Eric Davis: Democrats must expand electoral base
The Electoral College has recently been the subject of considerable debate and discussion among presidential candidates and newspaper op-ed writers. Regardless of one’s views on the merits of the Electoral College, it does provide the rules under which the 2020 campaign will be conducted, and an advantage to President Trump’s bid for re-election.
Almost all reputable national polls show Trump’s approval rating somewhere in the 40 to 45 percent range. It would be difficult, but not impossible, for a president with approval ratings well under 50 percent to win the popular vote. One way for Trump to win a popular vote majority would be for a deeply divided Democratic Party to nominate an unpopular candidate, with millions of Democratic voters staying home.
Much more likely would be the same outcome as in 2016 — Trump losing the popular vote to the Democratic candidate, but winning enough electoral votes to be re-elected.
The Democratic popular vote is geographically concentrated in the Northeast and along the West Coast. For electoral votes, it does not matter whether a Democratic candidate wins a state by one vote or by millions of votes. In winner-take-all Electoral College terms, Democrats have millions of “wasted votes,” in California and New York in particular, and to a lesser extent in blue states such as Massachusetts and Maryland.
In 2016, Trump won 306 electoral votes, 36 more than needed for victory. Trump could lose some of the states he won in 2016 and still be re-elected. The key states in Trump’s victory were Pennsylvania (21 electoral votes), Ohio (20), Michigan (16), and Wisconsin (10). Recent polls and midterm election results indicate that Trump could win Pennsylvania and Ohio again, but that Michigan and Wisconsin could be more competitive.
Trump’s advantage in Pennsylvania and Ohio is that there are not enough suburban voters, in Philadelphia and in some of Ohio’s metropolitan areas, to outweigh the strong support he will likely receive from rural and blue-collar voters, especially men. In Michigan and Wisconsin, Democrats were able to win key statewide races in last year’s midterms by mobilizing a high turnout among African-American and college-educated voters, and picking up enough support from blue-collar voters to put their candidates over the top.
Michigan and Wisconsin together contain 26 electoral votes. Even if Trump were to lose both of these states, he would still have 280 electoral votes, 10 more than needed, if every other state voted the same in 2020 as it did in 2016. Democrats need to expand the field to other states in order to keep Trump’s electoral vote total below 270.
The best possibilities for Democratic electoral vote gains in 2020 would be in southern and southwestern states that are undergoing considerable population growth and demographic change. States that fall into this category include Florida (29 electoral votes), North Carolina (15), and Arizona (11).
Up to a million people may have relocated from Puerto Rico to Florida, as a consequence of hurricanes and other natural disasters on the island, by the time of the 2020 election. As U.S. citizens, these people are eligible to vote, but the challenge for Democrats will be getting them registered and then mobilizing them to turn out at the polls.
In North Carolina and Arizona, registering and mobilizing African-American and Latino voters will be key elements of a Democratic strategy in 2020. North Carolina and Florida both have histories of Republican legislators and statewide officeholders trying to suppress voter turnout, through methods such as photo ID requirements, limited opportunities for early voting, and a small number of polling places open on Election Day.
To defeat Trump in 2020, Democrats will need a candidate who can both mobilize high turnout among minority voters and prevent defections among blue-collar white men. Small, relatively homogeneous Iowa and New Hampshire may not be the best places to begin looking for a candidate with these strengths.
Eric L. Davis is professor emeritus of political science at Middlebury College.
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