On the Trail: Forget the pundits, more electoral votes could be in play in 2020

The 2020 presidential election is likely to play out over the largest battlefield in recent history as changing demographics and political alignments dramatically reshape the American political landscape.

After decades in which a small handful of states in the industrial Midwest sat at the fulcrum of American political geography, the epicenter has broadened substantially. As he seeks reelection, President TrumpDonald John TrumpBiden says his faith is 'bedrock foundation of my life' after Trump claim Coronavirus talks on life support as parties dig in, pass blame Ohio governor tests negative in second coronavirus test MORE will play defense in Sun Belt states that have been the foundation of the Republican Party and offense in the Great Plains and the Northeast, more regularly Democratic territory.

Though Democrats have not yet settled on a nominee, initial polls show reliably red states like Arizona, Texas and North Carolina are in play. At the same time, Trump’s unique coalition gives Republicans the chance to compete for states like Minnesota, which last voted Republican in 1972, and New Hampshire, which hasn’t turned red since George W. Bush won it in 2000.

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“It is wrong to think everything hinges on the same few states in the upper Midwest,” said Cal Jillson, a political scientist at Southern Methodist University. 

The broader battlefield is a reflection of two simultaneous trends that are fundamentally reshaping American politics. 

The first is the rise of two younger generations of voters, the millennials and Generation Z, who have notably more liberal views than their parents and grandparents; in the 2018 midterm elections, more than 60 percent of voters under the age of 40 favored Democrats. 

Those voters are far more diverse than earlier generations, and they are beginning to participate in electoral politics at higher rates. Next year, they will make up more than a third of the electorate; the baby boomer generation will make up just 28 percent, down from a peak of about 38 percent in 2000.

The second trend is a historic realignment of political preferences among older voters along educational lines, particularly in suburban communities. 

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Better-educated voters, once a cornerstone of the Republican electorate, see Trump in a particularly unfavorable light. Those without a college degree, once union workers who formed the bedrock of the Democratic electorate, are gravitating toward a president who promises a revival of an age when a blue-collar manufacturing job was the path to a stable middle-class life. 

The shift among well-educated voters has been stark. In the 2010 midterms, when Republicans reclaimed control of Congress, exit polls showed white college-educated voters favored Republican candidates by a 58 percent to 39 percent margin. In the 2018 midterms, those same white college graduates backed Democrats, 53 percent to 45 percent. Whites without a college degree favored Republicans almost as much in 2018 (61 percent) as in 2010 (63 percent).

Those two trends overlap to put states like Arizona, Texas, Georgia and North Carolina in play for Democrats. Those states have drawn tens of thousands of younger workers from around the country to budding tech hubs in Phoenix, the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex, Atlanta and the Research Triangle. They add to fast-growing minority communities in each state, where Democrats have made gains in recent years.

“The thing that’s really accelerating [Democratic] performance in those states is college-educated folks moving to Arizona and Texas from states like California and New York for cost of living reasons,” said Andy BarrAndy BarrThe Hill's Campaign Report: The political heavyweights in Tuesday's primary fights Democrat Josh Hicks wins Kentucky primary to challenge Andy Barr McGrath fends off Booker to win Kentucky Senate primary MORE, a Democratic strategist in California. “The same demographic change of younger and more diverse [voters] that we’ve been talking about forever is indeed happening.”

And the trends accrue to the GOP’s favor in states like Minnesota, New Hampshire and Ohio, states with far older populations and shrinking communities that feel left behind by an economic recovery that has benefitted the mega metros and overlooked smaller rural communities.

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Trump came within 45,000 votes of becoming the first Republican since Richard Nixon to carry Minnesota, and he lost New Hampshire by only 2,700 votes. Ohio, long the epicenter of American politics, is virtually an afterthought in the modern Democratic Electoral College calculus.

“States with high numbers of older blue-collar workers are going to perform better for Trump than last time,” said Sean Noble, a Republican strategist in Arizona.

Even before the 2018 midterm elections put so many new states in play, the election that sent Trump to the White House offered hints of an unsettled electorate. Trump won 47 electoral votes by a combined 83,000 votes — in Michigan, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Nebraska’s 2nd Congressional District. Democratic nominee Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonTrump touts economic agenda in battleground Ohio The Memo: Campaigns gird for rush of early voting Trump's pitch to Maine lobstermen falls flat MORE won 20 electoral votes in New Hampshire, Minnesota and Nevada by a combined 74,000 votes.

Trump’s wins in 2016 in the three Midwestern states that had voted Democratic in each of the six previous elections hinted that the traditional presidential battlefield was in flux. Democratic wins in 2018 showed a political terrain in all-out upheaval. Eleven months before Trump faces voters again, the extent of the realignment currently underway is not yet known, but signs point to a sea of purple amid islands of red and blue.

On The Trail is a reported column by Reid Wilson, primarily focused on the 2020 elections.