — was the strongest for any recent Democratic nominee. During the Obama era, the state had a slight Democratic lean, but its 2016 to 2020 trajectory mirrored its 2000 to 2004 movement almost exactly: as Hillary Clinton only barely carried the state in 2016, it moved 5 points leftward in 2020.
Though Maine gets less attention and has stayed on the Democratic side of the ledger in each election on Table 1, its trajectory was somewhat similar to New Hampshire’s. It started the millennium as a relatively marginal blue state, but from 2004 to 2012 clearly leaned left. In 2016, though, it shifted over 10 points rightward as Trump made considerable inroads in the rural 2nd District. That Biden about matched Gore’s relative showing statewide without flipping back the 2nd District speaks to the state’s increasing urban/rural divide.
Both Connecticut and Delaware have usually voted more than 10 points to the left of the national popular vote, but Table 1 suggests that Democratic vice presidential nominees may have provided their tickets some lift at home. Connecticut was 18 points left of the nation in 2000, when then-Sen. Joe Lieberman was on the Democratic ticket, and its blue lean has been a bit milder in years since. Eight years later, as then-candidate Barack Obama tapped Joe Biden, who had 36 years of representing the First State in the Senate under his belt, Delaware, as with Connecticut, also voted 18 points left of the nation. During the latter half of the twentieth century, Delaware was a prime bellwether state — starting in 1952, it picked the winners in every election until 2000. But since 2000, it has been within single-digits of the national vote once, in 2016, and only barely so.
No state — even when considering all the regions of the country — has stayed within 5 percentage points of the national popular vote in all 6 presidential elections in Table 1. But Pennsylvania came the closest: it was within 5 points of the national popular vote in all but 2004, and even then, it narrowly missed that threshold (being 5.005 points left of the nation). Like a few other states in the region, Kerry was the best-performing Democrat in the Keystone State. Compared to Gore’s showing 4 years earlier, Kerry improved in the suburban Collar Counties around Philadelphia and remained competitive in the blue collar west — his wife’s association with the Heinz family possibly helped, too. In the 2 most recent presidential elections, though, Pennsylvania has had about a 3-point Republican lean — even with Biden’s roots there, Trump’s relative standing there got a bit stronger in 2020. So this is to say that, despite Democrats’ strong midterm performance there, Pennsylvania will likely get ample attention from both sides in 2024.
The other states in this region are all deeply blue, although there are some varying shades.
New Jersey and New York were both bluest in the 2000 election — perhaps Lieberman’s strong ties to the Jewish community aided Democrats with a crucial voting bloc in those states — and both their leans declined several points apiece in 2004 — the Bush campaign’s emphasis on national security following September 11th attacks seems like one explanation. In 2012, New Jersey’s Democratic lean nearly doubled, and New York got nearly 5 points bluer. Nationally, these represented the second and fourth largest blue shifts from 2008 to 2012, respectively. As Hurricane Sandy flooded the New York City area, Obama likely got an electoral boost as an incumbent president overseeing the aftermath — though then-Gov. Chris Christie (R-NJ) furnished a postpartisan image by appearing with Obama, to his chagrin, the 2016 Republican primary electorate was not impressed with his show of bipartisanship.
In 2020, both Maryland and Massachusetts were the bluest they’ve ever been during the past two decades of presidential races. Each voted close to 30 points left of the nation. It was not surprising that Democrats flipped the open-seat gubernatorial contests in those states last year — Republicans ran Trumpy candidates in both states, but Democrats would have still been favored even if Republicans ran more mainstream non-incumbent nominees.
Republicans have sometimes pointed to some promising trends and demographics and Rhode Island. While its Democratic lean took a hit after the Obama era, it is still a fundamentally blue state in presidential elections.
THE GREATER SOUTH
Table 2: 2000-2020 Democratic presidential lean of Greater South states
Source: Dave Leip’s Atlas of U.S. Presidential Elections
In 2000, all 14 states that make up the Greater South voted more Republican than the nation as a whole. Two decades later, 13 did so, with the only exception being the Crystal Ball’s Virginia home base.
Virginia began the millennium as a more Republican state than some of its neighbors in the region, specifically West Virginia and Tennessee. By 2004, it was less Republican than every southern state except Florida.
During the Obama years, Virginia was truly in its “bellwether era.” Amidst a competitive 2008 primary, the Obama campaign aggressively targeted the commonwealth, and their efforts carried over to the election: 3 of its most populous counties — Northern Virginia’s Loudoun and Prince William as well as Richmond’s Henrico — each swung more than 20 points in the Democratic direction, for instance. Though it was still 1 point right of the national popular vote, Virginia emerged as the most Democratic southern state in 2008, where it has since remained.
In 2012, Obama’s gains in the state’s “Urban Crescent” essentially stuck, while his only truly substantial declines came in sparsely populated Appalachian localities. As a result, Virginia finally shed its Republican lean that year and exactly mirrored the national popular vote. In the Trump era, Virginia’s Democratic lean became more pronounced, as Republican gains in Appalachia and Southside have not been enough to offset their heavy losses in Urban Crescent localities.
As a smart observer pointed out, one geographic criterion that successful 21st century Democratic candidates have met is carrying at least 2 states from the Old Confederacy.
The two southern states that Obama carried twice were Virginia and Florida. After its post-2000 recount, Florida seemed set in the public consciousness as perhaps the quintessential swing state. As it turned out, Gore, despite his 537-vote loss, was actually the best-performing recent Democratic nominee there, at least in relative terms. In 2000, Florida voted less than a point to the right of the national vote. From 2004 to 2016, it stayed within 5 points right of the nation. Then, in 2020, thanks in large part to Miami’s abrupt redshift, Florida leaned almost 8 points in the GOP’s direction. Given the high barrier to entry to compete in this pricey state, it seems likely that Florida will get less attention in 2024 than it has in recent presidential contests.
One of the other formerly-Confederate states that Obama carried was North Carolina, albeit only in his first campaign. The Tar Heel State has actually moved closer to the national vote since Obama’s 2008 win, but for the last 3 elections, it has basically kept a 6-point GOP lean. Still, looking to 2024, North Carolina may be the most realistic Trump-to-Biden state prospect. It is less expensive to campaign in — and as of 2020, less red — than Florida, for example. Democrats may also point to some promising trendlines in Texas, but the Lone Star State was still more than 10 points redder than the nation.
In addition to Virginia, Biden’s second formerly-Confederate state was Georgia. Until the Trump era, the Peach State leaned a dozen or so points in the GOP’s direction. In fact, 2004 was, in some regards, the GOP’s high-water mark there. That year, George W. Bush became the first Republican to carry the state twice — its 14-point GOP lean was also its most pronounced deviation on Table 2. At the state level, the 2004 elections gave Republicans control of both the state’s Senate seats and both chambers of the legislature for the first time since Reconstruction. But Georgia’s red lean eroded considerably with the advent of Trump’s candidacy, as Democrats gained in the larger counties of metro Atlanta. While Georgia has certainly moved against Republicans direction, Democrats shouldn’t get too comfortable yet: it still has a modest 4-point Republican lean. So in other words, Georgia will almost certainly retain its place as a hard-fought battleground in 2024.
Many of the other states in the region fall under what former Almanac of American Politics author Michael Barone calls “Jacksonian America”: with heavy non-college white populations, states like Arkansas, Tennessee, and West Virginia were somewhat marginal earlier this century, but are now solid red. In 2000, Gore famously lost Tennessee, where his family was long involved in politics. But, as Table 2 shows, after Gore, Tennessee assumed a double-digit Republican lean and has not looked back. In fact, in the 2020 election, Tennessee was the state that gave Donald Trump his largest raw vote margin, supplanting Texas, which had long been the GOP’s leading vote bank. As a brief aside, red-leaning South Carolina, which is one of the states that claim Jackson himself, actually didn’t follow that pattern. The Palmetto State has been one of the most consistent states in our survey, staying roughly 15 or so points right of the nation all throughout Table 2.
The author’s home state of Louisiana was the only state in the region where John McCain’s performance in 2008 represented the best showing for a Republican. Between 2004 and 2008, its Republican lean more than doubled, going from 12 to 26 points right of the nation. One explanation was that many Black residents that were displaced by Hurricane Katrina had not been fully resettled by 2008. Despite its robust red lean that year, 2008 was the last time that the state elected a Democratic senator, although then-Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-LA) likely got an electoral boost for her work leading the post-Katrina recovery. Next door, solidly red Mississippi was also something of a unique case. Its Republican lean was least robust in 2012: in a state that is close to 40% Black by composition, Obama inspired strong minority turnout while Mitt Romney seemed a poor fit for the state’s conservative whites.
In presidential elections, the Northeast and Greater South are essentially mirror images of each other: in the former, all but one state leans Democratic relative to the nation (Pennsylvania), while in the former, all but one state leans Republican (Virginia). But by taking a look at the relative leans of the states, it is easier to see which states have become more or less competitive over the past several elections. For the next issue, we’ll look at the Midwest and West, regions that both have a little more partisan diversity.
Author: J. Miles Coleman