270 to Win – The Electoral College, Voter Realignment and the 2020 Path to Victory

“No one likes the Electoral College, expect perhaps those who were elected because of it. No one likes gerrymandering, except those doing the gerrymandering. No one likes the filibuster, except those doing the filibustering.”

Kevin Bleyer

This article as I had originally planned was three in a series, looking at first how the Electoral College works and why the popular vote doesn’t matter in the United States, how different tribes of voters seem to be moving parties and taking their states with them and finally looking at the path to victory for both the Republicans and Democrats in 2020. As I was drafting them, I found it increasingly hard not to refer to the other two and for the sake of any new readers I’ve combined them together into a single much longer article.

For my American readers, they can likely skip this part of the article as they know what the Electoral College is, what it does and both its advantages and disadvantages. In simple terms it is the Electoral College that elects the President and the Vice President of the United States and this election happens in December, around a month before the term of office is about to begin. I am already hearing the comments as I wrote the prior sentence: What is the point of the election in November you keep writing about if it doesn’t even elect the President? It is an excellent question and the Electoral College is one of the great quirks of the American Constitution, why it exists I’ll explain later, but when in November the people of the United States vote for either Joe Biden or Donald Trump they are not voting for the candidates they are voting for if their states’ electoral college electors will vote for Joe Biden or Donald Trump. The best way to explain it for those in the UK is that we elect an MP and then the MP elects the Prime Minister. It is an indirect election.

It sounds needlessly complicated and doesn’t feel truly democratic in a country that claims to be a beacon for democracy in the world. The system wasn’t designed to be democratic, it was a system to guard the office of the President from someone who would be unfit to occupy it. The Founding Fathers feared democracy, they had studied classical history and believed it was the democracy of Athens that led to its downfall it was a mistake they wanted to avoid, but they did believe in a Republic so the Electoral College was the compromise where the voters would pick the Electors that went to the Electoral College and the Electors could take the voters in their state under consideration but ultimately it was up to the Elector how to vote went. Over time states have passed laws to force their Electors to vote how the state chose in the election (any Elector that doesn’t vote the way the state says they should is known as a Faithless Elector). Today the Electoral College is rather symbolic, which puts the opening quote into focus, why does the outdated system remain?

The answer to that question is a rather simple one, it would require a constitutional amendment to abolish, which would require 2/3 of both Houses of Congress and 3/4 of the States to pass (there is a second method but has never been used so for sake of simplicity I’ll ignore it), it is a high bar in the first place however it would be very unlikely due to a group of states would unwilling to abolish the Electoral College for what it gives them, a chance to say who the President is. Based on the size of a state’s population they are given seats in the House of Representatives, the smallest state, Wyoming has 1 seat and the largest California has 53. Add to that the number of seats they hold in the Senate (which is 2 for every state), it gives you the number of electoral votes each state holds, Wyoming has 3 and California has 55. The population of Wyoming is 577,700 and California is 39.5 million, per voter Wyoming has more power in the Electoral College than California as if California truly had their representative power in the Electoral College they’d have 205 Electoral College votes. While there is a great difference between 3 and 55 votes, there’d be a far bigger difference if the populations were set based off Wyoming’s voters per Elector.

Due to the Electoral College, the election in the United States is not 1 election but in truth 51, (this is because Washington DC is given 3 electoral college votes, it does have a higher population than both Wyoming and Vermont), different elections. This does mean that the winner of the popular vote can in fact lose the election, this happened in 1824, 1876, 2000 and most recently in 2016 where Hillary Clinton won by 3 million more votes but lost heavily in the Electoral College. Unsurprisingly many in the Democrats have begun to call for a reforming of the Electoral College while the Republicans have become its somewhat reluctant defenders. This is why in the election, ignore the national polls and pay very close attention to the state polls particularly in the battleground states because the number of people voting for a candidate has no meaning, it is whether or not they reach 270 Electoral College votes.

With the first topic explained, the third makes more sense but the second might still seem as an odd choice and I’ll explain, every political party has a group of people they aspire to have vote for them by making policy or pledging to support causes which they believe a specific group of people will vote for. In the UK it tends to be based upon age and economic values (if an individual is more socialist or capitalist). In the US it is far more complicated, age and economic values are certainly a make up but there is far more of a social debate in the United States and sadly a racial one too. For a party to win in an election in the United States they need to create a wide coalition which holds enough voters to get elected.

Broadly speaking the Republicans are supported by those with higher incomes, who are fiscally and socially conservative, White, white collar worker (those with degrees) and those who are older. The Democrats tend to be the opposite getting support from lower incomes, who are more fiscally and socially liberal, minorities such as Black and Hispanic, blue collar workers (those without degrees) and those who are younger. That is how anyone who studies American politics was taught on which groups of people support which party, that however is starting to shift as different groups of voters are starting to move into different camps.

Much like in the UK with university educated people starting to move from the Conservative Party to Labour, we are seeing a similar trend in the United States with the White Collar and Blue Collar workers swapping parties, whilst this is not yet complete you can see it starting to happen Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania voting for Donald Trump in 2016 is a strong example, however these states aren’t out for the Democrats yet either with polling showing that at the time of writing they will likely return to the Democrats in November.

The next trend will have to be examined over coming election cycles to see if this is a trend or a one off but older people, which has many surprised, are moving their support over from Donald Trump to Joe Biden in a huge number enough that even if only a small amount of it held for November it would spell a complete disaster for the Republicans in November. Many will put this on Covid 19 and how Donald Trump and the Republican Party as a whole has prioritised the economy over the health crisis, however recent polling as highlighted by Steve Kornacki the MSNBC version of John Curtis (only with a lot more energy) has shown from as far back as July 2019 Joe Biden has been leading among voters who are 65+ by double digits. If this holds out, it’ll be the first time since 2000 65+ voters came out for the Democrat candidate more than the Republican. It also means a lot more states have come into play for the election in November. Specfically Arizona and Florida.

The switching of these groups, combined with the existing demographic support for the parties and changing population nationwide means within 20 years states that were considered swing states in the Midwest will no longer be swing states, Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin, Iowa possibly even Pennsylvania will have become firmly Republican or at least on the balance of probability they’d be called for the Republicans than the Democrats. Whilst the South and South West will look a lot more blue than red with Texas (yes Teaxs!), Arizona, Florida and North Carolina looking more Democrat than Republican. It is the start of a new 20 year cycle that sees states changing hands, Colorado and Virginia are just at the end of their transformation from swing states into their firm holding by Democrats. The mathematics of the Electoral College will be changing very soon.

Now for the reason, many of you are here: the possible paths to victory for both Donald Trump and Joe Biden in November.

For any hoping for a Donald Trump victory in November the paths to victory are not looking good or very plentiful. As the incumbent, there is the disadvantage of playing defence to keep the states that ensured victory last time but beyond that in this election cycle there aren’t any real opportunities for expansion beyond what was won in 2016, from what I’ve heard from reporting the Trump campaign had been hoping to make a move for Colorado and New Hampshire but those plans have seemingly been abandoned in the hopes to protect what saw Donald Trump his victory.

Donald Trump can afford to lose both Michigan and Pennsylvania for victory in November. If he were to lose any other state, he’d lose. What is more worrying is if Donald Trump lost Florida, should Trump lose Florida he could only afford to lose 1 of the states that he won in the Rust Belt in 2016. Unfortunately for his camp, he is currently down in Florida and in all of the 3 Rust Belt states plus Arizona with North Carolina now within the margin of error within polling. Polls in recent days for Georgia and Utah have also been grim news with Georgia having Biden and Trump tied and Utah Trump only ahead by 3.

Joe Biden and his campaign have a long and hard road ahead of them still, but they have many more paths to victory than Donald Trump does the simplest one is to undo what Donald Trump did in 2016, retake Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. It’d give a very tight win, but it would put the Democrats over the 270 winning line and come January 2021 they would be in the White House.

There are more options, as I highlighted Florida is a must win for Donald Trump, if the Biden campaign takes that then it is game over for Donald Trump. It’d be an easy win as Michigan is more likely than not to flip back to Democrat control.

There is one more path which is getting a lot of attention recently and that is with Arizona, the state has been seen as increasingly Democrat, with the victory in the Senate race in 2018 and Mark Kelly at present looking to completely wipe out Martha McSally in November. Michigan, Pennsylvania and Arizona together would give enough electoral college votes for the Democrats and is in my view if only three states were to change hands in November it would be these three.

It is still 160 days to go until the election in November, a lot can and will change. It seems the states that will be considered the swing states of the election are confirmed, as time goes on I’d expect polling to start to show a tightening of the race, however so far all I am saying is more states won by Trump in 2016 starting to give data that shows the Democrats are coming a lot closer than they should be. This election will be different, it’ll be interesting but no matter what the winner will be the one who gets to 270 in the Electoral College.

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