Plotting the GOP’s Most Efficient Electoral College Pathways
A Commentary By Seth Moskowitz
How the 2020 map provides a template for 2024.
KEY POINTS FROM THIS ARTICLE
— In 2020, Donald Trump would have needed to flip 37 additional Electoral College votes to reach 269, thereby winning an effective majority in the Electoral College, thanks to a likely Republican advantage if the Electoral College produces a tied outcome.
— The 2024 Electoral College map will reflect the 2020 census’s reallocation of electoral votes. Using this new map, the GOP will need to flip 34 electoral votes (down from 37) to reach 269.
— Using 2020 presidential election results, we can map out the different paths that Trump had to winning 269 electoral votes. These routes give us a template for how presidential candidates might plan their strategies for next year’s election.
— Flipping Georgia, Arizona, and Wisconsin is likely the GOP’s best chance at winning back the presidency. But there are other viable routes to 269 as well that involve Pennsylvania, Nevada, and Nebraska’s 2nd Congressional District.
The GOP’s best paths back to the presidency
The 2020 presidential election was very close. It might not seem that way looking at Joe Biden’s 306 to 232 Electoral College victory, but if a few votes in a few states had swung differently, Donald Trump would have won a second term.
In the most narrow sense, Trump lost the election by 42,918 votes. That number comes from totaling up the raw vote margin in the three most competitive states (Georgia, Arizona, and Wisconsin). Had Trump flipped these, he likely would have won the election — in the event of an Electoral College tie, the House of Representatives would have picked the president, and the GOP would have controlled that process (and very likely will control it again following the 2024 election — see a Crystal Ball analysis from earlier this year that explains why).
Of course, it’s impossible to target voters so precisely. Even if Trump’s campaign had known exactly how many more voters he needed to win and where they lived, there’s no guarantee they could have pulled it off. Winning over the electorate is a bit like trying to flatten a carpet that’s too big for the room it’s in: when you try to pin down one ripple, another always pops up somewhere else. In other words, if Trump had put more effort into winning these 42,918 votes, he might have lost support elsewhere.
Even so, candidates do have some power to influence voters by leveraging their time, money, and message. Knowing how many voters they would need to win over in order to flip a given state would give any candidate a big leg up. And while pinpointing that number for the 2024 election with extreme precision is not possible, we’re not left completely in the dark. The 2020 presidential election gives us a solid foundation from which to work.
The “cost” of an Electoral College vote
While 2024 will not be a replay of 2020, that year’s electoral map is still the best template we have. By looking at the routes that Trump had to victory last time, we can see the most viable routes that the GOP nominee will have next year as well. Ahead of the 2020 election, I wrote a similar analysis using the 2016 election as a template. For that article, I created a unit of measurement that I called the “cost” of an Electoral College vote: how many voters a candidate would have needed to net per Electoral College vote to win a state. That cost is calculated by dividing a state’s raw vote margin by its number of electoral votes.
This is one way to evaluate how competitive the state is and the magnitude of the reward for winning the state (the size of its electoral delegation). The cheapest electoral votes come from states that have tight margins and lots of electoral votes.
However, because excess Electoral College votes have no practical value and because almost all states award Electoral College votes winner-take-all, accounting only for the cost per electoral vote doesn’t always lead to the “cheapest” victories.
An example might help. Below, in Table 1, are the three closest states both in terms of 2020 raw vote totals and percent margin: Georgia, Arizona, and Wisconsin. All election data used in this piece are from Dave Leip’s Atlas of U.S. Elections.
Table 1: Republican path through Georgia, Arizona, and Wisconsin
Note: The column labeled “EC Votes (2024)” shows each state’s number of Electoral College votes in 2024. “Margin (2020)” shows the Democratic vote margin in the 2020 presidential election. “Cost/EC Vote” is the cost per Electoral College vote in a state. This was calculated by dividing State Margin by EC Votes. The “Total” row shows the total Electoral College votes among the states, the sum of their electoral margins, and the average cost of an Electoral College vote among the group of states.
Republican paths to 269
Using this framework, we can explore the different paths that next year’s GOP nominee could build on Trump’s 2020 map to win the presidency. The six routes explored here are not the only ways that the GOP could win the election, but they are the most viable according to the raw number of votes the GOP nominee would need to flip as well as the average cost per electoral vote. Following each table and its explanation, there will be a bolded 2024 Takeaway — key information to consider for next year’s presidential contest. Three bits of housekeeping before jumping in:
- First, because the GOP will likely come away with the presidency in the case of an Electoral College tie, the magic number that the Republican nominee will need to hit is 269, not 270.
- Second, because the 2024 Electoral College map will reflect the 2020 census’s reallocation of electoral votes, the GOP nominee will need to flip only an additional 34 votes to reach 269, not the 37 they would have needed with the prior map. We are also assuming, as part of these scenarios, that the GOP nominee holds onto the 235 electoral votes’ worth of support (based on the 2024 apportionment) that Trump carried in the last election.
- Third, as we go through the most viable Republican routes to at least 269 electoral votes, readers who want to game out the Electoral College for themselves can use the great interactive tools at 270ToWin.com or Taegan Goddard’s Electoral Vote Map.
With that, let’s revisit Table 1 from above, the GOP path through Georgia, Arizona, and Wisconsin, and then move on to other scenarios:
Table 1: Republican path through Georgia, Arizona, and Wisconsin
This is probably the GOP nominee’s easiest route to victory. It’s the path with both the smallest raw vote margin and the cheapest cost per Electoral College vote.
One thing that may be a challenge for the GOP nominee is to find a message that could appeal to the distinct electorates of these three states. Both regionally and demographically these states are quite different, and finding a message that can win over crucial voters in all of them may be a challenge.
2024 Takeaway: If Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin were the key states in 2020, the 2024 version of that triad is Georgia, Arizona, and Wisconsin.
Table 2: Republican path through Pennsylvania and Georgia
Out of all the competitive states, Pennsylvania comes with the largest reward: 19 electoral votes. If the GOP nominee can win those, then they’ll unlock a host of new routes to 269. This is the first of four options that include Pennsylvania we’ll explore.
Pennsylvania and Wisconsin have voted similarly for president this century, with the Keystone State generally a little more Democratic. So it might seem like if the GOP nominee carries Pennsylvania then, by default, they’ll have carried Wisconsin too. But that is not a foregone conclusion — they likely will vote similarly but because both are so competitive, they could break different ways.
2024 Takeaway: Because it would open many new pathways to 269, Pennsylvania will likely be a fierce battleground next year. Even though Pennsylvania seems less competitive than Georgia, Arizona, and Wisconsin, it’d be foolish for the GOP to put all their eggs in the path outlined in Table 1.
Table 3: Republican path through Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Arizona
This example substitutes Arizona and Wisconsin for Georgia in the previous table. Given that Wisconsin is likely a shade redder than Pennsylvania, it fits nicely into this option.
The most important thing to note about this option is that it shows a realistic way to 269 that does not go through Georgia. That’s important because Georgia has been on a steep slide toward Democrats in recent years, moving faster away from the GOP than most other battleground states.
2024 Takeaway: If Georgia continues to trend blue, the GOP has alternative routes to 269 that are still relatively inexpensive in terms of raw votes and cost per electoral vote.
Table 4: Republican path through Pennsylvania, Arizona, and Nevada
This table is the same as the last one but it swaps out Nevada for Wisconsin. This may be a bit harder to imagine considering the cost of the votes in Nevada, but it — unlike Georgia and Arizona — has been trending rightward relative to the nation in recent years. It’s not too hard to imagine it flipping to the GOP while other states that were closer in 2020 do not.
2024 Takeaway: While Nevada’s electoral votes may be “costlier” than any of the other top-tier battlegrounds, the fact that it’s a bit of a wildcard means that neither campaign can afford to completely cede the ground there.
Table 5: Republican path through Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Nevada
This table is the same as the last one, but dropping Arizona in favor of Wisconsin. What’s important about this path is that it doesn’t require the GOP nominee to win either Georgia or Arizona. Again, it may seem unlikely that Nevada will turn red while Georgia and Arizona stay blue, but that becomes easier to imagine if you look at the rightward course Nevada’s been charting in recent years.
2024 Takeaway: Even if Georgia and Arizona continue to trend towards Democrats, the GOP does have a feasible path to winning. In this scenario, the Republican nominee would have to win back the most competitive Rust Belt states as well as Nevada, a state they haven’t won since 2004.
Table 6: Republican path through Georgia, Arizona, Nevada, and NE-2
Note: The margin data for NE-2 corresponds with the new district lines that were drawn after the 2020 census. The source of that information is Daily Kos Elections.
One of the most concerning aspects of 2024 for Republicans is that if their nominee loses the three Rust Belt states of Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin, they will almost have no realistic path to 269.
I say almost because there is this wild card option that would see the GOP nominee sweep the Sun Belt swing states and supplement that with a victory in Nebraska’s 2nd Congressional District. Nebraska is one of two states that allocate their Electoral College votes by congressional district. And while NE-2 has trended Democratic in recent years, it is represented by a Republican House member (Don Bacon), showing that GOP victory there isn’t totally outlandish.
Interestingly, other than the route in Table 1, this is the cheapest way to victory for the GOP both in terms of total votes it’d need to flip and the cost per electoral vote. If this happened, the Electoral College would be tied at 269 to 269, a situation that, as noted above, would probably end with a Republican president. (The scenarios in tables 1-5 all get the Republicans to 270 or a little higher, removing the need for the House tiebreaker process.)
2024 Takeaway: There’s only one realistic way that the GOP will win the presidency if it loses the most competitive Rust Belt states. It’s a bank shot, but it’s also not impossible.
The biggest 2024 takeaway
There are, of course, other scenarios we did not cover. Perhaps the GOP nominee could wrestle back Michigan or New Hampshire. But if that comes to pass, it seems like a near certainty that the GOP nominee would already be well above the requisite 269 electoral votes. In other words, if Michigan or New Hampshire are in play, it’s likely already game over for Democrats. So instead of spending their campaign resources on these peripheral battlegrounds, the candidates will likely focus their attention on the pathways detailed above and on winning the “cheapest” electoral votes.
Given their extremely narrow margins in 2020, Georgia, Arizona, and Wisconsin seem like the obvious way for the GOP nominee to claw his or her way to 269. But the nominees of both parties would be smart to expand their strategy beyond those three. Pennsylvania, with its large bounty of electoral votes, should probably be a priority because it’d open up many additional pathways to 269. Nevada, too, should probably get a fair share of attention from both parties because it’d likely be a key piece of a GOP victory if Arizona and Georgia continue to trend toward Democrats. The same is even true of Nebraska’s 2nd Congressional District, which could prove decisive.
This piece focused on the Republican paths to winning back the presidency. There’s much less to say about the Democratic path, because it really just involves holding the lion’s share of what they won in 2020. In terms of offensive targets, the Democrats’ best option is North Carolina, which was Donald Trump’s closest win in 2020. Still, the cost of that state’s electoral votes for Democrats is relatively high, most closely matching the cost of Pennsylvania for Republicans. So if the Democratic nominee wins there, we doubt the election will have otherwise been all that close.
Table 7: The Democrats’ possible addition of North Carolina
The biggest takeaway, then, is that while we might not know for sure which states will prove decisive, the 2020 map is a solid template to build on. At the very least, it gives a sense of where the battle to 269 will take place and the various paths that the GOP nominee could chart to get there.
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