Obama-Trump swing counties largely stuck with the president

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The crucial counties that swung toward President Trump four years ago mostly stuck with the same candidate in the 2020 elections, in an indication of the rural-urban divide that is increasingly coming to define American politics.

In 2016, 206 counties that had voted twice for President Obama backed Trump over Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton. This year, Trump won 176 of those same counties, while President-elect Joe Biden won 20 of them; eight counties in Maine and two in Illinois are still counting votes, though Trump is almost certain to prevail in each.

The results show a microcosm of national trends that increasingly describe an electorate divided along urban and rural lines, and between voters of differing education levels.

The counties that stayed with Trump are largely rural, in many cases ancestrally Democratic areas that had not voted for a Republican presidential contender in decades. Those that swung back to Biden were more diverse and located closer to large metropolitan areas.

In Iowa, all 33 pivot counties that voted twice for Obama have now voted twice for Trump. Those counties are concentrated in the eastern half of the state, once the bastion of union Democrats.

“Those counties along the Mississippi River, we never questioned whether or not they were going to be Democrat. They were Democrat,” said Patty Judge, Iowa’s former lieutenant governor and the co-founder of the group Focus on Rural America, which pressures Democrats to reach out to rural voters. They were “blue collar working-class folks that voted Democratic, and that is not true today.”

In neighboring Wisconsin, Biden recaptured Sauk County, home to growing suburbs of liberal Madison. Four years ago, Trump beat Clinton there by about 100 votes; this year, Biden edged Trump by 600 votes. Voters in Door County, near Green Bay, have modeled the winner of the national presidential contest in every election since 1996; Biden beat Trump by just under 300 votes there.

Biden successfully flipped Pueblo County, Colo., and Saginaw County, Mich., two diverse population centers that voted for Trump four years ago. But in both cases, Trump held on in two more rural, less diverse and less well-educated neighboring counties — Huerfano and Las Animas counties in Colorado, and Shiawassee and Bay counties in Michigan.

“I think Saginaw has been slowly trending more Democratic and the African American vote came up very strong there,” said Saul Anuzis, a former chairman of the Michigan Republican Party. “It just has been slowly trending away from us and there is no indication it will come back.”

On the Pacific Coast, Biden reclaimed Clallam County, which covers the northern stretch of Washington’s Olympic Peninsula. Some of those voters commute to work by ferry to Seattle, and others live in the population center in Port Angeles; about as many residents there have a college degree as those who have a high school degree or less. 

But Trump held on in Mason, Grays Harbor and Pacific counties, where voters without a college degree outnumber those who have a degree by more than 10 percentage points.

In most of the pivot counties he kept in the fold, Trump’s margins of victory actually expanded, a sign of the widening divide between rural communities and their urban neighbors. Trump won the average pivot county by almost 15 percentage points in 2020, up from an average of 11 points in 2016.

The counties that swung hardest to Biden tended to be Northeastern population centers: Hillsborough County, N.H., home of Manchester and Nashua, chose Biden by almost 8 percentage points after narrowly breaking for Trumpin 2016. Biden also flipped Kent County, Del., in his home state, and Kent County, R.I., just outside of Providence.

The results show a challenge ahead for both Democrats, who must build beyond their urban foundations to win a national election, and Republicans, who must reach beyond their shrinking rural base to achieve their own winning coalition.

“I do not think we’re going to see a huge blue surge in these rural counties or in the river counties in two years, but I think you can start changing that dynamic,” Judge said. “But we have to do that by talking about issues that directly affect the folks that live out here.”

Tags Barack Obama bellwether counties Donald Trump Hillary Clinton Joe Biden Michigan pivot counties swing counties Washington Wisconsin
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