Trump's 'big three' battleground states will turn blue again in 2020

Even though it’s ridiculously early, there’s a lot of speculation about which states are going to be key to determining the outcome of the 2020 presidential election. Conventional wisdom is that Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin — the “big three” states that were supposed to be Hillary Clinton’s firewall but instead went to Donald Trump — will decide the election.

These three states undoubtedly will be key battlegrounds, but even if the Democratic nominee were to win all three, that would not ensure his or her victory. If you subtract their combined 45 electoral votes from the 306 that Trump received, that would leave him 261 electoral votes and — assuming he held all of the other states he carried in 2016 — he would need only nine more electoral votes to prevail. 

So, for example, if in 2020 Trump carries New Hampshire (4 electoral votes), which he lost by only 2,736 votes out of 744,296, and Nevada (6 electoral votes), which he only lost by 27,202 out of more than 1 million cast, he would have 271 electoral votes and would be president for four more years. If he were to lose New Hampshire and Nevada, he still could reclaim the White House by winning Minnesota’s 10 electoral votes. In 2016, he lost Minnesota by only 44,765 votes out of 2.9 million cast. 

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If the election were held next Tuesday, I believe President TrumpDonald John Trump Former US ambassador: 'Denmark is not a big fan of Donald Trump and his politics' Senate Democrats push for arms control language in defense policy bill Detroit county sheriff endorses Booker for president MORE would lose the three key battleground states. In 2016, he carried Michigan by only 10,704 out of 4.7 million votes, Wisconsin by 22,748 out of about 2.9 million cast and Pennsylvania by 44,292 votes out of about 6.1 million. In all of those states, Green Party nominee Jill Stein garnered more votes than Clinton lost by. And although there is always a chance that former Starbucks Chairman and CEO Howard Schultz will run as an independent, I believe he eventually will choose not to become a historical footnote as the man who reelected Donald Trump.

Additionally, there will be much stronger turnout in Detroit and Milwaukee than there was in 2016; the anger running through the Democratic base will ensure that. In all three states, Trump likely will get a much smaller percentage of the Hispanic and Muslim votes. All of these factors will combine to push Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin into the blue column once again.

As noted, if the Democrats lose some combination of New Hampshire, Minnesota and Nevada — states they barely carried in 2016 — they would have to win back at least one other state that President Trump carried. There are three states that could be viewed as reasonable targets for the Democrats to take back:

  • First and foremost is Florida with 29 electoral votes. In 2016, Trump eked out a victory with a margin of 112,911 out of 9.4 million votes cast, about 1.1 percent of the total vote. Florida will be harder for the president to hold because of changes to its voter pool. After Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico in 2017, tens of thousands of Puerto Ricans relocated to Florida. There likely aren’t many — if any — Trump voters among them, unless they were lucky enough to receive some of the paper towels the president threw into the crowd when delivering supplies a year later. Florida voters also approved a referendum allowing prior convicted felons to vote. Not many of them are likely to go to the polls wearing MAGA hats. To cash in on these demographic changes, Democrats must shore up their growing rift with a segment of Jewish voters who are so important in Florida.
  • Second, North Carolina will be up for grabs even though Trump carried it by 173,315 in 2016. In that election, Democrats won back the governorship with the election of Gov. Roy Cooper and held the attorney general’s office with the election of Josh Stein. Demographically, North Carolina is becoming more blue.
  • Third is Arizona, which Trump carried by 91,234 votes (out of 2.5 million). Critics say the Clinton campaign was foolish to contest in Arizona because she really had no chance. But since 2016, Arizona has become increasingly blue, particularly with the 2018 election of Sen. Kyrsten Sinema. And, of course, Arizona has a large Hispanic population where it is reasonable to suggest that Trump will get a far smaller percentage this time out.

So, what does all of this mean? Honestly, a year and a half out, it probably means nothing. But it shows that it’s likely the next presidential election will be close and unpredictable — as close and unpredictable as the one in 2016.

Edward G. Rendell was the 45th governor of Pennsylvania. He is a former mayor of Philadelphia and former district attorney in that city. He served as chairman of the Democratic National Committee during the 2000 presidential election. He is now co-chairman of the Immigration Task Force at the Bipartisan Policy Center. Follow him on Twitter @GovEdRendell.