Red and Blue States Aren’t Permanent

The margins for 2024 are likely to be slim. But that hides a larger story.

CNN’s Ronald Brownstein seeks to explain “Why fewer states than ever could pick the next president.” Instead, he demonstrates how quickly the coalitions around our two major political parties can change.

The results of this month’s election point toward a 2024 presidential contest that will likely be decided by a tiny sliver of voters in a rapidly shrinking list of swing states realistically within reach for either party.

With only a few exceptions, this year’s results showed each side further consolidating its hold over the states that already lean in its direction. And in 2024 that will likely leave control of the White House in the hands of a very small number of states that are themselves divided almost exactly in half between the parties – a list that looks even smaller after this month’s outcomes.

So, two things at the outset. First, as in every election since Alaska and Hawaii were admitted to the union, the Presidency will be decided by 50 states (and the District of Columbia). It’s just that we can easily predict how most of them will vote. Second, the notion that states, rather than citizens, should decide who holds the top political office in the country is just bananas.

Regardless, Brownstein’s thesis is this:

Stanley Greenberg, a veteran Democratic pollster, speaks for many strategists in both parties when he points to the enormous “continuity among the elections” since Donald Trump emerged as a national figure. “We’ve now gone through 2016, ’18, ’20 and ’22 – and all looked pretty much alike,” he says. “And it has locked in the coalitions.”

That’s pretty remarkable. And good news for Democrats:

Looking at the Electoral College, this year’s results offered more reason for optimism to Democrats than Republicans. Five states decided the last presidential race by flipping from Trump in 2016 to Joe Biden in 2020 – Arizona, Georgia, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. Democrats have already won six of the eight Senate and governor races decided across them this month and could notch a seventh victory if Democratic Sen. Raphael Warnock defeats Herschel Walker in a Georgia run-off in December.

“Republicans can’t be happy that in the states they have to win, we won – and by not just a little bit,” says Simon Rosenberg, founder and president of NDN, a Democratic research and advocacy group, who was the most visible skeptic in either party of the “red wave” theory this year. “It’s very encouraging as we go into 2024 because we were able to stare them down and beat them … [even] with inflation being so high. And it wasn’t just their bad candidates – its far more than that.”

Then again:

Still, the results also showed Republicans tightening their grip on Ohio, Iowa and Florida: though Democrats won all three in both of Barack Obama’s presidential victories, each now appears securely in the GOP’s column for 2024 (and likely beyond). And the perennial liberal hope of putting a “blue Texas” in play clearly looks like it will be deferred again after Republican Gov. Greg Abbott’s double-digit victory against an energetic and well-funded opponent (former Rep. Beto O’Rourke) squashed the limited momentum Democrats had built there in the 2018 and 2020 elections. Republicans once again beat Democrats for all of Texas’ statewide offices, continuing a shutout that stretches back to the 1990s.

So, on the one hand, this demonstrates that we’ve had a modest realignment. A Trumpist Republican Party is more dominant in Ohio, Iowa, and Florida than one with Bob Dole, George W. Bush, John McCain, or Mitt Romney as the most visible figure. It’s more appealing to blue collar whites and even conservative Black and Hispanic men. At the same time, it’s less appealing in Arizona, Georgia, and the Rust Belt.

To be sure, there’s little reason to think that the GOP is going to return to being more moderate and internationalist. While Trump may have a much more difficult time getting nominated for a third shot than he thinks, we’re unlikely to see a Larry Hogan or Chris Sununu as the nominee. But here’s the thing: if that somehow happened, many more states are suddenly in play.

That said, Brownstein is mostly right here:

These offsetting and hardening partisan strengths could, once again, provide the power to decide the White House winner to a few hundred thousand voters in a very few closely balanced states. That’s a windfall for the owners of television stations who will be deluged with television advertising in states such as Nevada, Wisconsin, Georgia and Arizona. But it’s also another reason for the prodigious stress in our fraught modern politics. Each side in an intensely polarized nation of 330 million recognizes that the overall direction of national policy now pivots on the choices of a miniscule number of people living in the tiny patches of contested political ground – white-collar suburbs of Atlanta and Phoenix, working-class Latino neighborhoods in and around Las Vegas and the mid-sized communities of the so-called BOW counties in Wisconsin.

My previous caveats apply, though. All 50 states have a say; it’s just that we know how most of them are going to vote even before the candidates are set, what the economy looks like, and all the rest. And it’s just bizarre to elect the most powerful political figure in the land—indeed, on the planet—via a system that allows someone to lose by millions of votes and still win the election.

The numbers are daunting:

The partitioning of the nation into distinct and intractable partisan camps is one of the defining features of modern US politics. The Democratic and Republican presidential nominees have each carried 20 states in every election since at least 2008. That means 80% of the states have voted the same way in at least the past four presidential elections – a level of consistency unmatched through the 20th century. Even during Franklin D. Roosevelt’s four consecutive presidential victories from 1932 through 1944, only about two-thirds of the states voted the same way each time.

The 20 states that Democrats have carried in each presidential election since at least 2008 will award 232 Electoral College votes in 2024; the 20 states Republicans have carried in at least the past four elections will award 155.

But that tally offers a misleading picture of the parties’ real standing. Of the 10 states that have flipped between the parties in at least one presidential race since 2008, four have not voted for a Democratic presidential nominee since Obama and have clearly tilted red in the Trump era. Those four states – Ohio, Florida, Iowa and Indiana – add another 64 Electoral College votes to the GOP tally and raise the party’s total to 219. North Carolina, also one of the 10, isn’t as securely locked down. But the GOP still has to be favored to capture its 16 Electoral College votes again after Republican Rep. Ted Budd’s solid three-point victory in this month’s US Senate race exceeded the margin in Rep. Thom Tillis’ much narrower 2020 win.

In this month’s election, each side generally consolidated that dominance across its core 20 states. Democrats notched runaway gubernatorial victories in California and Illinois, recaptured governorships previously held by moderate Republicans in Maryland and Massachusetts and posted blowout 15-point victories in Colorado and Washington Senate races that Republicans touted as much more competitive.

In turn, Republican Govs. Ron DeSantis in Florida and Mike DeWine in Ohio won landslide victories in which their winning margins exceeded 1 million votes, while Abbott in Texas triumphed by over 700,000 votes. For all the controversy over restrictions or bans on abortion that proliferated across the red states after the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade last summer, the GOP did not lose control of a state legislative chamber in any of the states that acted.

Which is somewhat circular: they acted because it was in their electoral interests to do so. Purple states weren’t going to go all-in on abortion.

Regardless, to return to my main theme: the 2000 election hinged on Florida and 2004 on Ohio. Both of those states now seem to be rock-solid Republican. Going back further, California voted Republican in all but one election (1964) between 1952 and 1988, inclusive—ten election cycles. It has voted Democratic in the eight contests since with no end in sight.

States change over time, as do political parties.

FILED UNDER: Campaign 2024, US Politics, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Tony W says:

    I think Texas is an outlier here because of a single issue – guns.

    Beto stepped in it a few years ago and called for much more complete gun control than this nation has ever experienced – specifically calling for banning AR-15s.

    That idea plays well with intelligent, thinking, caring people who can see all sides of an issue and make decisions based on the data, but it plays HORRIBLY in a state like Texas where the political powers that be have all but defined the “rugged” American mythos as one that is inseparably tied to gun-nut/ammosexual culture.

    It cost him a lot of votes back then, and it cost him the governorship this year. It’s an important issue, and he’s an amazing human – but he blew it with that single stance.

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  2. CSK says:

    And then there’s Massachusetts, the bluest state,which quite happily elects Republican voters on a regular basis.

    Welcome back, Professor Joyner. We didn’t wreck the place in your absence.

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  3. CSK says:

    @CSK:

    I meant “Republican governors,” not voters.

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  4. daryl and his brother darryl says:

    Still, the results also showed Republicans tightening their grip on Ohio, Iowa and Florida: though Democrats won all three in both of Barack Obama’s presidential victories, each now appears securely in the GOP’s column for 2024 (and likely beyond)

    Well, yeah. DeSantis redrew the maps to suit himself and then did everything he could to suppress the votes of minorities…including ignoring election results and threatening minorities with his election gestapo.
    The prime example is Gym Jordan’s district in Ohio.
    On the other hand look at Michigan, which was de-gerrymandered.
    People need to stop overthinking this.
    If Republicans aren’t allowed to cheat, then Democrats win going away.
    The only thing Republicans are selling is Hunter Biden’s laptop.
    That’s not a winning hand.

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  5. OzarkHillbilly says:

    I blame Obama.

    eta: or to be more specific, his presidency.

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  6. daryl and his brother darryl says:

    @CSK:
    MA does elect Republicans, but they are pretty moderate Republicans.

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  7. Kylopod says:

    Regardless, to return to my main theme: the 2000 election hinged on Florida and 2004 on Ohio. Both of those states now seem to be rock-solid Republican. Going back further, California voted Republican in all but one election (1964) between 1952 and 1988, inclusive—ten election cycles. It has voted Democratic in the eight contests since with no end in sight.

    There’s clearly been a big change since the turnover of the century, and I’m not talking about any individual state. Even today, we’re still seeing incremental shifts–Arizona and Georgia weren’t swing states a decade ago, while Ohio and Iowa were. But if you look back to the latter half of the 20th century, electoral politics was just completely different than the way it works today. You had all those massive landslides like 1964 or 1972 or 1984. You had Nixon winning all the Southern states by overwhelming margins then Carter doing the same four years later. You had high levels of ticket-splitting, and big disjuncts between how states typically voted for president vs. other offices.

    You mentioned California’s near-perfect GOP streak from 1952-1988, but that has to be considered in light of the fact that that period was dominated by giant national GOP wins in presidential contests, that two of the Republican presidents in that period (Nixon and Reagan) were from that state, and that even then, it was still regarded as a swing state–it only went narrowly to the GOP in 1960, 1976, and 1988. But that just highlights the broader point that the entire way we thought of “swing states” back then was very different than today. All 50 states were at least potentially up for grabs from one election to the next, and the status of a state could change dramatically, depending on the national environment and even the types of candidates who won their party’s nomination–Mississippi was a swing state for Carter but basically no other Democrat. And a state’s partisan lean had to be considered in a relative rather than absolute way: Reagan won Massachusetts twice, but given the narrowness of his margins as measured against his wide national leads, it was still recognized as a Democratic state. We really haven’t encountered situations like that in the entire 21st century so far (2008, when Obama won Indiana and was competitive in some other normally very red states, is the closest analogue). When a state votes a particular way, that’s almost always a reflection of the state’s intrinsic partisan lean, not what’s happening nationally. That’s been pretty consistently true over the past two decades.

    And 2022 has only reinforced the idea that today’s electorate is extremely stagnant.

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  8. CSK says:

    @daryl and his brother darryl:

    Oh, I know. It’s virtually impossible to think of a northeastern Republican in the same party as a southern or southwestern one. Charlie Baker has about as much in common with Paul Gosar as Donald Trump does with Gavin Newsom.

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  9. daryl and his brother darryl says:

    @CSK:
    I live right next door to MA, in CT…and I would vote for Baker.
    I’d even consider Sununu in NH…although he is kind of on the edge. He’s fairly moderate but still says some wild things occasionally.

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  10. CSK says:

    @daryl and his brother darryl:

    Baker’s the most popular governor in the U.S.A., with an approval rating of 74%. If he had run for a third term, I’m sure he would have won hands down.

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  11. James Joyner says:

    @daryl and his brother darryl: Gerrymandering doesn’t explain races for President, Governor, or Senator.

    @Kylopod: If you look at the actual votes in California from 1976 forward, only 1976 was really close.

    @CSK: But Massachusetts is very much an outlier. For most of my lifetime, a Northern Republican was more liberal than a Southern Democrat. Those days are largely gone, with the parties having very much nationalized. Governors races are also something of an outlier. My hunch is that it’s because running a state is just different from being in Congress. So, a Georgian might be perfectly happy to have a Republican in the state house but not in the Senate, since the latter controls party leadership and is essentially forced to two the party line on close votes.

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  12. CSK says:

    @CSK:

    Trump said that Baker was afraid to run for a third term because he, Trump, endorsed that horse’s ass Geoff Diehl.

    Of course, Maura Healey beat Diehl 63.5% to 34.9%. So much for the power of a Trump endorsement in New England.

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  13. CSK says:

    @James Joyner:

    I think it’s the combination of fiscal conservativism and social/cultural liberalism that gives New England Republican governors their appeal.

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  14. daryl and his brother darryl says:

    @James Joyner:

    …redrew the maps to suit himself and then did everything he could to suppress the votes of minorities…including ignoring election results and threatening minorities with his election gestapo.

    Which led to Republicans winning 20 of 28 Legislative seats and was a major factor in the House being flipped.
    In Michigan eliminating gerrymandering led directly to Democratic control of the Legislation for the first time in 40 years.
    If you think these things don’t harden partisan strengths…

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  15. James Joyner says:

    @daryl and his brother darryl: I presume you’re referring to suppressing the votes of convicted felons who haven’t paid their fines? I think that’s a bad thing, especially given that the statewide referendum seemed to express voter intent to maximize the restoration of suffrage. But it doesn’t have any direct bearing on Florida’s Electoral College votes in 2024—much less 2020 or 2016.

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  16. daryl and his brother darryl says:

    @James Joyner:
    You seriously don’t think minority voters are threatened by DeSantis’ actions?
    Florida, like Germany in the 30’s, but humid.

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  17. Chip Daniels says:

    Part of the consolidation is that voter, Republican voters specifically, no longer are motivated by issues as commonly understood.
    They don’t turn out due to an interest in inflation or crime or foreign affairs or whatever, they turn out based on culture war grievance politics.

    Grievance politics doesn’t have any compromise territory. It doesn’t allow for someone to grab the center or outflank from a side.
    If you think that drag shows are an affront to decency and a threat to children, it doesn’t matter what the unemployment rate is or whether crime is up or down, you’re going to vote Republican, full stop.

    There are exceptions of course, but mostly low information voters. But for the most part, the only issue that this or any other election will turn on will be whose vision of America one prefers.

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  18. daryl and his brother darryl says:

    @daryl and his brother darryl:
    @James Joyner:
    Current Florida law requires anyone running for a new office to submit their (irrevocable) resignation ahead of qualifying if the terms of the two offices overlap.
    DeSantis’ is having that law changed by his legislature.

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  19. Kylopod says:

    @Chip Daniels: If someone says they’re bothered by inflation, I can believe them. You don’t need to be told that inflation is high right now to figure out that it is, or to feel its impact.

    But crime? I keep getting this image in my head of someone sitting in their suburban home watching Tucker tell them crime is out of control and it’s the Dems’ fault. It’s exactly the sort of social problem that gets skewed in people’s minds by confirmation bias. Your house gets burglarized, and you say “F- Joe Biden.” It never occurs to you that when crime goes up, the people most affected are those in underprivileged communities. You think it means your neighborhood is about to be “invaded” by illegals and thugs.

    Was there an element to this thirty years ago during the last real crime crisis? Yeah, somewhat. The difference is that right-wing media was in its infancy (it was basically just talk radio), and most of the information about crime was being filtered through the not-quite-as-caustic coverage on CBS or CNN. But it enabled politicians to weaponize it against Democrats more effectively than is the case today. Dukakis gets demolished by Willie Horton and the death penalty question, later inspiring Bill Clinton to adopt his “tough on crime” stance. Today, right-wing media pushes the narrative at its most raw and hysterical, but it’s cordoned off from much of mainstream culture, thus limiting its power as a political tool. The result is that Republicans are surprised when it doesn’t get the reception from voters they expected it to.

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