After the blue-wall states, the Clinton camp has considered four other states its most straightforward path to victory: Virginia, with 13 Electoral College votes; Colorado, with nine; New Mexico with five; and New Hampshire, with four. If she defends the blue wall and adds those four states, she’ll have 273 Electoral College votes no matter what happens anywhere else—and still have 272 if Trump wins the rural Second Congressional District in Maine, one of two states that apportions some Electoral College votes by district.
The prominence of Virginia, Colorado, and New Mexico on Hillary Clinton’s list reflects what may prove the most lasting geographic legacy of the 2016 election: a radical acceleration of long-term shifts between the Rustbelt and Sunbelt.
Of the 11 states that both parties have treated as battlegrounds in recent years, five run across the Rustbelt: Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania—from the blue wall—as well as Ohio and Iowa. New Hampshire, a sixth battleground, is geographically distinct but demographically similar, with a mostly white population (albeit one that leans more toward college-educated whites than these other five).
The second group of swing states runs across the Sunbelt: Virginia, North Carolina, and Florida in the Southeast, and Colorado and Nevada in the Southwest. New Mexico had also been considered a swing state around the turn of this century, but has since tilted more securely toward the Democrats (although Trump is making a late play there).
These two baskets of battlegrounds are almost exactly equal in size: the five Sunbelt swing states offer 72 Electoral College votes, and the five Rustbelt states 70—with New Hampshire adding another four and New Mexico five.
Since Democrats began their modern run of winning the popular vote in five of the six presidential elections after 1992, the Rustbelt states have been more secure terrain for them. Democrats have won the five Rustbelt swing states in 27 of the possible 30 chances over those six elections, compared with just 13 of 30 in the five Sunbelt swing states. (In addition, the Democrats have won both New Hampshire and New Mexico five times in the past six elections.) Over those six races, Democrats have averaged a higher share of the vote in all of the Rustbelt swing states than any of the Sunbelt swing states, though with only a small gap between Ohio, their weakest Rustbelt state, and Florida, the Sunbelt state where they have performed best over that span.
This year, though, that order is rapidly resetting. Trump’s visceral connection with older, non-urban, and especially blue-collar whites has rattled the foundations of the Democrat’s Rustbelt pillars. For several days last week, the ABC News/Washington Post tracking poll showed him matching or exceeding Ronald Reagan’s margin in 1984 with both non-college-educated white men and women. (The final NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll on Sunday also showed Trump exactly matching Reagan’s 32-percentage-point advantage among all non-college-educated whites.) Polls have consistently provided Trump a clear edge in Iowa, which Democrats have won five of the past six times, and Ohio—which both Bill Clinton and Obama won twice. Though, with several late surveys tightening, Hillary Clinton has clearly not conceded the latter. While Democrats feel more secure about Wisconsin and maintain a somewhat narrower but steady advantage in Pennsylvania, most late polls show Trump battering at the gates in New Hampshire and tightening the race in Michigan as well. He’s even gestured toward Minnesota. Even if Trump doesn’t ultimately tip any Rustbelt battlegrounds beyond Iowa and perhaps Ohio, he seems guaranteed to improve on Romney’s performance in most, if not all, of them.