The big Democratic gamble: North or South?

The big Democratic gamble: North or South?
© Getty Images

The eventual Democratic nominee for president will start from behind, in spite of what the current polling says. Trump enters not just with the advantage of incumbency; he just has to defend what he won in 2016 — he can even afford to lose Michigan and Pennsylvania. In order to beat Trump, the Democrats have to make the biggest bet of the election: Do they pursue a northern strategy (Michigan, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin) or a southern strategy (Florida, Arizona, North Carolina)?

Northern strategy

The bottom line for the Democrats is that they need to net gain 38 electoral votes. Winning the three states Trump won by less than 1 percent would deliver a victory: Michigan (0.22 percent; 16 votes), Pennsylvania (0.73 percent, 20 votes), and Wisconsin (0.77 percent, 10 votes) combine for 46 electoral votes.


What gives the Democrats hope is not just the narrow results from 2016, but the fact that this trio of states had voted Democratic every presidential cycle starting in 1992. Given the right candidate, recent history indicates that this bloc would swing into the Democrats’ column.

But historic results are only a guideline. Given that the parties were, to some extent, re-aligned in the 2016 election, the Democrats cannot be certain that the past will be the future. If the Democrats nominate a candidate anathema to working class voters, Trump would have the advantage — and Trump only has to hold on to one of the northern states to be re-elected.

Southern strategy

Just as Trump is pursuing contingency electoral vote plans, the Democrats are not likely to depend on a single strategy. After the three northern states, the next closest losses were Florida (1.20%, 29 votes), Arizona (3.55%, 10 votes) and North Carolina (3.69%, 15 votes). If the Democrats were to lose Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, they have to win Florida plus either Arizona or North Carolina.

For the Democrats, all three states have become increasingly competitive. Florida has flipped back and forth, voting for the winner since 1996, with the last two elections’ margin under 1.5 percent. While Arizona has not voted Democratic since 1948, the GOP advantage has been decreasing. Trump’s winning margin was 5 ½ points less than Romney’s. North Carolina has also become more competitive for the Democrats. Since 1960 only one non-Southern Democrat has won the state (Obama eked out a 0.32 percent win in 2008), with GOP margins averaging double digits. But as in Arizona, the recent trend favors the Democrats. After a Bush win of 12.44 percent in 2004, Obama won in 2008. Romney could only manage a 2.84 percent win in 2012.


Which gamble to take?

On the surface, the northern strategy makes the most sense. The trio of northern states has been voting Democratic for 30 years, and the vote deficit from 2016 is paper-thin. An additional benefit of sweeping these states is that the Democrats could leak away New Hampshire and Nevada yet still win.

Polling for the Big Four Democrats (Biden, Sanders, Harris and Warren) is generally favorable, particularly in Michigan (with only one poll showing Trump competitive) — less so in Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.

But a northern strategy necessitates some kind of nod to the working-class voters who put Trump over the top. While the margins were close enough in each state such that increased turnout within their coalitions could tip the states to the Democrats, there are also potential Trump voters to counterbalance the Democrats’ efforts. In addition, the Democrats have to sweep all three to win.

Alternately, the Democrats could invest in the southern strategy, hoping that the trend in their direction breaks into victory. There are certainly plenty of potential Hispanic voters to turn out, the majority of whom would likely back the Democratic nominee. Of course, not all Hispanics will vote Democratic, so any Hispanic voter growth provides limited net benefits for their nominee.

The trouble with a southern strategy is not just that the Democrats are further behind in vote margin, but also that the polling in the southern states is worse for them than in the northern states. Trump is ahead in Arizona (except against Biden), averages a small lead in North Carolina, and is about even on average in Florida. Given that the Democrats only have to make up a little over 10,000 votes in Michigan, it is conceivable they could squeeze out a turnout-based win there and combine it with winning Florida for the necessary votes.

For 2020, Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpUS reimposes UN sanctions on Iran amid increasing tensions Jeff Flake: Republicans 'should hold the same position' on SCOTUS vacancy as 2016 Trump supporters chant 'Fill that seat' at North Carolina rally MORE has a pretty simple strategy: Repeat 2016 and defend what he already won, plus throw in a contingency plan for losing Wisconsin.

The Democrats have a more complicated bet to make: Do they work to regain the working-class voters they lost in the Midwest? Do they go all-in with a left-minority turnout strategy focused on Florida, Arizona and North Carolina? Can they afford to walk the tightrope and do both?

Trump may style himself as a political gambler, but the Democrats will soon face the biggest gamble of 2020.

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