Neither party walked away from this November without major scars. Both were forced to analyze an unsettled electoral landscape and see the extent of their current electoral strategies. Compared to prior years, more states are up for grabs than ever before and more voters than ever seem to be bouncing back and forth between the parties.
Conventional wisdom would argue Sun – Belt states like North Carolina, Georgia remain light pink states while Florida remains purple. The Rust – Belt of Minnesota, formerly Iowa, Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania, continue to form the Blue Wall Democrats can rely on. Meanwhile, Arizona, like GA voting for Joe Biden (pending lawsuits), remain lite pink. This conventional wisdom would be wrong.
Yet, the contours of a shifting electoral map are taking shape as the parties voters continue to realign. Former perennial swing states like Florida and Ohio have now voted twice to the right of the nation by a combined + 12R for the former and +5R for the latter. A state like Iowa is now arguably only competitive at the federal level if a vacancy occurs in a Senate seat or the White House. Meanwhile, the first time ever, both Georgia and North Carolina are now closer to the median national vote than either of the former.
In the West, the long awaited municipal realignment seems to be taking shape. Whereas it did not take long for Nevada and Colorado to swing left due to the strength of their major cities (Denver and Las Vegas), Arizona appears to have hit that point this year with Maricopa (Phoenix) moving the state ever so narrowly to the left.
To be sure, the electoral core of both parties remains the same. The GOP retains its strength in the rural West and Middle America. It’s strength in the Deep South remains untouched. Meanwhile, Democrats retain the loyalties of the Pacific Coast and Northeast (again, thanks to the power of major cities).
For some time now the divides in the parties have been clear: religion, race, age, urban vs. rural. But in 2016 we saw two new clear divides emerge: class and educational attainment. These new divides have only exacerbated the long existing divides for various reasons.
For example, lower income individuals are far more likely to be regular church – goers and hold conservative views on social issues than the affluent. Rural voters are far less likely to have a college degree than their urban and suburban brothers and sisters. Rural areas are far more likely to be white than diverse, metro areas. Along a class lens, many rural areas are disconnected from the foci of power whereas urban and suburban areas are where those in power usually come from and nest.
These factors have combined to make the messages both parties have used since the 2000 election largely outdated. Republicans trying to appeal to the affluent along the lines of tax cuts falls flat when the affluent are increasingly younger and liberal. Along the same lines, Democrats appealing to non – college educated whites and blue – collar workers among all racial groups with promises of new programs to support them are ringing flatter and flatter.
One cannot think of a more unsettled electoral landscape than 2000. That year, Ohio and Florida were battlegrounds but the likes of now deep blue Oregon and deep red West Virginia were up for grabs. Even the state of California was considered competitive and many Deep South states like Arkansas and Tennessee were thought of as winnable by both the Gore and Bush teams. Part of this was due to Bill Clinton’s unique candidacy which cobbled together an unsteady coalition which poached California and other states away from the GOP by winning suburban moderates but his appeal to Southern Whites was cultural. It didn’t help the GOP kept putting up pathetic old white guys whose “time had come” to face him. By 2000, though, the map had solidified enough CA was set to remain blue while West Virginia and many other Southern states were permanently aligned with the GOP.
Leaving aside the map for a second, the unsteady coalitions of 2020 resemble the party coalitions of 2000. By 2000, the GOP was made up of Southern whites, a vestige of its moderate, business friendly suburban wing and Midwestern blue – collar whites. Democrats, on the other hand, were increasingly becoming the party of urban Millennials, peeling off chunks of the GOP’s suburban wing and gobbling up massive chunks of the ascendant Hispanic and Asian – American populations. For the most part though – what separates then from now is the parties were not largely separated by class. Sure, the urban/rural divide was present in 2000 but there was not so clear an income/educational divide which exacerbated these trends in November.
This year – we saw the divide in stark contrast. The examples are numerous but I will stick to just three (Texas, Wisconsin and Maine). In Texas, we saw the gains the Democrats had made in the affluent Houston/Dallas suburbs in 2018 remain and even strengthen marginally. But, down South, in what has become called “Little Mexico” the Democratic bastion shifted to Trump over 20 points relative to 2016 (with Trump winning several new counties as a result). In Zapata County, along the Rio Grande – the county shifted 55 points!!! This suggests Trump won Texas not because he held ground in the suburbs but because he made up any losses with blue – collar, rural Hispanics.
Or, take Wisconsin. The state is unique for having moderate, rural swing population while its urban centers are solidly blue. But, the suburban counties ringing Milwaukee have long been a source of GOP strength. This go – round though, Biden made inroads with these affluent voters (average county income is over $87K). He also did this in counties across the border in suburban Minnesota flipping long GOP towns. Meanwhile, the rural population in racially divided Kenosha and Racine Counties, and rural Wisconsin shifted further to the right. This go – round, Biden managed to win the state (pending lawsuits), but the in – roads even a flawed candidate like Trump made suggest in 2024 if Democrats run an AOC or Harris type nominee the GOP is in good shape.
Lastly, we come to Maine. It is only one of two states to allocate Electoral College votes by district. While Biden improved his margins in the state overall – all he actually lost the 2nd District made up of the Northern half of the state. But, characterizing just how many voters don’t blindly vote along partisan lines – the district also reelected Jared Golden (D) to a second term and put Susan Collins in the Senate for a fifth term.
As both parties move forward and grapple with an unsettled electoral map it is likely the election of 2024 will be the culmination of the trends shaping America since 2000. At that point, Joe Biden will not be at the top of the ticket to appeal to blue – collar whites along cultural or ethnic lines. Rather, likely a younger, POC Democrat will take the reigns and likely focus on building a new coalition. Meanwhile, the GOP will be tested trying to retain its minority support from the Trump era while appealing to blue – collar whites and working class Hispanics and Asian Americans.
Much is up for grabs after 2020. Both parties would be wise to remember this.