Any Republican calculation for 2016 starts by assuming the party can hold the 206 Electoral College votes that Mitt Romney carried in 2012. (Democrats believe that with Trump as the nominee that isn’t assured in North Carolina, Arizona, and maybe Indiana and Georgia.) But if Republicans can defend that base, they could reach a 270-vote Electoral College majority by adding Ohio (18 Electoral College votes), Wisconsin (10), Pennsylvania (20) and Michigan (16).
Since most GOP analysts acknowledge that Michigan is a very daunting climb for the party—and Pennsylvania is uncertain, too—the more common scenario among conservative strategists is to recapture Florida (whose 29 Electoral College votes Obama won last time by only about 75,000 votes). If the GOP can retake Florida, Olsen noted, it could reach 269 Electoral College votes just by adding Ohio, Wisconsin, and Iowa (6 Electoral College votes). At that point, any other state would give Republicans the victory. Alternately, an Electoral College tie would allow the House—which presumably would remain within GOP control if the party nominee runs that effectively—to select the next president.
Any of these Midwest-first scenarios, though, would run against the current of the region’s recent presidential history. Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin are all part of what I termed in 2009 the “blue wall”: They are among the 18 states that have voted Democratic in at least every election since 1992. (That’s the most states Democrats have won that often in the party’s history.) Democrats have carried Ohio in four of the past six presidential elections and Iowa in five of the past six.
Over this period, Ohio has been consistently very close—among nominees from both parties since 1992 only Obama in 2008 exceeded 51 percent of the vote. But since the Blue Wall first emerged in 1992, Democrats have consistently posted bigger margins in Pennsylvania and especially Michigan. Wisconsin and Iowa were close during George W. Bush’s two elections (he narrowly carried Iowa in 2004), but both Bill Clinton and Barack Obama each won them relatively easily twice.
Yet these states constantly intrigue Republican presidential strategists because the Democratic advantage in them depends largely on an act of political levitation: the ability to consistently win a slightly greater share of working-class white voters here than almost anywhere else. Explanations for that Democratic advantage range from a greater union presence, to a smaller number of heavily Republican evangelical Christians, to a more vibrant tradition of class consciousness that has elevated economic loyalties over the conservative cultural affinities that often power the GOP gains among blue-collar whites elsewhere.
Whatever its cause, the effect is a small but significant advantage that has helped Democrats hold these states even as their national showing among working-class whites has cratered. In 2012, exit polls showed that Obama carried 36 percent of whites without a college education nationally but drew 40 percent of them in Ohio, 43 percent in Pennsylvania, 44 percent in Michigan, 45 percent in Wisconsin, and 50 percent in Iowa. In 2008, Obama exceeded his 40 percent national showing among non-college whites by double-digits in Iowa, Michigan, and Wisconsin, and by smaller margins in Ohio (four points) and Pennsylvania (two). In 2004, John Kerry ran at least six points better than his 38 percent national showing among non-college whites in all five states, and in 2000, Al Gore performed at least five points better than his 40 percent national number in each of them except Ohio (where he ran three points better).