Taking The Long View

[ Posted Thursday, October 8th, 2020 – 17:01 UTC ]

Today, I'd like to step back from the fray of the current political campaign season. I know, I should be racking my brains for "fly in the ointment" or "waiter, there's a fly in my soupy Vice President" jokes right now, but today I will leave that sort of thing to others. Because instead I'd like to pull back to 30,000 feet and take a much wider and longer view of the shifting political landscape in this country. Because there seems to be some slow-moving tectonic shifts at work which might influence our politics long beyond this November's election.

When you look at a map of America painted blue and red, it is usually for one specific purpose (such as: "Who will win each state's Electoral College votes for president?"). But the question I'd like to examine today is which direction some of those states are moving. Where are they on the pendulum ride between red and blue? If they are purple, which direction might they take in the next election?

Overall, the news here seems to be better for Democrats than it is Republicans, but it is hard to accurately say because of the "black swan" nature of Donald Trump. Trump upended political norms in more ways than one, but what will come afterwards? What will happen in an election without anyone named "Trump" on the ballot? That's tough to say because of the personality cult nature of Trump's presidency. Trump followers aren't ideologues, they are instead big fans of Trump and his entertainment value. Trump sticks it to the liberals and the media on a regular basis, much to their delight. It really doesn't matter what the fuss is about, it is the spectacle that's fun to watch. But what happens to this large demographic when Trump eventually fades away? That's the biggest unanswered question I have, and it makes it tough to even identify other more fundamental shifts in demography.

But let's make the attempt anyway. There have been two trends at play in the past two elections, in the Upper Midwest and in the Southern Atlantic Seaboard states. Trump stole away the vaunted Democratic "Big Blue Wall," by winning not only Ohio but also previously-blue Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin. That was a body blow to the Democratic Party. This may be reversed in 2020, however, as Trump didn't win these three states by all that many votes, and nobody really knows how much of an effect voter dislike for Hillary Clinton had. Will 2020 be a return to the norm, where Democrats win all three of these states easily, while fighting hard (but probably losing) in Ohio? Or is a deeper trend (deeper than Donald Trump's personal fanbase) at work here, where Democrats might have to fight hard for these now-purple states? We really won't know the answer to this until 2024.

Meanwhile, Democrats have very quietly been growing in strength from the Potomac River southwards. Virginia used to be reliably red. Then it went through a purple period, and now it is pretty reliably blue. Democrats lost West Virginia to the Republicans at around the same time, but most of the states to the south of Virginia also seem to be travelling in the bluer direction as well. North Carolina is now about as purple as you can get, and it may see one of the closest outcomes in both the 2020 presidential race and in a Senate race. Will it get even bluer as time goes on?

Less advanced down this road are Georgia and South Carolina. Georgia seems to be on the brink of becoming a true swing state, as the metropolitan area around Atlanta begins to really flex some political power. The state is seen as competitive in at least one of their Senate races (there is a special election as well as a regular one), and there's at least a decent chance Joe Biden could pick the state up this time too. South Carolina is a lot redder, however, and it may only be this election that is spurring a purplish tinge this time around. Lindsey Graham is in a surprisingly close race for his Senate seat, but even if he is defeated, it would likely take a very long time for the state to ever be considered a battleground in the presidential race.

So, from Virginia to the Florida line, states are turning either purple or blue. That is an astonishing turnaround, and it stops a trend that had been happening since the 1960s. The South turned red over a period of about two or three decades, and it has been solidly red ever since. However, a lot of cities in the South have reinvented themselves as financial centers, tech corridors, or cultural centers, and by doing so have drawn in a whole lot of people from other states with the prospect of good jobs and an urbane environment. This influx of outsiders has contributed to the political shift in these states. Northern Virginia suburbs (around Washington D.C.) now determine statewide politics, not the rural areas. The same could be said for Atlanta or many North Carolina cities as well.

Florida is really apart from the South in a lot of ways, and Florida is a traditional retirement destination, so it has consistently seen an influx of older voters moving in from places like New York City. This leads to complicated politics, even before noting the difference in the Latino population there (where Miami Cubans have been pretty staunch Republicans). But Florida seems to be pretty perfectly balanced between the two parties, meaning it has been a purple state for a very long time now (see: 2000 election, Bush v. Gore). So it's really no change.

I would also put Iowa and Ohio into the permanently-purple category for now. They seem destined to be battlegrounds for a while to come. The newcomer in this category, however, would be Texas. Texas, like Florida, is its own region -- halfway between the South and the West, really. Flipping Texas blue has long been a goal of Democrats who live there, but once again it appears like it might actually be in reach. But even if Texas votes for Joe Biden this time around, the fight for the state will not be over by a longshot, meaning if Texas goes purple it will likely stay purple for a long time to come (just like Florida).

The other notable region experiencing a tectonic shift is the Mountain West. Colorado and New Mexico led this movement off, to the point where both states are now reliably blue. Nevada has followed suit much more slowly, and Democrats lost an advantage there when Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid retired. But the state still seems somewhere between purple and blue, at this point. It's not a Democratic lock, but they usually manage to win there.

The state turning a surprising shade of purple this time around in this region is Arizona. The Senate seat that both John McCain and Barry Goldwater sat in is about to be won by a Democrat. Democrats beat exactly the same Republican candidate two years ago to win the other Senate seat from the state. Once seen as perhaps the most conservative state in the country, Arizona now seems to be following the path laid down by New Mexico and Colorado. It may not be blue yet, but it's getting a lot closer to blue than purple.

Of course, this shift will likely not make it much further north. It's hard to imagine states like Utah, Wyoming, and Idaho ever voting for a Democratic president. And Democrats already lost the Plains states of North and South Dakota. Montana is the one wild card, because they've got an independent streak and elect Democrats to statewide office with some regularity. Democrats might just win the Senate race here this time around, but even so the state has to be seen as more red than even purple, on average.

When you look at the three regional trends happening in the South, the Mountain West, and the Upper Midwest, it all seems to be good news for the Democrats -- at least, in this current election cycle. Biden seems to have brought the Upper Midwest back into the Democratic fold (at least for now). Ohio may be a bridge too far, but Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania will all likely go for Biden in November.

If Biden has a really good night, the red/blue map of the election may -- for the first time in a very long time -- have an unbroken path of blue from Maine down to Florida. South Carolina will likely be red, but every other state that touches the Atlantic Ocean may in fact be blue. That would be an momentous development indeed. There's no guarantee this will happen, but even the possibility is kind of astonishing to contemplate.

Out West, flipping Arizona blue would be another solidification of the other blue parts of the new Mountain West political map. If Democrats finally achieve their dream of flipping Texas, then every state that touches Mexico will also be blue (in addition to the entire Pacific Coast).

The place where all of this may matter the most is in the Electoral College. Just to give one example, if Texas and Florida ever flipped to being reliably Democratic, it would be almost impossible for any Republican to win the White House at all. Between them, the two states have 67 Electoral College votes. That's one-eighth of the total you need to become president, in two states. Democrats already dominate the other three large-population states (New York, California, Illinois), leaving only states available who all having 20 electoral votes (Pennsylvania) or fewer. If you add Texas and Florida to the other three big states, you come up with 171 Electoral College votes from only five states. Adding up enough other states to hit 270 is relatively easy for Democrats, but adding up 270 without any of the largest states is almost impossible for the Republicans.

Best-case scenarios aside, however, the overall trends should also be concerning for Republicans, because most of the states that are moving along the red/blue spectrum are also fairly large ones. Democrats picked up Virginia's 13 Electoral College votes while losing West Virginia's 5, for a net gain of 8 votes. South Carolina is probably not going to flip, but it's also smaller than the others, with only 9 votes. North Carolina has 15 Electoral College votes, while Georgia has 16.

Out West, the Democrats have picked up votes in the states they've already flipped: 9 in Colorado, 5 in New Mexico, and 6 from Nevada. Arizona is bigger than all of them at 11 Electoral College votes, though. Montana, even if it happened, would be the smallest haul of all, with only 3 votes.

The reason the Midwest is such a coveted political prize is that a lot of people live there. Pennsylvania has a whopping 20 electoral votes, with Ohio not far behind at 18 and Michigan next with 16. Wisconsin is the smallest, but still has 10 Electoral College votes. The four states together have 64 votes between them -- which is why both parties are fighting so hard for the region.

Once again, this election and the past one are both tough to fit into any longer view of demographic shifts, because it is almost impossible to tell what will happen after Donald Trump leaves the stage. What the 2024 electoral map will look like is anyone's guess, really. If Democrats do have a landslide election this time around and fully grasp the levers of power everywhere, the question will be what they do with that power. If they enact an agenda that is widely popular, they could cement their hold on American politics. If, however, there is a political backlash (as indeed there was when Democrats passed Obamacare), then 2024 could be a reckoning for Democrats which shifts some of these trends back to the red direction.

However, if Democrats can manage to gain back control over most of the Upper Midwest -- and keep those states within the fold this time -- then the other geographic and demographic trends look pretty darn good for them. If states like Georgia and Arizona and even Texas become the newest battleground states, that will signal the reversal of a trend that began back in the 1960s. More to the point, if Republicans are left with only the states on the United States map which don't have much population, then while a lot of the map itself may remain red, there simply won't be enough Electoral College votes there to even be all that competitive in a presidential race.

-- Chris Weigant


Follow Chris on Twitter: @ChrisWeigant


15 Comments on “Taking The Long View”

  1. [1] 
    MtnCaddy wrote:

    Lincoln Project produced,

    Church of MAGA -- Part Deux


  2. [2] 
    MtnCaddy wrote:

    Your column, of course, presupposes that the Electoral College continues to exist in its current form. If a small number of States join the "Our EC Votes will be awarded to whomever wins the NATIONAL Popular Vote" movement (regardless of who wins each State's popular vote) then the fate of the GOP is a done deal.

    At that point the struggle for political power will be between the Progressive and Establishment wings of the Democratic Party.

  3. [3] 
    ListenWhenYouHear wrote:


    Nice assessment of where we are now and where we could be headed after this election. Because the GOP has been taken over by the Cult of Trump, and Trump has absolutely no ties to the Republican Party that aren’t solely self-serving, it is impossible to know what will remain of the GOP once Trump is out of office. What happens to a political party after it turns into a cult of personality and that personality goes away? What remains in the ashes?

    No one should expect Trump to show any concern for the party if it fails to re-elect him. I don’t think Trump’s base is going to be as dedicated to him once they see him turn on them and his disdain and disgust for them is on full display. Face it, he is going to need someone to blame for his loss, and it sure isn’t going to be himself! I would be willing to bet that Trumps reaction to losing will be quick in coming and extremely bitter in nature. I think we will see a sharp drop in voter turnout for the Republicans in 2022 and 2024 as a result.

  4. [4] 
    John M from Ct. wrote:

    I've been reading the "Coming Democratic Majority Because Demographics" articles for several decades now. They tend to conflict with the "Oh my God, the Constitution allows Republican Minority Rule far into the Future" articles that have been dominating the media since the 2016 election.

    Your analysis seems to work from a different electoral breakdown than the 'whites will only be a plurality soon' approach that the 'demographic' articles tend to focus on. If I understand you, you see the change in power as coming from urban majorities in formerly conservative states, irrespective of race.

    But you seem to be defining power entirely in terms of the electoral college, i.e., the presidency. Even in the context of your analysis, the Senate seems more likely to be the Republicans' stronghold going forward. As you say, when "Republicans are left with only the states on the United States map which don't have much population" the presidency may be out of reach - but not the Senate.

    And without the Senate, a long series of Democratic presidents will be in the same position Obama was in: all the good intentions in the world, and nary a major legislative program or liberal court system to show for it.

    Of course, I may be wrong. Perhaps more powerful metropolitan areas will elect Democratic senators from a majority of states just as they may elect Democratic presidents. But the "Coming Demographic Majority" articles have been saying this for quite some time now.

    Finally, per your piece, Trump is a factor in the failure of these predictions, of course, but Trump is just the idiotic expression of a powerful minority of the country that has achieved solidarity, coherence, and central direction since the Reagan era. That minority has controlled the presidency more often than not; ditto the Senate; ditto the courts thanks to points 1 and 2 preceding. Will the urbanization of the southeastern Atlantic seaboard, Texas, and the southern mountain states really overcome the "Oh my God, the Republicans" factor of numerous smaller states dominated by Fox News watchers, in the coming decade or two?

  5. [5] 
    nypoet22 wrote:


    i also found cw's predictions a bit rosy/premature.

  6. [6] 
    TheStig wrote:

    I lived in South Carolina during the 90s and the thought of it flipping Dem is plausible but nonetheless amazing. The only place you could find somebody willing to admit they had Democrat tendencies was in Charleston. South Carolina was one of the first states to abandon state subsidized beach restoration. That was the only progressive state initiative I remember. Beaches move and you can't engineer around that. Natives know that. Northern colonists and tourists don't.

  7. [7] 
    nypoet22 wrote:


    i think you meant that the farther north you go, the further south you get.

    as for [8]... well, i don't think such comments do anything to further your cause. so to speak. it's the color of a rainbow farted by a unicorn.


  8. [8] 
    SF Bear wrote:

    Chris, I think you underestimate the tenacity of the forces unleashed by Trump. His rise to power demonstrated the power of this minority group of Americans I shall call the Racist Tea Party. This 40% of the electorate is not going to go away, fuled as they are by talk radio and Fox News. You assume these folks will quietly assimilate back into a re-emergent Mitt Romney Republican Party but actually the opposite will happen. The sane Republicans have begun migrating into the Democratic Party and this Tea Part will continue to hold sway over the titular Republican Party.

    After the fall of trump there will be a fierce competition among a new group of ambitious pols to seize leadership of this 40% group of Americans. Should one emerge who is devoid of the personal failings of Trump (grab um by the pussy) and who is a whole lot smarter it is not at all inconceivable that leader could create another path to victory in 2024 or beyond. I do not think we are anywhere near putting this problem behind us. I believe this country will be engaged in an existential struggle between the 60% and the 40% to see who will run the country for for a very long time.

  9. [9] 
    SF Bear wrote:

    John M.from Ct #4 got a whole lot right. For even if the resurgent Dems capture the presidency al la Obama, the Tea Party Repbs have a lot of structural advantage in holding the Senate. Imagine this 40% being led by a Smart, Charismatic, and Ruthless person (The mirror image of trump)! I believe the Dems will need to maintain this level of engagement and enthusiasm we see today for a very long time as this struggle will resemble the Forty Years War. Even after Biden is settled into the white house and Trump is living in Moscow folks are going to be be surprised to see the absolute refusal on the part of the 40% to accept the changes in law and society desired by the Dems. With the right leadership they could prevail. Be afraid, very afraid, this nightmare will not end anytime soon.

  10. [10] 
    TheStig wrote:

    The four of P's of Political Analysis are starting to converge about who will be the next President and the verdict is not good for Trump. Not cast in concrete, but not encouraging.

    The Pollsters see Trump losing voter approval at both state and national levels, with a very high statistical significance.

    The Pundits who take a broader, more intuitive approach also see Trump losing steam, but vary quite a bit about about how to color the states on a US map. That said, I don't know of any who say Trump is the favorite or running head to head with Biden.

    The Predictors (Nate Silver of 538 and such), who see politics thru the lens of Generalized Linear Models are giving Trump somewhere in the range of a 20-25% of winning a second term.

    The Punters, blokes who place real money bets (where that is legal or not closely policed) were the last to come on board the rough consensus train. Until recently, the punters were acting like Biden and Trump were almost neck and neck, with Biden a wee bit behind just a few weeks ago. Not anymore. The Punters are now betting that Trump has about a 1 in 3 chance of winning the Electoral College.

    Here is my point to all the above. Trump faces a retirement full of litigation and legal fees not paid by somebody else. His businesses are losing money and loans are coming due. To the extent that Trump can think straight between the COVID and the Steroids, should he hand the reins over to Pence, in exchange for a blanket pardon? Or should Trump just refuse to leave office because the election was unfair and because he says so. A safer alternative might be for Trump to quickly skip town to Russia, N. Korea or some other totalitarian haven. What would Roy Cohn advise?

  11. [11] 
    SF Bear wrote:

    The Stig #12. I do not see any reason Pence would be willing to pardon Trump, what is in it for him? I assume Trump won't leave till after the election and the ensuing chaos resolves into a consensus that he lost. At that point Pence's carrier is over. The Tea Party folks will associate him with the failed Trump regime and shun him and no one else will have anything to do with him. How can he feel anything but resentment toward Trump at that point. Other than a brief stint as president what good will have come from his support of Trump. I think his refusal to pardon will be his final fuck you to the man that brought him all this grief.

  12. [12] 
    ListenWhenYouHear wrote:

    Well, it’s Friday, so we should be hearing from Bill Barr or someone else on the “weekend news bomb” that Trump’s campaign wants dropped in the next few hours! What will it be??? What Biden criminal act will be uncovered?

    I did just hear that Trump plans on holding a Super Spreader Event on Saturday where he will personally spit in every person’s in attendance mouth! Go herd mentality!!!

  13. [13] 
    Kick wrote:

    Red Alert: After Trump whines like a toddler yesterday that he is upset with his Secretary of State for not locating Hillary Clinton's "missing" emails, Mike Pompeo reports he's suddenly found them and will release them before November 3.

    Fun Fact: Hillary Clinton isn't running for President in 2020.

  14. [14] 
    TheStig wrote:

    Sf Bear -13

    I find your scenario very likely. That wouldn't stop Trump from trying to sell the idea to Pence. Trump is a salesman.

  15. [15] 
    dsws wrote:

    Under established Supreme Court precedent, a Republican does not need to get more votes than his opponent in order to win a state's electoral votes. He only needs to be ahead at some point in the process of counting ballots. Trump still has a very good chance of getting a second term.

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