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.”
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.