Anticipating the 2020 Presidential Election Results

The 2016 Election and 2020

Like most Americans, I had a lot of time to think while my office (and most places) were closed due to Covid-19, and I decided to apply my knowledge of electoral mapping to the 2020 election. To appreciate the future, we must first look at the past. In 2016, most Americans did not vote for Donald Trump, who received 62.9 million votes. However, some 73.6 million voted for others, including Hillary Clinton, who received 65.8 million votes. Low voter turnout and third-party candidates gave Trump very narrow wins in the key states of Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin.

Most nations elect presidents based on the popular vote, but the U.S. uses the so-called “Electoral College,” which means that 538 “Electors” choose our president. Under Article II of the U.S. Constitution, states are allotted Electors equal to their number of Representatives, plus two Senators. The Electoral College preserves federalism, with the least populous states guaranteed 3 Electors — currently the most populous state, California, gets 55. In almost every state the winner of the popular statewide vote gets all the Electors. In 2016, Trump narrowly won Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin by less than 78,000 total votes to gain 46 Electoral votes — and the presidency.

The background on the 2016 election and current trends help identify key states and indicate their likely votes on November 3, 2020. Trends include some Trumpians referring to face masks as “submission muzzles” and calling the pandemic, racism, and impeachment “leftist hoaxes,” indicators that Trump voters are drifting farther right, leaving centrists behind.

Trump is the first impeached president to run for reelection. The Constitution’s framers, remembering the pernicious rule of George III over colonial America, added impeachment to constrain presidential power.

Election forecast as of mid-July 2020
Key States in 2020

This will be an ugly election campaign, with hyper-partisan accusations filling the media, some from outside actors, like Russia. The media storm will be destructive to both candidates, Republican Donald Trump and Democrat Joe Biden; but Biden should win the following key states.

P e n n s y l v a n i a. Trump won 48.8% of the state’s vote versus 47.6% for Clinton. Trump won this state’s 20 electoral votes in 2016 with about 44,000 more votes than Clinton of the 6.1 million cast by promising growth in jobs and coal. Trump’s unfulfilled promises gave Democrats victories in the 2018 election for governor, as well as a net gain of 3 seats in the U.S. House. This trend will likely lead to a 2020 win for Biden, who lived in the state as a child, making him a favorite son candidate.

M i c h i g a n. Trump won 47.6% of the vote versus 47.3% for Clinton. In 2016 Trump won by 10,700 votes out of 4.8 million, gaining 16 electoral votes. Trump had reached out to Blacks (1.4 million) in the state and had promised more manufacturing jobs. But manufacturing declined, and Trump alienated Black voters on healthcare and racism issues. In 2018 Democrats easily won statewide elections for the U.S. Senate and governor — and flipped 2 Republican seats in the  U.S. House, indicating favorable political winds for Biden in 2020.

W i s c o n s i n. Trump won 47.9% of the vote versus 46.9% for Clinton. Trump carried Wisconsin in a low turnout 2016 election by about 22,700 votes out of 2.9 million, claiming 10 electoral votes. Many blamed a new Republican Voter ID law for suppressing Democratic votes; others faulted Clinton for not visiting the state. Democrats rebounded in November 2018 (defeating Republican Governor Scott Walker) and April 2020 statewide elections with major victories, and Milwaukee is the site of the August 2020 Democratic National Convention (although Covid-19 limited its impact). These are all positive signs for Biden.

Mapping 2020

If Biden holds the states that voted for Clinton in 2016 (dark blue on map), which seems certain, he will have 233 electoral votes. Adding the 3 key states (light blue), will give Biden the presidency with 279 electoral votes (270 are needed to win). Trump (red) starts with only 177 near certain electoral votes. States in gray are likely to be close and could go to either candidate.

The Covid-19 crisis is eroding public confidence in the Trump administration, and support for Trump could weaken in more states. Of course, anything can happen, but based on current trends and the Electoral College alignment, it looks like the Trump presidency is unsustainable.

Trump Quake Election 2016

Hillary Clinton should have won the election. The pollsters and most media agreed. Based on Map 1, Democrats would take states in the Northeast, Midwest, and West Coast, leaving Republicans with not enough votes in the West and South. Of course, I was wrong, and Donald Trump won on November 8. Election night results were compelling and sublimely surreal as media maps turned increasingly Republican red, causing a geopolitical earthquake—or Trump Quake.

Election Prediction as of May 2016
Map 1: Election Prediction as of May 2016

A Brexit Feeling

On November 7, 2016, Trump referred to Election Day at a large rally in Raleigh, North Carolina, by saying, “it’s going to be a very historic day… I think it’s going to be Brexit, plus, plus, plus.” He was right! Like Brexit, this was a rejection election, where the power of the political elites was rejected, and expert media analysis was proved wrong. The election highlighted anti-globalization and anti-immigration feelings, and reflected a surge of right-wing nationalism.

The Midwest Turns to Trump

The U.S. Midwest formed the nation’s industrial core. Pent-up resentment became evident in old and declining manufacturing cities. Trump’s raucous rallies tapped into a deep animosity felt by millions of American workers who felt they were losing their jobs and economic security to globalization and immigration. Ever the consummate showman, Donald Trump and his “Make America Great Again” campaign captured the hopes and needs of these disaffected people.

Map 2: Trump takes the Midwest and Florida.
Map 2: Trump takes the Midwest and Florida.

Map 2 shows the fruits of Trump’s Midwest appeal. A Republican presidential candidate had not taken Pennsylvania (Pa.) and Michigan (Mich.) since 1988, nor Wisconsin (Wis.) since 1984. Trump garnered enough votes in these states, along with the swing states of Ohio, Indiana, and Iowa, to win the election. Why did Clinton lose? Was it due to Alt-Media, Russians, the FBI, Obamacare, Bernie Sanders, or Jill Stein? Maybe, but essentially 2016 became a change election, and Trump became the change candidate.

  • National vote. Trump won the official electoral vote (304 to 227), but Hillary Clinton got the popular vote (65.8 million to 62.9 million). This is only the second time since 1888 that the popular vote winner was defeated.
  • Wisconsin. Trump won this state by 22,748 votes, with Trump receiving 1.4 million votes versus 1.38 for Clinton. Lower voter turnout in Democratic Milwaukee County alone cost Clinton some 39,000 votes, based on Obama’s 2012 vote. Historically low voter turnout in Wisconsin was blamed on a new voter-ID law and lack of enthusiasm for Clinton’s candidacy.

Obviously, Trump used electoral geography to his advantage, winning the election by converting Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin with a total of 77,744 votes out of 136.6 million votes cast nationwide and getting 46 electoral votes from these 3 states. Both campaigns faced adversity, but troubles lingered for Clinton, whereas Trump dispatched controversies quickly, often with intense media bashing. It appears that many Democratic voters became disillusioned in the final weeks and did not vote for president.

Trump’s election is part of a predictable cycle where an “outsider” from the opposite party wins the White House. Outsider Democrat Bill Clinton defeated Republican President George H.W. Bush in 1992; next, outsider Republican George W. Bush bested Democratic Vice President Al Gore in 2000; then first term Democratic Senator Barack Obama won against veteran Republican Senator John McCain in 2008. American voters often choose change and those who are largely unseasoned and untested in the ways of Washington, DC.

Electoral Geography 2016

Came across an article, “The Map: 11 Angles on the Electoral College,” on Sabato’s Crystal Ball site. As a geographer at Northern Virginia Community College (NOVA), I love titles like this. I eagerly read Sabato’s 2016 predictions, which included several major points:

  1. In the 4 presidential elections from 2000 to 2012, only 10 of 50 states changed their electoral vote: Colorado, Florida, Indiana, Iowa, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Mexico, North Carolina, Ohio, and Virginia.
  2. Practically speaking, the GOP doesn’t have a path to victory without Florida and Ohio.
  3. Could Wisconsin go Republican if Scott Walker were the 2016 nominee? The article points out that Walker’s mid-term victories in 2010 and 2014, and recall election in 2012, averaged a 55% voter turnout. The state’s presidential turnout in 2012 was 73%, which means Walker would face a much larger and more Democratic electorate in his state.
  4. It would be hard for the Republicans to win the White House without Virginia, which is seen as a toss-up state.
Map 1. Predictions according to Larry Sabato, University of Virginia
Map 1. Predictions according to Larry Sabato, University of Virginia

Virginia’s Color on Sabato’s Map

Is Virginia really a “Toss-up” state? Probably not, based on recent elections:

  • Republicans have not won a statewide office since 2009, in both low and high turnout elections.
  • Virginia’s Governor, Lt. Governor, Attorney General, and both U.S. Senators are all Democrats. Republicans do not hold a statewide office.
  • The Republican U.S. Senate wave in 2014 did not unseat Democratic Senator Mark Warner, despite a low 41% voter turnout (compared to 73% for a presidential election) and Republican-passed voter restrictions.
  • Maps of electoral geography show that Virginia is favorable to Democrats, as is Fairfax County, Virginia’s most populous county.

For these reasons, it seems that Virginia leans to Democrats and should be a “Leans D” blue on Sabato’s map (see Map 1 above).

In essence, Virginia has transitioned from a Toss-up to a Democratic state, albeit a fragile one. West Virginia has made the reverse transformation since 2000, going from a dependably Democratic state to a reliably Republican one.

A Small Part of Nebraska Leaning to Democrats?

Only Nebraska and Maine can split their electoral votes. I would add Nebraska to electoral vote “Toss-ups” in Sabato’s map (see Map 1 above), because one of its 2008 electoral votes went to Obama. The 2nd Congressional District (Omaha) is increasingly Democratic, despite alleged Republican gerrymandering in 2011.

In 2014, Democrat Brad Ashford defeated the Republican incumbent, Lee Terry, who held the 2nd District for 16 years. This indicates that the single electoral vote for Nebraska’s 2nd District (NE-2) could again swing to Democrats in 2016. I would think that the NE-2 box should be a toss-up yellow—instead of the “Likely R” red that is presently on the map.

A Difficult Republican Path to the Presidency

By adding Nebraska’s 1 electoral vote (NE-2) to the Toss-up category and Virginia’s 13 electoral votes to Democrats, new totals for Sabato’s map would be:

     Democrats: 260; Toss-ups: 73; Republicans: 205

Republicans will need to focus on Florida and Ohio. The Republican National Convention in Ohio reflects a Midwest strategy. The Democratic National Convention is in Pennsylvania, which Republicans see as a potential swing state in 2016, yet it has not voted for a GOP presidential candidate since 1988.

I have drawn up a map (see Map 2 below) that (I humbly think) accurately illustrates the narrow path to victory for Republican candidates. On this map, the GOP needs to capture all 6 toss-up states to get above 270 electoral votes (the winning magic number). Democrats, on the other hand, only have to take 1 or 2 toss-up states to win.

Map 2. Predictions based on changes to Virginia & Nebraska.
Map 2. Predictions based on changes to Virginia & Nebraska.