The demographic and geographic trends reverberating through 2016 could produce a electoral alignment unlike any since the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act shattered the Democratic hold on the “solid South.”
This reconfiguration largely leaves the same states at the center of the electoral deck, but shuffles which party looks to which state for a win. It’s a shift symbolized by Clinton’s clear decision to focus more effort on Florida and even North Carolina than on Ohio, the state traditionally considering the tipping point in presidential elections. (Clinton finally returned to Ohio Monday after nearly a month-long absence.)
“While the same ten states are in play by and large that we had in 2012 they have definitely been reordered,” said Mitch Stewart, President Obama’s 2012 field director and a founding partner of the Democratic consulting firm 270 Strategies.
Since 1968, Democratic presidential nominees have almost always run better in the big battlegrounds of the Midwest than they have in the key Sunbelt prizes. That’s been especially true since 1992, when Democrats began their current streak of winning the popular vote in five of the past six presidential elections. Together, the five Rustbelt states offer 70 Electoral College votes, and the five Sunbelt prizes 72.
This year, the competitive picture looks very different, especially when considering the three Rust belt states where Trump has shown the most strength: Ohio, Iowa and Wisconsin.
In the averages of state polls compiled by FiveThirtyEight.com, Clinton is winning a greater share of the vote in all five Sunbelt battlegrounds than in either Ohio or Iowa. In the averages compiled by RealClearPolitics.com and Pollster.com, Clinton’s vote share in all five Sunbelt battlegrounds also exceed her showing in Iowa and she’s running better in all of them than in Ohio, except for Nevada.
Clinton is in a stronger position in Wisconsin. But even so, her Wisconsin numbers lag her showing in Florida and Virginia in all three averages, as well as her numbers in North Carolina and Colorado in the Pollster.com compilation. Pennsylvania and Michigan, to this point, look safer for her than the other three Rustbelt swing states (though in some cases the averages place her vote share behind some of the Sunbelt states in each of them as well).
Throughout the mid-1960s to the early 2000s, the Democratic nominee typically won a higher share of the vote in Ohio than in any of the Sunbelt battlegrounds. Over that period, Democrats have won a greater share of the vote in Florida than in Ohio only in 1976, 1996 and 2000—each time with Southern nominees (Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton and Al Gore.)
From 1968 through 2004, Democrats exceeded their share of the vote in Ohio three times in North Carolina, once each in Virginia and Colorado and never in Nevada. (Southerners Carter and Clinton accounted for all but one of those exceptions too.) In all Democrats have run better in Ohio than the five Sunbelt battlegrounds in 43 of the possible 50 chances across the ten presidential elections from 1968 through 2004.