Sabatos Crystal Ball

This Century’s Electoral College Trends

Tracking the strength of the parties in all 50 states

Kyle Kondik, Managing Editor, Sabato's Crystal Ball March 21st, 2019



— Despite persistently close presidential elections this century, many states have been becoming dramatically more Democratic or Republican compared to the nation over the course of the last decade and a half.

— Generally speaking, the Sun Belt and West are trending Democratic. The Midwest and North more broadly, along with Greater Appalachia, are trending Republican.

— Map 1 at the end of this article shows the trends, and the charts throughout show the trend of every state in its presidential lean relative to the nation from 2000 to 2016.

What does it mean for a state to “trend,” and what are the trends?

It has become common to describe our home state of Virginia as a state that is “trending Democratic.” That’s an observation we agree with — we used that exact term a few weeks ago in our initial Electoral College ratings. But what are we really saying when we use a term like that?

What follows is an explanation, and an exploration, of the recent presidential voting trends in Virginia and the other 49 states.

A quick look at recent Electoral College history would seem to confirm the Democratic trend in Virginia. Virginia voted 10 straight times for the GOP ticket before voting Democratic the last three times. But let’s dig a little bit deeper. As a note, throughout this article, we’ll be using the two-party presidential vote, which just measures Democratic vs. Republican performance. It’s a way to compare two-party performance across elections, when the two major parties remain constant but the presence of credible third-party candidates ebbs and flows.

The most dramatic recent shift in Virginia came from 2004 to 2008, when the Old Dominion moved from giving Democrat John Kerry just 45.9% of the two-party vote to giving Democrat Barack Obama 53.2%, a 7.3-point jump in vote share (and a 14.6-point jump in margin). Of course, the nation as a whole moved from 48.8% for Kerry in 2004 to 53.7% for Obama in 2008, an increase of 4.9 points. Part of the Virginia story is that it shifted more dramatically from 2004 to 2008 toward the Democrats than the nation as a whole did.

On the other hand, since the shift, the Democratic two-party share in Virginia has actually fallen, to 52.0% in 2012 and 52.8% in 2016. By that standard, Democratic strength in Virginia actually backslid in both 2012 and 2016 when compared to 2008 (53.2%). So what’s the trend?

Well, compared to the national voting in each of the last three presidential elections, Virginia is getting more Democratic. In 2008, Virginia’s Democratic share was about a half point less than the national percentage, meaning that Virginia was slightly more Republican than the nation that year. By 2012, Virginia’s presidential margin was in exact alignment with the national voting: Obama won 52.0% in both. That made Virginia more Democratic relative to the nation in 2012 than it had been in 2008. And Virginia voted clearly more Democratic than the nation in 2016: Hillary Clinton (with Virginian Tim Kaine as her running mate) won Virginia with 52.8% of the two-party vote while winning 51.1% nationally.

We can use a statistic, called presidential deviation, to show this trend. To calculate presidential deviation in this article, we are taking the national Democratic two-party vote share and subtracting it from the Democratic vote share in a given state in a given year. A positive number means the state was more Republican in that election; a negative number means it was more Democratic. The deviation is rounded to the nearest integer. Let’s see how this works out for Virginia across the last three elections:

2008: 53.7% nationally – 53.2% in Virginia = 0.5, rounds up to R +1.

2012: 52.0% nationally – 52.0% in Virginia = 0, so no presidential deviation at all.

2016: 51.1% nationally – 52.8% in Virginia = -1.7, rounding to -2 or D +2 (remember, negative numbers indicate a Democratic lean here, while positive ones represent a Republican lean).

So the Virginia trend over the last three elections is R +1, 0, and D +2. When we say Virginia is “trending Democratic,” that’s what we’re saying: The state is becoming more Democratic compared to the nation.

As an addendum to our Electoral College ratings release from a few weeks ago, we thought we’d track the presidential voting in each state relative to the nation over the last five elections to give readers a sense of where each state is trending. We split the 50 states into 10 different regional categories, loosely based on the regions and divisions of the U.S. Census Bureau (we made some adjustments to keep a manageable number of states in each category so that the accompanying charts didn’t become too unwieldy to follow). As you follow along, remember that the more positive the number, the more Republican a state is, and the more negative, the more Democratic a state is. States where the line slants upward from 2000 to 2016 are becoming more Republican relative to the nation; states where the line slants downward from 2000 to 2016 are becoming more Democratic relative to the nation.

A couple of notes: I calculated these presidential deviations, which I used for my 2016 book on Ohio’s presidential voting history (The Bellwether), using data from Dave Leip’s Atlas of U.S. Presidential Elections. This statistic is a little different than the commonly-cited Partisan Voter Index, created by our friends at the Cook Political Report. The PVI uses an average of the last two presidential elections to determine the lean in a given district; this presidential deviation calculation only involves how much more Republican or Democratic a state was compared to the nation in a given year.

Also, keep in mind that the key on the y-axis showing the range of presidential deviations from high positive numbers (most Republican) to high negative (most Democratic) differs from chart to chart, so re-orient yourself as you move from region to region. In any event, the closer any state is to zero in a given year, the closer it was to voting the same way the nation voted in that year.

We’ll start out west and move eastward.

Chart 1: Presidential deviation of the Pacific states, 2000-2016 (AK, CA, HI, OR, WA)

This region contains all of the states that touch the Pacific Ocean, so the West Coast plus Alaska and Hawaii. Alaska stands alone from the other four through its Republican lean, which has become less pronounced this century but is still clear. Meanwhile, the three West Coast states have all become more Democratic; Oregon remains the most competitive but in a close national election the Democratic candidate should carry it easily. Hawaii has remained quite Democratic this whole century, but it was less Democratic in 2000, 2004, and 2016, when Barack Obama (who was born in Hawaii) was not on the ballot.

Chart 2: Presidential deviation of the Northern Interior West states, 2000-2016 (ID, MT, ND, SD, WY)

All five of these sparsely-populated states are safely Republican — so much so that this region does not require us to display negative numbers on the y-axis in order to show Democratic leans. All of these states give routinely big margins to Republican presidential candidates, although Montana did come within a couple of points of voting for Obama in 2008. Its dalliance with the Democrats at the presidential level was short-lived, although it does still have a Democratic senator, the recently-reelected Jon Tester. Democrats started the century holding all four Senate seats from the Dakotas; they hold none now as both GOP-heavy states have become even more sharply Republican.

Chart 3: Presidential deviation of the Southwest states, 2000-2016 (AZ, CO, NV, NM, UT)

Other than Utah, this is a competitive region. Note how Nevada, in gray, hugs the zero line, an indication of its status as a strong presidential bellwether in recent years. Colorado, meanwhile, is trending Democratic, but it’s not quite as Democratic as New Mexico. Arizona remains right of center, although its GOP lean was less pronounced in 2016 than it was in 2008 (when home-state Sen. John McCain was the GOP nominee) and 2012. Compared to 2000 and 2004, though, Arizona’s lean compared to the nation hasn’t changed much. Utah is clearly the most Republican of the bunch; its big drop from 2012 to 2016 can be explained in part by Mitt Romney (a Mormon who is now the state’s junior senator) being an unusually strong GOP presidential nominee for the majority-Mormon state in 2012 and Donald Trump being an unusually weak GOP nominee for Mormons in 2016. Also, we see here a limitation of using just the two-party vote in these calculations: Mormon third-party conservative presidential candidate Evan McMullin received 21% of the vote in Utah in 2016, but those votes are disregarded here and just the two-party margin is used. One wonders how those McMullin voters would have split if they just had to choose between Trump and Clinton. In any event, the giant dip in GOP strength in Utah from 2012 to 2016 is not indicative, to us, of some sort of more meaningful pro-Democratic trend there.

Chart 4: Presidential deviation of the South Central states, 2000-2016 (AR, LA, OK, TX)

At the start of the century, Arkansas and Louisiana still could have been classified as swing states — both voted for Bill Clinton twice in the 1990s and as recently as 2004 each had two Democratic senators apiece. But both have become safely Republican at the presidential level, joining the even more Republican Oklahoma in that category. Meanwhile, Texas’ presidential lean was very steady until 2016, when it took a clear dip and became less Republican relative to the nation. Democrats are hopeful that the 2016 and 2018 results indicate that this diversifying and growing state will trend toward them over time, although it still clearly resides to the right of the nation as a whole.

Chart 5: Presidential deviation of the Western Midwestern states, 2000-2016 (IA, KS, MN, MO, NE)

Kansas and Nebraska have some of the longest GOP lineage in the nation, and their GOP leans have not changed much over the last several elections. Missouri, a state once seen as a bellwether, has joined its two western neighbors in the safe Republican camp. Iowa took a sharp turn to Trump in 2016, although prior to that it had voted more Democratic than the nation in seven of the eight previous presidential elections (its lean was Republican before that). Minnesota, meanwhile, has the longest streak of voting Democratic of any state in the nation, dating back to 1976, but that streak belies its competitiveness: Note that its Democratic leans relative to the nation have only been relatively modest in recent years, and 2016 was actually the first time since 1952 when the two-party margin in Minnesota was to the right of the nation, albeit only very slightly. It is by no means a safe Democratic state.

Remember that Nebraska awards electoral votes by congressional district. Under the current map, the First and Third are safely Republican, but the Second has only a relatively small Republican lean and starts this cycle as a Toss-up electoral vote.

Chart 6: Presidential deviation of the Eastern Midwestern states, 2000-2016 (IL, IN, MI, OH, WI)

Illinois is clearly the most Democratic state of the Midwest — it’s sort of the Democratic version of Republican Missouri, both classic bellwether states that have since diverged. Indiana is the most Republican of the core Midwestern states, and even though Obama carried it in 2008, its Republican lean that year (and in the other years) is still pronounced compared to its regional counterparts. One can see the Democrats’ close calls in Wisconsin in both 2000 and 2004 on this chart, as well as Obama’s 2008 blowout and then the trend back toward the GOP. Michigan, more Democratic than Wisconsin earlier in the decade, converged with the Badger State in 2016. Much more often than not, Ohio has voted to the right of the nation in presidential elections, but only slightly in recent decades before Trump’s strong showing called the state’s bellwether status into serious question.

Chart 7: Presidential deviation of the Greater Appalachian states, 2000-2016 (AL, KY, MS, TN, WV)

Democratic strength has collapsed across Appalachia, with West Virginia (the only state wholly considered Appalachian by the Appalachian Regional Commission) taking a dramatic turn toward the Republicans throughout the century. But the lines are generally slanting upward, toward the Republicans, in all of these states, with Mississippi an exception. Its racially-polarized voting seems to be keeping the state in something of a stasis: Mississippi has the largest percentage of African-American residents of any state, but their overwhelmingly Democratic voting is swamped by whites’ numerical advantage and overwhelmingly Republican voting. None of these states will be two-party competitive in the 2020 presidential election.

Chart 8: Presidential deviation of the South Atlantic states, 2000-2016 (FL, GA, NC, SC, VA)

Virginia’s Democratic trend, noted above, becomes more apparent when 2000 and 2004 are added: The state moved from R +4 in 2000 to D +2 in 2016. Democrats are hopeful that Georgia and North Carolina, which share some demographic similarities to Virginia and feature the kind of large, growing urban centers that have become so important to Democratic performance, will shift similarly to Virginia over time. But note how Georgia and North Carolina started the century with more pronounced Republican leans than Virginia did, and while they have trended to be less Republican, they remain to the right of the nation. So too does Florida, which has not voted more Democratic than the nation since 1976, when southerner Jimmy Carter became the last Democrat to largely sweep the South (Virginia, which now stands out as the most Democratic state in the old Confederacy, was the only one that didn’t vote for Carter that year). South Carolina has remained consistently, and significantly, more Republican than the nation.

Chart 9: Presidential deviation of the Middle Atlantic states, 2000-2016 (DE, MD, NJ, NY, PA)

Pennsylvania may at the moment be the key swing state in presidential elections; it’s also the only competitive state among these five. It resided on the more Democratic side of the ledger before 2016, but its Democratic lean in recent years was not very pronounced and there was a trend toward the Republicans even before Trump became the first Republican since Thomas Dewey in 1948 to perform better in the two-party vote there than he did nationally. The other four states reside in a safe Democratic zone, with Maryland trending clearly more Democratic over time.

Chart 10: Presidential deviation of the New England states, 2000-2016 (CT, MA, ME, NH, RI, VT)

Four of the six New England states are totally safe for the Democratic presidential nominee: Connecticut, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and Vermont. We noted Trump’s relatively decent performance in Rhode Island a few weeks ago, but it’s also clear that the Ocean State remains considerably more Democratic than the national average. New Hampshire has been very competitive throughout the century after residing frequently to the right of the nation during the past century. Maine also turned sharply toward the Republicans in 2016, and remember that it allocates its electoral votes by congressional district. The First is safely Democratic, but the Second now seems to lean Republican after Trump carried it by 10 points in 2016.


Let’s look at how the states have changed from 2000 compared to 2016, both close elections where Republican presidential nominees overcame small popular vote losses to nonetheless capture the Electoral College.

Map 1 compares the presidential deviations of each state in 2000, George W. Bush’s first election, to 2016, Donald Trump’s first election.

Map 1: Changes in presidential deviation by state, 2000 vs. 2016

Note: The numbers listed with the state abbreviations are their respective number of electoral votes.

Some broad patterns emerge. Generally speaking, much of the West and parts of the South were more Democratic relative to the national voting in 2016 than they were in 2000, while much of the Midwest, Greater Appalachia, and New England were more Republican relative to the nation in 2016 than they were in 2000.

Now, just because states like Rhode Island (much more Republican) and Utah (much more Democratic) stand out on Map 1, they still start out the next election as Safe for their usual parties in Map 2, which is our previously released initial ratings of the 2020 Electoral College.

Map 2: 2020 Crystal Ball Electoral College ratings

Think of Map 2 as a reality check of the trends in Map 1. Just because states may be trending one way or the other doesn’t mean that they are truly competitive. But this exercise does help to show how even over the course of just 16 years, the relative positioning of the states in the Electoral College has in many instances shifted so much.

Don’t Sell Biden’s Vice Presidential Experience Short

Joel K. Goldstein, Guest Columnist March 7th, 2019



Editor’s Note: The Crystal Ball will be away for the University of Virginia’s spring break next week. We’ll return on Thursday, March 21. We’re pleased this week to welcome back to the Crystal Ball Joel Goldstein, perhaps the nation’s leading expert on the vice presidency. Joel challenges the notion that the vice presidency is not a true stepping stone to the presidency and asserts that Joe Biden’s vice presidential experience is much more important to his 2020 chances than his previous presidential bids.

— The Editors



— The vice presidency, contrary to the belief of some, is actually a good springboard to the presidency.

— Former Vice President Joe Biden’s proven experience in the second slot is a lot more important in assessing his presidential odds than his two previous failed bids for the Democratic presidential nomination.

Biden and the presidential benefits of being vice president

Some pundits have emphasized Vice President Joe Biden’s lack of success in prior presidential races in assessing his strength as a presidential candidate this cycle. In arguing that Biden should not throw his hat into the ring, Julian Zelizer, the prominent Princeton University history professor, recently argued that Democrats had reason to be skeptical that Biden was the best available candidate. Zelizer offered other arguments for his conclusion but he wrote that “[m]ost problematic is the fact that Biden has run for the presidency several times, and each time he has struggled under the intense spotlight. When it comes time to hit the campaign trail, Biden has never been able to generate the level of support that is necessary to win.”

A little study of vice presidential history cautions against measuring Biden’s potential strength as a presidential candidate post-vice presidency based on his past presidential races. In fact, the emphasis on Biden’s past struggles illustrates the perils of using historical data without proper context.

Biden has run twice — in 1988 and in 2008 — and neither race ended near the presidential nomination. He withdrew from the former in September 1987 after a rival campaign leaked information that he had used a speech by British politician Neil Kinnock without crediting the source. Biden had identified Kinnock on other occasions, and the event happened a few months before Biden had surgery for a serious brain aneurysm. He withdrew from the 2008 race after finishing a distant fifth in Iowa in a strong field that included Sens. Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton as well as John Edwards, the 2004 vice presidential nominee, among others.

But those races occurred before Biden served two terms as vice president, and recent history teaches that service in that position often helps transform previously unsuccessful presidential candidates into presidential nominees and even presidents.

Hubert H. Humphrey withdrew from the 1960 race after losing primaries in his neighboring state of Wisconsin and in West Virginia to John F. Kennedy. But after a term as Lyndon B. Johnson’s vice president, he secured the Democratic nomination in 1968 and narrowly lost the presidency.

Walter F. Mondale was an early dropout in the 1976 race after his candidacy failed to catch fire. But after a term as Jimmy Carter’s vice president, he won the Democratic nomination in 1984.

George H.W. Bush lost badly to Ronald Reagan in the 1980 Republican primaries and caucuses. But after two terms as Reagan’s vice president, he won the Republican nomination and the presidency in 1988 over a pretty impressive field.

And after Al Gore’s poor performance in the 1988 Democratic primaries and caucuses, he served two terms as Bill Clinton’s vice president and then secured his party’s nomination and almost the presidency, winning the popular vote by about half a percentage point but very narrowly losing the Electoral College.

The vice presidency furnished each of these talented public servants a national and international stage on which to demonstrate their political skill. Service in the second office also brought them enhanced visibility and name recognition, a larger political network, access to a wider donor base, and increased stature and experience.

Biden’s vice presidency had similar, if not greater, effects for him. His favorability rating in a Gallup poll as he concluded his vice presidency was 61% (even higher than Obama’s). By contrast, when Obama chose Biden as his running mate in August 2008, 51% either had not heard of him or had no opinion about him even though he had served six terms in the Senate, led two major committees, and run the two presidential campaigns that now cause various pundits to dismiss his candidacy. Biden’s work with Democrats across the country and his national campaigning for Democratic candidates during the last six campaigns from 2008 to the present as a vice presidential candidate, vice president, or former vice president have broadened his network. Biden’s service as vice president bolstered his record and experience in domestic and international matters, won Obama’s effusive praise, and positioned him as a leader on a range of potentially appealing issues.

Biden performed in a supporting role during the presidential races of 2008 and 2012. But he did quite well when he took center stage during the two vice presidential debates. He avoided bullying the over-matched Sarah Palin in 2008. Some 87% judged him qualified to be president and a majority thought him the winner even as Palin exceeded the low expectations for her performance. Four years later, after Obama’s disastrous first debate, Biden’s spirited performance revived the Democratic ticket, impressed uncommitted voters, and created a favorable impression about him.

Five years ago in this space, I responded to an earlier column by Zelizer and to other discussion that disparaged the vice presidency as a presidential springboard for sitting vice presidents. Zelizer had pointed out that only four sitting vice presidents had been elected president. I argued that that statistic was true but misleading because many of the 47 sitting vice presidents didn’t really have a chance to be elected president. Nine vice presidents had succeeded to the presidency, so most could not have been elected directly, nor could the seven who died in office and the two who resigned. In addition, 12 others had been blocked by the sitting president running for another term. When these 30 were dropped from the denominator, the fraction became 4/17, not 4/47. A 24% chance of election seemed pretty good! Four others had been nominated, but not elected, so eight of the 17 (47%) eligible vice presidents had won presidential electoral votes. When the distorting fact that there is only one vice president but many senators, governors, representatives, and mayors at any given time is considered, the vice presidency emerges as even more clearly the best presidential springboard, notwithstanding its challenges. The numbers differ when former, as well as sitting, vice presidents are considered, but in essence five vice presidents who subsequently ran for president were elected, and five (Richard M. Nixon is in both groups) later received presidential electoral votes but were not elected. The correct denominator is more difficult to determine but once we eliminate the vice presidents who succeeded to the presidency (9), died in office (7) or before the next open race (2), or left office amidst scandals (3) or in poor health (1), some 25 remain who had at least one chance to run as a sitting or former vice president. Of course, these computations based on American history since 1789 understate the vice presidential advantage because for most of the time the vice presidency was much more modest and vice presidents far less prominent than today. More relevant, of the 12 vice presidents from Nixon to Dick Cheney, two became president by succession, two by election, and three won presidential nominations but were defeated (not counting Nixon). The other five were Spiro Agnew, who left office in disgrace; Nelson A. Rockefeller, who died before the next election; Dan Quayle, who ran two abbreviated campaigns; Cheney, who disclaimed presidential ambitions; and Biden. That experience over more than six decades suggests the political advantages the vice presidency can confer.

Given the boost the vice presidency provides, it’s simply fallacious to predict how a Biden 2020 presidential candidacy would do based on his two pre-vice presidency races (even without considering that one occurred 30 years ago and one included two historic frontrunners and a former national candidate).

Biden’s vice presidency isn’t the only contextual information that minimizes the value of his prior runs in predicting his strength in 2020. Many political figures won presidential nominations after prior defeats for presidential nominations and other races. Nixon won the presidency in 1968 after running a poor campaign in 1960 and losing the California governorship in 1962 to Pat Brown. Bob Dole won the 1996 Republican presidential nomination after losing races for the nomination in 1980 and 1988 and after a poor vice presidential campaign in 1976. Reagan lost the nomination twice, in 1968 and 1976. John McCain and Mitt Romney each received the presidential nomination after failing once apiece. George McGovern, Jimmy Carter, George H.W. Bush, Michael Dukakis, Bill Clinton, John Kerry, and George W. Bush were among recent presidential nominees who suffered one or more defeats in prior races for lesser offices.

It’s impossible to know how the 2020 campaign will unfold. Every campaign has its own dynamic. Biden’s past races are certainly part of his political biography. But history teaches that it’s misleading to judge a former vice president’s quality as a presidential candidate based on pre-vice presidential races, and it’s a mistake to assume that past political losses measure the boundaries of a political future.

If Biden runs, he may or may not succeed. But he’ll run, and should be judged, as former Vice President Biden 2020, not an earlier model.

Joel K. Goldstein, the Vincent C. Immel Professor of Law at Saint Louis University, is the author of The White House Vice Presidency: The Path to Significance, Mondale to Biden.


The 2020 Electoral College: Our First Look

Kyle Kondik, Managing Editor, Sabato's Crystal Ball February 28th, 2019




— Our initial Electoral College ratings reflect a 2020 presidential election that starts as a Toss-up.

— We start with 248 electoral votes at least leaning Republican, 244 at least leaning Democratic, and 46 votes in the Toss-up category.

— The omissions from the initial Toss-up category that readers may find most surprising are Florida and Michigan.

— Much of the electoral map is easy to allocate far in advance: About 70% of the total electoral votes come from states and districts that have voted for the same party in at least the last five presidential elections.

The 2020 battlefield

With an approval rating in the low-to-mid 40s — and, perhaps more importantly, a disapproval rating consistently over 50% — it would be easy to say that President Trump is an underdog for reelection. The president won only narrowly in 2016 and did so while losing the national popular vote, making his national coalition precarious. He has done little to appeal to people who did not vote for him, and a Democrat who can consolidate the votes of Trump disapprovers should be able to oust him unless the president can improve his approval numbers in a way he has demonstrably failed to do in the first half of his term.

At the same time, the president’s base-first strategy could again deliver him the White House, thanks in large part to his strength in the nation’s one remaining true swing region, the Midwest. He’s an incumbent, and incumbents are historically harder to defeat (although it may be that incumbency means less up and down the ticket in an era defined by party polarization). Still, Crystal Ball Senior Columnist Alan Abramowitz’s well-regarded presidential “Time for Change” model, which projects the two-party presidential vote, currently projects Trump with 51.4% of the vote based on the most recent measures of presidential approval and quarterly GDP growth (the model’s official projection is based off those figures in the summer of 2020). Arguably, the state of the economy is the most important factor: If perceptions of its strength remain decent, the president could win another term. If there is a recession, his odds likely drop precipitously. Meanwhile, it’s not a given that the Democratic nominee can consolidate the votes of Trump disapprovers, particularly if a third party candidate (Howard Schultz?) eats into the anti-Trump vote.

As it stands, the state of the economy next year remains unknowable, as does the identity of Trump’s challenger (Trump himself remains very likely to be the GOP nominee, although there’s always the possibility that someone else may ultimately be the candidate). So what’s there to say about the Electoral College right now?

A lot, actually.

Take a look at Map 1. Over the past five presidential elections, states and districts containing 374 of the nation’s 538 electoral votes (70%) have voted the same way in each election. Map 1 shows the recent history of Electoral College voting, with places containing 195 electoral votes consistently voting Democratic this century and those containing 179 electoral votes consistently voting Republican. That may even understate the inelasticity of the current Electoral College alignment: For instance, it seems clear that Indiana’s 2008 vote for Barack Obama was something of a fluke, powered by Obama’s massive resource advantage there, John McCain’s neglect of the state, and a very favorable Democratic national environment. No one is listing the Hoosier State, which otherwise has voted Republican by double digits in the century’s four other presidential races, as competitive in a close national election. So if one adds Indiana to the GOP total, one can reasonably point to an electoral vote floor of 195 for the Democrats and 190 for the Republicans. At this early juncture, it would be surprising if either party fell below those tallies in November 2020, although some of the states shaded blue or red in Map 1 (like Arizona, Georgia, Maine, and Minnesota) could flip in 2020.

Map 1: Partisan consistency in the Electoral College, 2000-2016

Our first ratings of the 2020 Electoral College (Map 2) show both parties well within reach of victory. They both start in the 240s in terms of electoral votes at least leaning to each of them, with just a handful of true Toss-ups to start.

This is a map that is reflective of where we think the race for the White House begins: as a Toss-up.

Map 2: 2020 Crystal Ball Electoral College ratings

Let’s take a look at the ratings a little more in depth, first by assessing the safe states on both sides and then moving to the more competitive ones. Remember that Maine and Nebraska, alone among the states, each award two electoral votes statewide and their remaining votes by congressional district (every other state and the District of Columbia award their electoral votes winner-take-all). Those district electoral votes, most notably in the competitive Second Congressional districts of both states, could prove important, as we noted in a piece earlier this year on the possibility of a 269-269 Electoral College tie (a tie that very likely would be broken in favor of the GOP nominee).

The Safe Republican electoral votes (125)

We can divide these 20 small or medium-sized states into two categories: Interior West and Greater South. Or, we can also divide those same states in a different way: the old GOP bedrock, and the new.

Half of the states are those located west of Missouri and north of Texas in what one could broadly call part of the Interior West. These are states that have voted almost uniformly for the Republicans since Lyndon Johnson’s 1964 Democratic landslide. Starting in 1968, every one of these states has voted Republican for president in every election, with the exception of Montana, which narrowly voted for Bill Clinton in 1992. Montana is an outlier in another sense: It is the only one of these 10 states that currently has a Democratic senator. Any GOP nominee with a pulse — or probably even one without one — will carry all of these states.

The same is likely true of the other 10 Safe Republican states that one can broadly categorize as being part of the Greater South — with the exception of Indiana, which along with Missouri is the most culturally southern of the Midwestern states. This group contains many states of the old Confederacy that were once reliably Democratic and now are reliably Republican, along with Border States like Kentucky, Missouri, and West Virginia, all places where one-time Democratic strength has lapsed. Even long term, none of these states seem like particularly ripe picking for Democrats, although political trends are not always permanent.

The Safe Democratic electoral votes (183)

This category is swelled by mega-states California, Illinois, and New York, one-time swing states where the Democratic Party has a hammerlock thanks to massive Democratic margins in giant metro areas like Chicago, New York City, Los Angeles, and the Bay Area. These three states alone hold nearly 20% of all the electoral votes. The rest of the Safe Democratic states border the Pacific Ocean or are in the Mid-Atlantic or Northeast. Some of these states have featured close presidential results in recent history — for instance, George W. Bush only lost Oregon by less than half a percentage point in 2000 — but the last time any of them voted Republican for president was 1988.

Outside of a total Republican blowout victory, the likes of which do not seem possible in this particular era, all of these states will vote Democratic in 2020. One state to watch in the long term, though, may be Rhode Island. The Ocean State has been much more Democratic compared to the nation in the lion’s share of elections since the New Deal political realignment, which in Rhode Island really started with the 1928 Democratic nomination of Al Smith. But Hillary Clinton’s showing in Rhode Island was one of the weaker ones for a Democrat there in recent history. The Democratic presidential margin there fell from 27.5 points in 2012 to 15.5 in 2016. That doesn’t mean much, if anything, in the short term, although if Rhode Island ever becomes more of a swing state, we may look back at 2016 as a very early sign.

The Leans Republican electoral votes (123)

These states will help determine whether the election gets away from Trump or not; put another way, if a Democrat wins any of them, the election is likely over.

This category includes five of the nine most populous states: Texas, Florida, Ohio, Georgia, and North Carolina. Of these states, the Sunshine State is the one that is most arguably a Toss-up. After all, Trump only won the state by about a point in 2016, and Barack Obama carried it twice, including by about a point in 2012. And yet, we’ve seen Republicans, again and again, eke out very close victories in the state, including for Senate and governor in 2018. While we don’t want to put much weight on the midterm results — they just aren’t historically all that predictive of what’s to come in the presidential — we have to say that the fact that the Republicans won both statewide elections, including defeating incumbent Sen. Bill Nelson (D), was eye-opening to us. It’s easy to explain away the other Democratic Senate losses in 2018, which came in the heavily Republican states of Indiana, Missouri, and North Dakota: Democrats probably didn’t have much business holding those seats anyway, and the luck those Democratic incumbents enjoyed in 2012 ran out in 2018. But Florida, a bona fide swing state, voting Republican for Senate, too? We know that Nelson was a weak incumbent whose age was showing, and that now-Sen. Rick Scott (R) was an unusually strong and well-funded challenger in a year like 2018. Still, Scott winning was, it has to be said, one of the great electoral oddities in midterm Senate election history. As Alan Abramowitz pointed out after the election, Scott’s performance in Florida stood out: It was the only state where his basic model predicting 2018 Senate results based on a state’s partisan lean and incumbency showed that the GOP clearly should have lost, but didn’t.

This decade, Florida has featured two presidential contests, three gubernatorial races, and one Senate race each decided by a margin of 1.2 points or less. The Republicans won all but one of those races. Are the Democrats just unlucky, or does the GOP have a very small but steady edge in Florida?

To start this cycle, we’re going to assume the latter in our ratings.

The other electoral votes in this category can be divided into two groups: growing Sun Belt states that typically are more Republican than the national average that may be becoming less reliably Republican (Georgia, North Carolina, and Texas) and Northern locales that may be getting more Republican, thanks in part to Trump’s appeal among white voters who do not have a four-year college degree (Iowa, Ohio, and Maine’s Second Congressional District, which covers much of the state’s land area). Again, we suspect that a Democratic win in any of these places would be part of a Democratic national victory. The question then becomes how the Democratic nominee opts to use his or her resources: In a state like Iowa or Ohio, which has more recent history voting Democratic but may be trending the other way, or in states like Georgia, North Carolina, and Texas, which may eventually be part of the Democratic coalition but may be difficult for the Democrats to pry away from Trump in the short term. Different Democratic nominees will have different opinions about these strategic questions.

There are no electoral votes that start in the Likely Republican category.

The Leans and Likely Democratic states (61)

All of these states but one — Michigan — voted for Clinton in 2016, and the Wolverine State featured her closest loss, .22 points in a state we think her campaign indefensibly neglected. Our sense in 2016, and now in the wake of 2018, was that Michigan was Clinton’s flukiest loss and that the Democratic nominee should start as a marginal favorite to recapture it. Electoral watchers who want to focus on some key counties this cycle should look at Kent County, Michigan, home of Grand Rapids. The traditionally Republican county is the state’s fourth-largest source of votes, and it was one of only a few counties in Michigan where Trump’s margin was weaker than Mitt Romney’s in 2012 (and, remember, Trump ran nearly 10 points ahead of Romney’s Michigan margin overall). Trump carried Kent County by about three points, or about 9,500 votes, in 2016. While one can slice the electorate any which way to make an argument, that Kent County margin almost accounted for Trump’s roughly 10,700-vote statewide victory. Democratic Senate and gubernatorial candidates won the county in 2018, a historical rarity in Michigan. A possible Democratic trend there, and in some parts of greater Detroit, very well could be enough to flip the state back blue even as Democratic performance continues to wither in other, more rural parts of the state.

Those who think we are being unfair to Trump by making Michigan Leans Democratic should consider whether we are perhaps being unfair to the Democratic nominee by making Florida Leans Republican. Ultimately, we’re just trying to reduce the number of Toss-ups where we feel that’s warranted. Just as we think Florida going blue would probably mean a Democratic presidential victory, so too do we believe that a Republican win in Michigan probably would mean that the GOP is retaining control of the White House. So if we move either to Toss-up, it may mean that a favorite is emerging in the presidential race overall.

Colorado and Virginia, to us, are trending Democratic although they are still competitive. Trump winning either would be suggestive of his winning a much clearer victory than in 2016. Maine’s two statewide electoral votes and Minnesota as a whole may be getting more competitive over time, but Trump’s narrow statewide losses in 2016 may have been partly a function of relatively high third-party voting in each state. Trump finished slightly under 45% in each state and Democrats did well in both last November, two other factors that prompt us to start the Democrats as favorites in both. Nevada may be the Democrats’ version of Florida: Extremely competitive but ultimately harder for the other side to win.

New Mexico, alone among the states mentioned here, starts as Likely Democratic; while George W. Bush narrowly won it in 2004, the nation’s most Hispanic state has voted Democratic by eight to 15 points in the last three presidential elections. We think the Democrats should be OK there no matter how many rallies Trump holds in nearby El Paso.

The Toss-ups (46)

We close with the final 46 electoral votes, the Toss-ups. They come from four states — Arizona, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin — as well as one congressional district, Nebraska’s Second, which is based in Omaha. Clinton carried New Hampshire by less than half a point in 2016; Trump won the rest, by less than a point in the case of Pennsylvania and Wisconsin and by 3.5 points in Arizona. If it seems like we’re splitting hairs by rating Michigan as Leans Democratic and Pennsylvania and Wisconsin as Toss-ups, we have to admit that we are. But Trump’s margin in the latter two were a tiny bit bigger than his margin in Michigan, and we think the Democrats’ path to victory in Michigan is more solvable based just on slightly better turnout, whereas the Democrats may have a little more persuasion work to do in the other two former “Blue Wall” states. Also, Democrats have generally done a little bit better in Michigan than in the other two over the past couple of decades.

Arizona, to us, is the best target for Democrats among the usually Republican Sun Belt states that have been becoming more competitive (a group that also includes Georgia, North Carolina, and Texas). Arizona’s voting is dominated by Phoenix’s Maricopa County, one of the nation’s only very populous counties that is gettable for a Republican presidential candidate. But the trendlines for Republicans in such counties are generally poor, a factor that can’t be discounted in a country where local political eccentricities are increasingly being overtaken by one-size-fits-all trends.

Indeed, these national patterns, and how they manifest themselves at the local level, will help determine this election. Larger anti-Trump trends in the big cities and suburbs could be canceled out by even bigger Trump landslides in the vast rural and small-city swathes that cover much of the most competitive states. Voting within these states is becoming more polarized on urban vs. rural grounds, but the sum total of those changes add up to an Electoral College battleground that can tilt either way.

Readers who want to game out the Electoral College can use the great interactive tools at or Taegan Goddard’s Electoral Vote Map.