10 bellwether counties that could signal where the election is headed
In the final sprint to Election Day, voters and prognosticators alike are scrambling to find signs of who will win the White House race between President Trump and Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden. And with one of the broadest battleground maps in political history, the calculus to predict who will take the Nov. 3 election is as complicated as ever.
The two contenders are fighting in battlegrounds stretching from the Rust Belt to the Sun Belt. They include both historic swing states and traditionally safe red states, and no demographic or state will be able to tell the story of the election all by itself.
Still, certain counties across the country will be able to give some insight into how the electorate is changing in races up and down the ballot. Below are 10 bellwether counties that could give signs as to how the electorate feels this cycle and in future races.
Macomb County, Mich.
Macomb County in the Wolverine State was a microcosm for Trump’s strength and 2016 Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton’s weakness in Michigan and across the country. Located in the suburbs of Detroit, Trump outperformed 2012 Republican nominee Mitt Romney’s showing there by 6 points, while Clinton underperformed President Obama’s total during his reelection by a whopping 10 points.
It’s expected to again be a top battleground county in one of the top battleground states this time around. Like other suburban counties, it is home to many swing voters who voted for Obama in both 2008 and 2012 before abandoning the Democratic Party to vote for a brash outsider in Trump. A county where 20 percent of the jobs are in manufacturing and more than 83 percent of residents are white, it also represents a test of Biden’s hypothesis that he’ll be able to recoup blue-collar white voters Trump flipped four years ago.
A voting hub boasting more than 687,000 registered voters, the county also has a strong history in automotive manufacturing, and a General Motors factory closed down there last year. The county appears to set the stage for a contrast between Trump’s controversial trade policies and Biden’s record on supporting deals like the North American Free Trade Agreement and bailing out the auto industry in the Obama administration.
Luzerne County, Pa.
Trump won Luzerne County by nearly 20 points in 2016, outperforming Romney by 11 points while Clinton underperformed Obama by 13 points. While the county did vote for Obama twice, albeit by an extremely narrow margin in 2012, the president is favored to take the county again.
Still, the county’s margin will tell a crucial story about how the Keystone State will tilt in the presidential race. Located in a historic coal region, the working-class county is stocked with white residents, the vast majority of whom do not have a college degree — essentially, voters who make up Trump’s base. And the county has not moved toward just Trump but also toward Republicans in general — former Rep. Lou Barletta, the GOP Senate candidate in 2018, won the county two years ago in his failed campaign, and Republicans flipped control of the county council last year.
But Biden, who hails from neighboring Lackawanna County, is looking to cut into Trump’s margin there and cut off his ability to offset what are likely to be healthy Democratic margins in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh and their surrounding areas.
In a sign of the importance of the county, Vice President Pence has already campaigned there, and Biden’s wife, Jill, conducted a virtual town hall with educators there.
Kenosha County, Wis.
Kenosha County in southwest Wisconsin is a prime pickup opportunity for Democrats. After voting for Obama twice by double digits, it narrowly went Trump’s way by 0.3 percent in 2016, signifying Clinton’s weakness in suburbs across the country.
But what makes this county unique is its intimate connection to the national reckoning over systemic racism and police brutality after the police shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha, the county’s largest city.
Both Trump and Biden visited the city, though their trips could not have been more different. Trump made a point of touring businesses that had burned down during violent protests and appeared with local police officers in an attempt to promote his “law and order” message. Meanwhile, Biden met privately with Blake’s family and listened to testimony from the city’s residents.
While it is unclear how the protests will actually impact the vote total, it will likely play some role in a county that was already primed to be a battleground.
Robeson County, N.C.
Robeson County on the South Carolina border is one of the country’s “majority-minority” counties, where white residents make up under 50 percent of the population, suggesting it would lean Democrat, though it is also rural and low-income and just more than 13 percent of its residents have a college degree, giving Republicans a foothold.
When push came to shove, Trump won big there in 2016, outperforming Romney’s 2012 showing by 10 points and besting Clinton by a 51-47 margin. Obama had won there twice by double digits in 2008 and 2012.
The Lumbee Tribe, which makes up a plurality of the county, holds significant sway in Robeson.
Glades County, Fla.
Places like Glades County, a rural area located in south-central Florida, helped Trump achieve his 1-point victory in the state in 2016 and will be crucial in his path to victory there again this year.
While much focus has been paid to Biden’s support in Democratic strongholds like Miami and elsewhere in South Florida, the former vice president will also have to remain competitive in rural areas like Glades County. Clinton hit her goals in Democratic areas in Florida in 2016, but Trump opened up insurmountable margins in rural areas that were able to wipe out her strong showings in safe blue counties.
Glades County is a perfect example of where Trump ran up the score, winning 69 percent of the vote, compared with 59 percent for Romney in 2012, and pushing Clinton’s vote share to just 29 percent. While Obama lost the county both in 2008 and 2012, he still hit 42 percent and 40 percent, respectively. In order to win the Sunshine State’s critical 29 electoral votes, Trump will have to perform similarly in Florida’s rural expanses.
Denton County, Texas
Democrats have been bullish for years that Texas is competitive, and to prove that the Lone Star State can finally turn blue, Biden will have to perform well in places like Denton County.
The county, which includes part of the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex, has pingponged in how willing it is to veer away from Republicans. After Obama garnered 38 percent of the vote in 2008, he fell to just 22 percent in 2012 before Clinton jumped back to 38 percent in 2016. Meanwhile, Romney overpowered Obama with 77 percent of the vote in 2012, while just 58 percent of votes went to Trump four years ago.
In a sign of potential Democratic strength in the county, former Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D) shot up to 46 percent of the vote in his electric 2018 Senate bid, losing the county to Sen. Ted Cruz (R) by just 8 points. But the strength of O’Rourke’s campaign was a sign of virtually unheard-of statewide enthusiasm for a Democratic in Texas, so Biden may have to bring the same energy to win a place like Denton.
Apache County, Ariz.
Arizona is typically a solid Republican state, but its 11 electoral votes are up for grabs this year, with the supreme importance of Maricopa County becoming well-documented. But Apache County, which is mostly made up of part of the Navajo Nation and the Fort Apache Indian Reservation, will test the ease with which indigenous voters can cast ballots.
Navajo Nation members have sued to ease Arizona’s deadline for mail-in ballots, arguing that the state’s requirement that ballots be received by Election Day could disenfranchise voters living on reservations because of its geographical isolation and lack of resources.
A federal appeals court threw out the lawsuit Thursday.
Grays Harbor County, Wash.
Washington state is not particularly competitive at the presidential level, though Grays Harbor County is just another example of a place that voted for Obama twice before defecting to Trump in 2016.
Grays Harbor will serve as an indicator of how Democrats can fare in timber country as the party embraces more expansive environmental policies to head off the effects of climate change.
While Biden has declined to embrace the Green New Deal, the plan vaunted by progressives, Democrats across the board have embraced policies confronting deforestation. Biden drew headlines in September after Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro hit him over his plan to combat deforestation in the Amazon.
Conejos County, Colo.
Historically a swing state, Colorado has emerged as consistently friendly Democratic territory for several consecutive cycles. Conejos County is another area that voted for Trump after Obama won it both in 2008 and 2012.
But Conejos County is mainly interesting because it finds itself in the middle of a competitive House race. The county is located in Colorado’s 3rd Congressional District, which has been won fairly comfortably by Republican Rep. Scott Tipton since 2010. But Tipton was ousted in a primary earlier this year by Lauren Boebert, a gun-toting firebrand who has made comments praising the QAnon conspiracy theory.
Boebert will face off against Democrat Diane Mitsch Bush, who lost to Tipton by about 8 points in 2018, which was smaller than Tipton’s 15-point margin in 2016 and 22-point margin in 2014. Conejos County, and the district, will give a sign of how receptive voters are of QAnon-friendly candidates in districts that are already moving away from being ruby red.
Scott County, Iowa
Scott County, located in the swing state of Iowa, almost perfectly matched the popular vote split of the national election in 2016.
The fourth-largest of Iowa’s 99 counties, Scott disproportionately went for Obama in 2008 and 2012 before Hillary Clinton narrowly won it by a 48-46 margin in 2016. While she also won the popular vote by the same margin nationally, she ultimately lost the Electoral Vote.
With predictions over the winner of the presidential election flying across the internet at a record pace, Scott County may provide some insights on Nov. 3.
Updated at 9:23 a.m.