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The Electoral College: Expanding the Map

A Commentary By Kyle Kondik

Trump is at least a small underdog in all the Clinton states, but trying to play offense is wise.


— We don’t really think President Trump can win New Mexico, where he campaigned earlier this week. But he’s wise to try to expand the map.

— While presidents who lose reelection historically don’t win states they didn’t carry in their earlier victories, presidents who win reelection typically do end up winning one or more states they lost previously, although there is one significant recent exception.

— However, the president seems to be at least a small underdog in every Hillary Clinton-won state. We’re moving New Hampshire from Toss-up to Leans Democratic in our Electoral College ratings.

Table 1: Crystal Ball Electoral College rating change

Trump tries to expand the map

President Trump was in New Mexico earlier this week in service of what seemed to many like a quixotic mission: Flipping the Land of Enchantment from blue to red in 2020.

New Mexico voted for Hillary Clinton by about eight points in 2016; the state voted for Barack Obama by about 10 points four years earlier, a slight shift to the right that mirrored Obama’s four-point national popular vote victory falling to a two-point margin in favor of Clinton in 2016.

In other words, New Mexico didn’t show any particularly strong trend toward Republicans in 2016, and nothing in the 2018 results, when Democrats swept the state’s federal and statewide races, suggested otherwise. One wild card, though, is that Libertarian Gary Johnson attracted a significant share of the vote in his home state’s presidential race in 2016 (9%) and Senate contest in 2018 (15%), a sizable bloc of voters Republicans hope will significantly break toward them without Johnson on the ballot.

Still, New Mexico also has the largest percentage of Hispanic voters of any state, a group that as a whole is considerably more Democratic than non-Hispanic whites. Clinton also won 48% of the vote in New Mexico in 2016, meaning that Trump (who got 40%) likely would have to convert the lion’s share of the Johnson voters to his side in 2020 in order to win the state. In 2018, Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-NM) was reelected with 54% of the vote, meaning that even if all the Johnson voters had voted for the GOP nominee instead, Heinrich still would have won comfortably.

We rate New Mexico as Likely Democratic for the 2020 presidential general election at this early juncture: Not a total slam dunk for Democrats, but not a true swing state either, in our judgment.

However, that is all a long preamble to a larger point: Trump and his team are wise to try to expand the electoral map.

Remember: Trump was outraised by Hillary Clinton in 2016, but this time he may very well enjoy a resource advantage over the Democratic nominee, and therefore he can afford to pump more money into non-essential states than last time. Even if he’s ultimately bluffing in New Mexico, there are at least three other Clinton states — Minnesota, New Hampshire, and Nevada — that were significantly closer than New Mexico (all were decided by 2.5 points or less) where Trump likely will make a significant effort. Don’t necessarily assume he can’t win one or more Clinton-won states, even as we see him as an underdog in all of them (more on this below).

Overall, if Trump loses reelection, history suggests that he won’t win any states in 2020 that he lost in 2016. But if he wins, he very well may win one or more states he didn’t win last time.

In the current two-party presidential era — which dates back to 1856, when the Republicans first produced a presidential nominee who was the main rival to the already-existing Democrats — six incumbent presidents have lost a general election for a second term after winning a first term in the previous election: Grover Cleveland (D, 1888), Benjamin Harrison (R, 1892), William Howard Taft (R, 1912), Herbert Hoover (R, 1932), Jimmy Carter (D, 1980), and George H.W. Bush (R, 1992).

None of them carried any state they lost four years prior. Of course, this makes intuitive sense: If a president goes from winning to losing, he is by definition losing ground. So all of these losing presidents lost states they had carried four years prior (in some instances, they lost quite a lot more).

However, if Trump wins, history suggests that he might win one or more states he didn’t carry last time.

Again, since 1856, there have been 11 incumbent presidents elected to a second term after winning a first term in the previous election. (This omits presidents like Theodore Roosevelt and Lyndon B. Johnson, who won elected terms in their own right after taking over for presidents who died in office, and also Cleveland, who won in 1884, lost in 1888, and won again in 1892.)

These 11 were Abraham Lincoln (R, 1864), Ulysses S. Grant (R, 1872), William McKinley (R, 1900), Woodrow Wilson (D, 1916), Franklin D. Roosevelt (D, 1936; we are omitting his third and fourth elections for the purposes of this discussion), Dwight D. Eisenhower (R, 1956), Richard Nixon (R, 1972), Ronald Reagan (R, 1984), Bill Clinton (D, 1996), George W. Bush (R, 2004), and Barack Obama (D, 2012).

Of these 11 reelected presidents, 10 won at least one state they failed to carry in their initial successful election. The one exception is the most recent reelected president, Obama, who lost Indiana, North Carolina, and the single electoral vote contained in Nebraska’s Second Congressional District after somewhat surprisingly winning these in 2008, and he didn’t add any new electoral votes to his coalition. That historical oddity makes more sense when one considers that Obama was the first president reelected to a second term to lose ground in his popular vote share since Andrew Jackson (again, this omits FDR’s final two reelections, as well as Cleveland’s 1892 victory after a four-year hiatus).

Interestingly, of these reelected presidents, a majority (seven of 11) lost one or more states they had won in their first successful election. Obama, as mentioned, was one; George W. Bush was another: He picked up Iowa and New Mexico from four years prior but lost New Hampshire. In 1996, Bill Clinton lost Colorado, Georgia, and Montana after winning them in 1992, but he more than made up for those lost electoral votes by flipping Arizona and Florida from the Republicans.

We are in an era with many landslide states in the Electoral College, and we probably should expect a good amount of stability in state-level voting from 2016 to 2020. However, things can and will change.

Obviously, if Trump loses, he will lose some states he won in 2016, and his intense focus on motivating his base over expanding it may make him an unlikely candidate to flip a Clinton 2016 state in defeat. However, if Trump wins, history suggests he might both gain and lose ground; hypothetically, it’s not hard to imagine him, for instance, losing Michigan but winning New Hampshire. These were the two closest states in 2016 and were decided by less than four-tenths of a percentage point apiece: It wouldn’t take that much to flip either one way or the other.

The Electoral College picture now

We continue to see the 2020 presidential election as something of a 50-50 proposition. There are competing trends that argue both for and against the president’s chances. On one hand, an incumbent president presiding over a time of relative peace and prosperity usually would be seen as a favorite, although there is some question about whether Americans’ optimism about the economy is weakening. The president does not have a top-tier challenger for the GOP nomination, another factor in his favor. On the other hand, the president’s approval rating is consistently weak, weaker than an incumbent president would want going into a reelection bid, and it’s not even clear that everyone who approves of the president’s job performance is certain to back him next year.

Without knowing the identity of the Democratic nominee, and without knowing the future shape of the economy and a number of other factors, the best thing to do (in our opinion) is to look at the race as close and competitive for now, as presidential elections have mostly been in recent years and as an acknowledgement of the competing electoral indicators.

We are formalizing that to some degree in our Electoral College ratings by making one slight adjustment, moving New Hampshire from Toss-up to Leans Democratic. The Granite State is almost always competitive, but Trump’s approval there has generally been weak. Throughout 2018, Gallup measured Trump’s approval in New Hampshire at 35% approve, 58% disapprove; more recently, Morning Consult found his approval rating 20 points underwater. The University of New Hampshire’s Granite State poll (42% approve/53% disapprove) and Gravis Marketing (44%/54%) from earlier this summer are better but still weak for the president. So this trend isn’t really new, but in reassessing our ratings, we thought it was more appropriate to list New Hampshire as Leaning Democratic. Meanwhile, in the state’s Senate race, it appears that former Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski (R) is getting closer to entering the race to challenge Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH). A Lewandowski nomination would certainly represent a double down on Trump Republicanism in New Hampshire, even though the notoriously fickle state may be moving away from the president.

That makes the overall Electoral College ratings exactly split, 248 apiece, with 42 electoral votes’ worth of Toss-ups: Arizona, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin, plus Nebraska’s Second Congressional District.

This also puts all of Clinton’s 2016 electoral votes in at least the Leaning Democratic column. But that doesn’t mean the president shouldn’t target some of these states anyway — and he certainly will.

Map 1: Crystal Ball Electoral College ratings

Kyle Kondik is a Political Analyst at the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia and the Managing Editor of Sabato's Crystal Ball.

See Other Political Commentary by Kyle Kondik.

See Other Political Commentary.

This article is reprinted from Sabato's Crystal Ball.

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