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US election recap: what happened and what it means for 2024

Today I look back at the results of the US presidential election and the changing electoral map.

After an extended post-lockdown hiatus, the ICENERVESHATTER blog is back for 2021 with a new post every few weeks.

With Joe Biden’s inauguration a few days away and the Georgia Senate elections wrapped up, it is time to look back at the results of the United States presidential election and identify some key trends to help understand the future of the American electoral map. This long read will (probably) mark the end of this blog’s focus on United States politics for the foreseeable future, as I move on to other topics.

A quick recap

Joe Biden won the electoral college, with 306 votes to Donald Trump’s 232 – the exact reverse of the 2016 result. Biden won five states that Hillary Clinton couldn’t (Michigan, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Arizona and Georgia), as well as one of Nebraska’s electoral votes (see this post for an explanation of the quirks of the US electoral system).

Biden won the popular vote by 4.4%, with 51.3% of total votes cast. That is the second largest winning margin since 1996 and the second largest primary vote percentage since 1988 (both beaten only by Obama’s 2008 victory).

Turnout was very high by American standards: 159 million people voted, equivalent to 67% of the voting-eligible population. That’s the highest percentage in over 100 years.

Democrats also kept control of the House of Representatives (albeit with a reduced majority) and won control of the Senate by the barest of margins.

What does this result reveal about the changing electoral map? Let’s go through some of the key lessons and lingering questions.

Virginia, Colorado and New Mexico are out of reach for Republicans

All three of these states used to be swing states and were won by George W Bush as recently as 2004. But since then, all three have drifted to the Democrats. It was an open question after 2016 as to whether these states could still be called swing states. The 2020 results seem to confirm that they are not: Biden won Virginia by 10.1%, New Mexico by 10.8% and Colorado by 13.5%. Maine is also increasingly uncompetitive with Biden winning statewide by 9.1% (although Trump won one of the two district electoral votes).

Ohio and Iowa look increasingly out of reach for Democrats

Despite the polls indicating a close result, the margins in Ohio and Iowa hardly budged in 2020. Trump won Iowa by 8.2% (a 1.2% swing to Biden) and Ohio by 8% (a 0.1% swing to Biden). Both states voted for Obama in 2008 and 2012 – by a large margin in the case of Iowa – but both swung strongly to Trump in 2016, who won them both. The question after 2016: was this a one-off or the new normal? With the 2020 results in, the latter now seems likely. Expect Democrats to devote far fewer resources to these states in the future.

Nevada is very winnable for Republicans

Biden won all the states that Clinton won in 2016 and he won by margins greater than 5% in all these states, except one. That exception is Nevada. Biden won Nevada by 2.4%, exactly the same margin as Clinton’s in 2016. That makes it one of just eight states that did not swing to Biden and one of just two swing states (the second state I’ll come to shortly). 

This will place Nevada firmly on the Republicans radar in 2024. 

Democrats can still win mid-western states

After Trump swept all but two mid-western states in 2016, there was much discussion as to whether Democrats could ever win these states back. While Ohio and Iowa now seem out of reach, Biden successfully regained Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, where Trump had his three narrowest wins in 2016. For the second election in a row, Wisconsin was the tipping point state, delivering the decisive electoral votes for Biden to win. Clearly Democrats need not give up on the mid-west.

Democrats can win traditionally Republican states in the south and south-west

After much trying, Democrats finally won two Republican-leaning swing states in the south: Georgia and Arizona. These states had been trending Democratic for the last decade but in 2020 the long-awaited breakthrough finally happened.

But does this represent the start of a new era for these states or a one-off result? Biden’s winning margins in these states were extremely close – 0.3% in Arizona and 0.2% in Georgia. As Perry Bacon Jr has pointed out, there are some similarities to Obama’s breakthrough in North Carolina in 2008, which was heralded as the start of a new era for that state. Yet since then, Republicans have won North Carolina at every election – albeit by narrow margins. Time will tell if Georgia and Arizona remain competitive but slightly Republican-leaning states like North Carolina or whether they follow in the footsteps of now-strongly Democratic Virginia and Colorado.

Ohio and Florida are no longer bellwethers

Ohio had been won by the winning candidate at every presidential election since 1964. Florida’s record was pretty good too. But in 2020, both states backed the losing candidate. Both states, it seems, are no longer vital to becoming president.

Which state will become the new bellwether? Maybe it will be Nevada. With the exception of 2016, Nevada has been won by the winning candidate at every other election since 1980.

Democrats best chances of further gains are in the south……

In 2020, Trump won just three states by margins under 8%: North Carolina, Florida and Texas. If you know your American geography, you will have noticed that all three of these states are in the South. If Democrats are to further improve their position in the electoral college, it is these three large states that will help them.

…..And Texas looms as a massive prize

There has been much hype about Texas going Democratic over the last couple of years. But Texas seems to have been perceived as something of disappointment for Democrats in 2020. The polls indicated that the result would be a bit closer than it actually was. 

But perhaps these expectations were unreasonable. Texas did swing solidly to Democrats in 2020 – the Republican margin was cut by 3.4% to 5.6%. That doesn’t quite make Texas a close state. But recall that in 2012 Obama lost the state by 15.8%. The transformation of Texas over the last decade has been extraordinary and the transformation continued in 2020. On current trends, Democrats will get very close to winning in 2024 and 2028.

And Texas is a huge prize. Flipping Texas would go some way towards eliminating the structural disadvantage Democrats have in the electoral college. Texas currently has 38 electoral votes. For comparison, the three crucial mid-western states of Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin have 46 votes combined. And the upcoming reallocation of electoral votes based on the latest census could make the comparison even better: Texas could be worth 40 votes while the mid-western trio shrinks to 44 votes at the 2024 election (if current predictions are correct).

For how much longer will Florida remain a swing state?

More than anything else, I think the results in Florida significantly affected perceptions of Biden’s victory on election day (mine included). Florida was the fastest state to count all its votes in 2020 and it has a long history as a bellwether: if you win Florida, you become president. Once Florida was called for Trump, that led to media narratives developing that the election was very close, despite the fact that many other swing states would not count all their votes for several days, and Biden ended up winning almost all the rest of the swing states.

Florida is still a swing state. Trump only won it by 3.4%, continuing its uninterrupted run of not being won by any party by more than 5 points since 2000. But for how much longer will Florida remain a swing state? The trend is unmistakable. Florida was one of just three states to swing to Trump by more than 1% in 2020. This built upon successive swings to Republicans over the last three presidential elections.

As mentioned above, because Florida may no longer be a bellwether state, it may be harder to draw conclusions about what results in Florida mean for the rest of the country, both before and on election night.

If Florida is no longer vital to the presidency, a lot less weight may be placed on it in the future.

What about Minnesota?

Clinton won Minnesota narrowly in 2016. Along with strongly Democratic Illinois, it was one of just two mid-western states that she won. In 2020, Biden regained the mid-western states of Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, with modest swings towards him of between 1.4% and 3%.

But Minnesota swung towards Democrats by 5.6%, with Biden’s margin increasing to 7.1%. Why has Minnesota diverged from all the other mid-western states and swung so strongly towards Biden? I have no idea. But I hope someone is looking into it.

What will the Republicans do next?

Usually after losing elections, political parties re-evaluate their strategy, messaging, policies and leadership to put themselves in a better position to win the next election. Will the Republican party go through this process? Losing both houses of parliament and the presidency over a two year period is clear proof that your electoral strategy is not working. But are the Republicans capable of this sort of self-reflection? Or will they maintain that the election was stolen and continue on their current path?

And how good was the polling?

Nate Silver has written a good overview of the 2020 election polling here, so I’ll refer you there for detailed analysis.

But briefly, there were no big polling surprises in 2020. 538’s presidential forecast on the day before the election predicted the correct winner in all but two states. One exception was North Carolina, which was expected to be very close but Biden was slightly favoured (by 1.7 points); Trump ended up winning by 1.4%. Florida was the only state that could be considered an upset: Biden was forecast to win by 2.5% and Trump ended up winning by 3.4%.

A better way to compare the accuracy of polling is not to see if it predicts the correct winner (although that is generally how the media and public judge polling) but to see how close it came to the actual margin. 

(For example, a poll that shows Biden winning by 0.5%, where Trump ends up winning by 0.5% would only be 1% off but predict the wrong winner. Whereas a poll that shows Biden winning by 0.5% when he actually wins by 10% would by a massive 9.5% off, even though it got the correct winner.)

So looking at the polling (using 538’s final presidential forecast) in the states that finished with margins of under 10%:

  • Two states had polling errors within two points of the actual margin (Georgia, Minnesota). Polling in these states was excellent.
  • Seven states had polling errors between two and five points of the actual margin (Arizona, Maine, Nevada, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Texas). Polling in these states could be improved but was within the margin of error. 
  • Five states had polling errors more than five points off the actual margin (Florida, Iowa, Michigan, Ohio, Wisconsin). Polling in these states was pretty poor. One of these states was Florida, which has its own idiosyncrasies. But you may notice that the other four states are all in the mid-west. I suspect that’s no coincidence.

Is there a certain type of Trump supporter in the mid-west who is particularly hard to poll? One theory is that voters in these states, with a large cohort of non-university educated white voters, are getting harder to reach; another is that there may have been an oversampling of university-educated white voters in 2020 polls, with so many office workers working from home, and presumably more likely to pick up the phone.

Was the polling error for this election unique to the unusual circumstances of 2020? Or is it related to the similar but smaller polling error of 2016? It is concerning that the polling errors in 2016 and 2020 both overestimated the Democratic vote and underestimated the Republican vote. That could be a coincidence. If not, then pollsters will need to change their methodologies to prevent it happening again.

A final thought before I bring this long post to an end: It has been pointed out by others that polling for special elections over the last three years, the 2018 mid-term elections and the Georgia Senate runoffs last week was all pretty accurate. The polling error seems unique to 2016 and 2020. Is there something about Trump that completely changes voter behaviour in ways that we still can’t account for? And if so, does that mean that when he is not on the ballot the problem just goes away?

Other good US election analysis:

How the 2020 Election Changed the Electoral Map

Democrats Hope Georgia Will Become the Next Virginia, But It Could End Up Becoming the Next North Carolina

The Polls Weren’t Great. But That’s Pretty Normal

The Battle for the Battleground States

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