Trump's 2020 Electoral College math: Searching for 10 votes

Will Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump says he will 'temporarily hold off' on declaring Mexican drug cartels as terror organization House Judiciary Committee formally receives impeachment report Artist behind gold toilet offered to Trump sells banana duct-taped to a wall for 0,000 MORE be re-elected? He certainly has a structural advantage — having won, he just has to hold on to what he has. In fact, Trump could lose Michigan and Pennsylvania and still have the 270 electoral votes necessary for re-election. All he needs is for Wisconsin to stay in the fold and no other surprises and he has another four years.

But that advantage is still fairly tenuous. Trump is trailing the “Big Four” Democratic candidates (Biden, Sanders, Harris and Warren) in each state according to the public polls. If those numbers hold up, the President will need to find 10 electoral votes somewhere on the map.

2020 Electoral College map

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If a “safe” state (or the congressional districts in Maine and Nebraska that award single electors to the winner) is one where the margin is greater than 10 percent and a “strong lean” state is one where the margin is 5-10 percent, Trump opens the 2020 map with 126 safe votes and 78 strong lean votes for 204 in total. The Democrats open with 183 safe votes and 18 strong lean votes for 201 in total.

The problem for Trump is that his margins in the states that put him over the top in 2016 were much tighter than the close states representing the next 31 electoral votes for Clinton. In short, the Democrats have more targets of opportunity. Only one state, New Hampshire, had a margin of under 1 percent for Clinton, while three states — Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin (46 votes) — were all under 1 percent for Trump.

Simply going by the 2016 margins, the top opportunities for the Democrats are: Michigan (16 votes), Pennsylvania (20), Wisconsin (10), Florida (29), Nebraska-2 (1), Arizona (11), and North Carolina (15). For Trump, the best opportunities are New Hampshire (4), Minnesota (10), Nevada (6), Maine At-Large (2), and Colorado (9).

The Democrats have a lot of options, provided they win Michigan and Pennsylvania. Any one of the states Trump won by less than 5 points will do. The Democrats don’t even need New Hampshire, if they hold the rest of their 2016 states.

Wisconsin is the pivot

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For Trump, Wisconsin is the pivot and dictates national strategy. Putting Michigan and Pennsylvania in the Democratic column sets the contest at 270-268. If Trump holds Wisconsin, he wins. But the Trump campaign will hardly risk everything on just one state; they have to come up with a contingency plan for Wisconsin’s 10 electoral votes.

On the surface, the most obvious replacement is Minnesota and its 10 votes; after all, Trump lost Minnesota by just 1.5 percent (only New Hampshire was closer). But Minnesota has a worse electoral profile for Republicans than Wisconsin. Since 1936 only once has Minnesota given the GOP Presidential nominee a better margin than Wisconsin — and that was in 2008 where McCain lost badly in both states. Minnesota has only opted for the GOP three times since 1932, and each were landslides for the GOP. The bottom line is that losing Wisconsin means losing Minnesota. 

The Nevada, New Hampshire, New Mexico contingency

Outside of Minnesota, no single state won by the Democrats by less than 5 percent offers 10 or more votes to make up for Wisconsin. Trump’s contingency starts with Nevada (6 votes), where public polls have him ahead of all the Democrats, except Biden, and where he has better numbers than in Michigan, Pennsylvania or Wisconsin. With 4 votes to make up, Trump needs to add either New Hampshire (4 votes), Colorado (9 votes) or New Mexico (5 votes). Trump is behind in New Hampshire to the Big Four (down 10 points to Biden and Sanders) but has no choice but to compete in a state he lost by less than half a percent.

Trump hardly wants to trade a single critical state, Wisconsin, for a different single critical state, New Hampshire. By default, he has to put a priority on New Mexico’s 5 votes. While Colorado and Virginia offer more electoral votes and each were closer calls in 2016, New Mexico offers a much cheaper campaigning option. In addition, Trump is doing comparatively well in neighboring Arizona, which, in combination with decent numbers in Nevada, may indicate some improved support among Hispanic voters.

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If the numbers for Trump start to look good in Virginia (13 votes) or Colorado (9 votes), Trump would likely make a play. Winning Virginia replaces Wisconsin straight-up. Trading Wisconsin for Colorado would require winning either Nevada, New Hampshire, New Mexico or the Maine At-Large votes — or would mean a tie at 269-269.

The decision to put resources into Nevada and New Mexico may seem strange on the surface, but the Electoral College math makes both a necessity.

Keith Naughton, Ph.D., co-founder of Silent Majority Strategies, is a public affairs consultant who specialized in Pennsylvania judicial elections. He earned his PhD in public policy from University of Southern California. Follow him on Twitter @KNaughton711