The Democrats did not lose in 2016. But how can they win in 2020?

Everyone knows that Clinton won more votes; just how close was she and how do the Democrats plan for 2020.

Our Constitution works” — Gerald Ford, 1974.

Upon being sworn in, President Ford was adamant that the Constitution works. An interesting comment from a man who was never elected, either as Vice President or as President. As such, he was never at the mercy of the electoral college. The mechanism that saw his colleague carry 520 of the (then) 537 votes available, less than two years before resigning the office in disgrace.

The electoral college has ‘worked’ about 91% of the time. By that, I mean, 53 elections out of the 58 done under its stewardship have resulted in the candidate who won the popular vote also winning the Presidency through the electoral college. That said, a failure rate of 9%, has resulted in 5 candidates wrongfully being denied what should have rightfully been theirs. Not since 1888 had this happened. Then, in 2000, Al Gore was denied his promotion from Vice President to the President.

Fast forward sixteen years and it happened again. The candidate who won the popular vote is not in the White House. In 2000 Al Gore beat George Bush by 48.38% to 47.87% but lost by 5 electoral college votes. In 2016 the disparity was even greater; Hilary beat Trump by an entire 2.1% but lost by 74 electoral college votes. The overall 2.1% democratic deficit does not do adequate justice to just how close Clinton was to being President.

Nowadays, the Democrats will always romp in California and New York; the GOP will do the same in Texas and that won’t greatly affected the result because they are taken as read. I want to focus on a small hand-full of states, those that could have, very conceivably gone either way in 2016 and will also be in play in 2020.

The Blue wall states can be understood as “the cluster of eastern, Midwest and western states that have traditionally gone Democratic.” ( Paul Steinhauser). There will be some shift election to election, and indeed, the direction that both parties appear to be travelling in could open up new cleavages which threatened any modern consensus. But, for now, it is a good starting point.

The Blue wall roughly represents 193 electoral college votes. Steinhauser’s definition also includes; Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin. For the purpose of this article, I do not include those three states in any further reference to the Blue wall.

Steinhauser’s definition of ‘Blue wall’ states

Similarly, the GOP benefit from a Red wall. Their wall (for want of a better phrase) builds them support of about 158 votes. In reality, the party is likely to win a handful of additional southern states, too. Namely, Arkansas, Louisiana, Georgia, Tennessee, and Kentucky, adding another 49 votes to their total.

‘Red wall’ states

We see these two smaller, more speculative maps broadly reflected in the 2016 result, with the important caveats of Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin that I mentioned.

Source: The final Electoral College map in the 2016 Presidential election

Going into every election, then, both parties can be fairly confident of sweeping up just shy of 200 votes each (I know this has not always been the case and there are multiple notable exceptions).

However, if we make some large scale assumptions about the relative impact on voting behaviour anything can have in the next 18 months, it allows us to hone in on a handful of contested states. In doing so, we see just how close Hilary Clinton got and we can begin to see how the Democrat party can win in 2020.

If I try and put myself in the shoes of senior Democrats during 2016, I am fairly confident they’d be targeting Michigan (16), Pennsylvania (20), Florida (29) and, contrary to Clinton’s lack of interest (just ask Senator Klobuchar), Wisconsin (10).

If everything went according to plan and the all those states went Blue, then Hilary ends up with an extra 75 votes, taking her total to 307 and winning the Presidency. Indeed, Florida and any other of those states would have been enough, as would have Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin without Florida (interestingly, those three states had to come as a trio, if Hilary only carried two without Florida then her total couldn’t climb higher than 268, short of the 270 needed).

Just how close was she to winning?

Table created by author

To put it bluntly, if less than 1% of people changed their minds in just 4 out of 50 states, Hilary Clinton would be President and history would be changed. She lost 75 electoral college votes on 0.75 of a percent.

Of course, Hilary won her fair share of close calls, too. In fact, 4 out of the top 10 closest states went to Hilary — that seems like quite an even contest, then, right?

Not quite, because while she did win 4 of the closest 10, she only won 1 of the closest 5. That was New Hampshire (0.4%), bringing her a whopping 4 electoral college votes.

Table created by author

As you can see, then, even if all four of Hilary’s closest victories went the other way, she has only lost 24 electoral college votes. In other words, that’s fewer than Florida on its own, just more than Pennsylvania, and fewer than Michigan and Wisconsin combined.

The top 5 state contests, in terms of the % difference between Clinton and Trump, were:

  • Michigan (Rep. +0.23)
  • New Hampshire (Dem. +0.4)
  • Pennsylvania (Rep. +0.72)
  • Wisconsin (Rep. +0.77)
  • Florida (Rep. +1.27)

This list represents 79 college votes, more than enough to swing an election, and Donald Trump won 94.94% of them with an average popular vote margin of 0.747%.

That is remarkable. And anyone who says that things like Hilary fainting, Trump’s Access Hollywood tapes, Hilary’s emails, or Comey’s re-opening of the investigation didn’t matter and that Clinton was never going to win anyway, I suggest you think again.

Fast forward to the present and the Democrats seem fairly set of what path they are going to take in the 2020 election; move to the Left. Previously unthinkable policies, reserved exclusively for those outside the mainstream of Democratic politics, are being snapped up by those who are (if they’re deeply honest with themselves) probably better suited as party ‘moderates’. Moreover, the demographic diversity of the field will appeal to a base more inclined to vote Democrat anyway.

But isn’t that the point? They will vote Democrat anyway. Is the party encroaching on a strategy that they accuse Trump of deploying; play to the base. Increasing its share of the vote across the Blue wall is great, but is it now enough for them to win the White House? Where are the other 70–100 votes going to come from?

From a purely data driven point of view, it would appear that the easiest way to win those votes will lie in those aforementioned states above.

But there are difficult strategic decisions ahead. With the party being about 40% non-white now, there will inevitably be hitherto untouched states that the Democrats could conceivably win in a couple of cycles time, especially if their ideology and identity is calibrated into the mainstream American psyche. The temptation to push to uncharted ground may be too great. For now, however, it seems the pragmatic desire to kick Trump out might lose out to an ideological purity that sees ‘moderate’ candidates condemned to history, irrespective of their ability to gain crucial, election defining, history making, votes.

Writing mostly on US politics from across the pond. Occasionally detour into sports/sport performance, and UK politics/culture.

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