Less than 50 days. The clock is ticking down to the 2020 election. Every vote matters, but it’s increasingly clear that the presidency will come down to the choices of voters in 11 key states. Some of them, like Ohio and Florida, are traditional battlegrounds, while others, such as Arizona and New Hampshire, are new territories for presidential showdowns. Regardless, they each tell their own tale in the fight for the White House — with their own legislative quirks, regional deciders and land mines. Read on, as we outline the path to the presidency … and reveal which state may get the final say.
Nicholas Fouriezos, senior politics reporter
the states Trump must win
As of now, the president is down by about 7 points in national polls. But Donald Trump has been down before. If he stages a comeback, it will start with solidifying these swing states.
2016 Winner: Trump +9 2020 Polls: Trump +3.5
Our Take: Texas has backed every Republican presidential candidate since Ronald Reagan in 1980, and its 38 electoral votes are a crucial GOP counterweight to California. But Democrats have outlined a path to a blue Texas, winning the growing suburban vote in places like Austin and Houston while ramping up voters in the (oft-overlooked) Rio Grande Valley region. The four major valley counties only saw turnout of around 46 percent in 2016, and if more show up, Democrats could actually win (one postmortem showed that if Beto O’Rourke had done as well as Hillary Clinton did, the Senate candidate would have beaten Ted Cruz in 2018). Still, Trump likely will hold his advantage here — our OZY/0ptimus forecast gives him a 63.4 percent chance — particularly given the fact that he is actually doing better with Latino voters, who make up a third of the Texas vote, than he did four years ago.
2016 Winner: Trump +8.1 2020 Polls: Biden +2.4
Our Take: Trump’s big Ohio blowout shocked political observers, and many wrote off Democrats’ chances there in 2020. But a perfect storm of scandal hit the Midwestern state in July, when the Republican Speaker of the House Larry Householder was arrested in a $61 million bribery scandal. The Cleveland area was already seeing hidden networks of suburban women fighting for blue causes amid a recession and pandemic, while millennial minority leader Emilia Sykes is leading the charge for Democrats to stage an upset. Unlike other states, Ohio counts and releases the vast majority of its early votes by 8 p.m. on election night … meaning it could be a buffer against Trump claiming victory early before most mail ballots have been counted nationally. Still, Trump has the advantage here if Republicans can avoid letting their Statehouse scandal rock the national race (our forecast has a 56 percent chance of Trump victory), which is important because Ohio has sided with the eventual presidential winner in every election but one since 1944.
Our Take: Trump will inevitably need North Carolina, Arizona and at least one Rust Belt state, and this race is among the nation’s closest. One note: Today’s headlines matter more in the Tar Heel state, since early voting (by mail, at least) began Sept. 4. That means, at least for North Carolinians, the California wildfires and the explosive Bob Woodward tapes suggesting Trump intentionally downplayed the coronavirus are October surprises … in September. North Carolina has a nasty history of voter suppression, but with a Democrat-controlled state Board of Elections and weeks to count up the early vote, mishaps or delays aren’t too likely. In recent years, the Southern left have found religious leaders turned political activists in people like the Rev. William Barber (of Moral Mondays fame) and queer pastor and Asheville-area county commissioner Jasmine Beach-Ferrara. However, the Republican-controlled state Senate also remains influential, led by powerful President Pro Tempore Phil Berger.
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Joe Biden seemingly has a lead in the battleground states but must build on Democrat gains made in the blue wave of 2018 in these key places.
2016 Winner: Trump +0.3 2020 Polls: Biden +4.2
Our Take: In early September, Biden unveiled his “Made in America” plan in Detroit and not-so-subtly reminded Michigan voters of the time that he and his buddy Barack bailed out the auto industry — a nod showing that, unlike Clinton in 2016, he won’t take Michigan for granted. But the messaging battle in Michigan is heating up: A recent rally paired state native Kid Rock with Donald Trump Jr., who claimed that Biden “decimated” Michigan jobs. After electing a GOP governor twice, the Flint water crisis helped lead to Democratic gains in 2018, including electing Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer while sweeping every statewide office held by Republicans. Trump can still win Michigan but has very little margin for error, and political experts say voter turnout could reach 6 million, shattering the previous record of 5 million. That likely would lead to a large Biden victory, and it doesn’t hurt that the state has shown impressive prowess with its mail ballot system: 99 percent of its votes in May were collected by mail, with nary a hitch.
2016 Winner: Clinton +1.5 2020 Polls: Biden +8.8
Our Take: Despite a large lead, Biden can hardly rest on his laurels here, or he may face some Election Day “malarkey.” As recently as two years ago, Minnesota looked like it might be the red curtain to stop the blue wave — particularly as the famously working-class Iron Range has shifted from its labor union, Democratic roots to a pro-Trump faction. And in early August, Trafalgar polls gave Democrats heart palpitations when it showed Minnesota to be tied. However, the polling firm has a notorious Republican lean, and an abundance of more measured polls have Biden up big. Our forecast gives Biden a 72 percent chance of victory … and if Working-Class Joe can’t win here, well, the former veep will be in for a very long night. Look to 2018, where both fiercely progressive (and fiercely divisive) Rep. Ilahn Omar and moderate Bigfoot admaker Rep. Dean Phillips both won telling elections, and you’ll see the growing power bases in the Land of 10,000 Lakes.
2016 Winner: Clinton +2.3 2020 Polls: Biden +4
Our Take: Trump is trying to expand the GOP electoral map despite signs it is contracting. That’s why he held an indoor rally in Las Vegas this weekend (defying the Democratic governor’s state orders in the process). Polls have been scant, but one survey conducted by Latino Decisions found that nearly two-thirds of Latino voters haven’t been contacted by either party … in a state where they make up a fifth of eligible voters. That led to Democratic officials sounding the alarm that Nevada could be the Michigan of 2020. The Culinary Union, and its membership of 60,000 mostly Hispanic workers in the hospitality industry, were hit particularly hard by the pandemic — at one point 98 percent of its members were unemployed, although that number is closer to half now. Either they blame Trump or they blame their state government, which now controls the governorship and entire state Legislature after gains in 2018. Most likely it’s the former, particularly given the help of early Biden backer Yvanna Cancela, a young Latina lawmaker who once served as the Culinary Union’s political director. There is a chance Trump could surprise, though, especially given his aforementioned success with Hispanic voters — a fact he recognizes, as one of his Vegas events was a “Latinos for Trump” roundtable.
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Just a few years back, these states seemed uncompetitive … but changing demographics and strange political realignments now put them at the heart of the action.
1. New Hampshire
2016 Winner: Clinton +0.3 2020 Polls: Biden +5.5
Our Take: Biden leads, but Trump beat polls here and could do it again, particularly given his success with non-college-educated white voters that give pollsters fits. It was here that Trump earned his first victory, beginning his 2016 primary assault on a platform that highlighted the opioid epidemic. Promising to address prescription abuse and also lower drug costs, the president has made waves while keeping Big Pharma accountable (although critics argue that his actions are more paper wins than actual ones). Another positive sign for Trump? His preferred U.S. Senate candidate, Corky Messner, beat out retired Gen. Don Bolduc, a Purple Heart war hero who once voiced a slight criticism of Trump and paid dearly for it in the GOP primary. The Democrats still have an advantage in a state where they boast two incumbent senators, including Messner’s opponent Jeanne Shaheen. However, the Granite State also elected Republican Gov. Chris Sununu in 2017, showing voters’ aisle-crossing ways … even if they haven’t backed a Republican for president since George W. Bush in 2000.
2016 Winner: Trump +3.5 2020 Polls: Biden +4.7
Our Take: Except for Bill Clinton in 1996, Arizona has backed Republicans in every election since 1952. So how is it that Arizona seems so eminently winnable for Biden? Improved water technology and economic opportunity has led to huge immigration to the state — particularly from left-leaning Californians. Demographically, Latinos make up nearly a third of the population, and unlike Cuban Americans in Florida, they are mostly Mexican Americans who trend leftward. It doesn’t help that Trump spent much of his 2016 and 2020 campaigns mocking Arizona’s favorite son, the late Sen. John McCain. Plus, while Mormons are emerging as a key Republican voter bloc, with nearly half a million of them in Arizona and Nevada, they have mostly rejected Trump. It didn’t help that the thrice-married Trump bashed their fellow Mormon (and that other ex-Arizona senator) Jeff Flake, who recently endorsed Biden. If Trump loses the 2020 election, he may rue his days of bullying the two stately senators from Arizona. His hopes now lie in the hands of Kelli Ward, the GOP chair who unapologetically backed his child separation policy and once accused McCain of ending his cancer treatment to hurt her then-Senate campaign … mere hours before McCain passed away.
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Surprises in either of these two states could turn the tide, and possibly secure an early victory for the winning candidate.
2016 Winner: Trump +.07 2020 Polls: Biden +6.3
Our Take: The Cheese Heads that lifted Trump to the presidency, less than 23,000 voters, would fill about a quarter of the stands at famed Lambeau Field. Trump will need a seismic event to win a razor-thin margin like that again. Many thought violence at the Kenosha protests would provide that spark (the president certainly did, seizing on the protests to instigate a law-and-order message). But while polls showed support for Black Lives Matter falling in Wisconsin in June and August, that hasn’t led to a drop in voter support for Biden. Still, the Democratic nominee is averaging almost the exact same lead Clinton had (+6.5) going into Election Day … and she still lost (although pollsters say they’ve adjusted for their 2016 mistakes). If the race is that close again, the 2020 election could be thrown into shambles because Wisconsin’s bipartisan election commission has a history of gridlock. This means any last-minute decisions would likely end up in the conservative-majority state Supreme Court … led by Chief Justice Patience Roggensack, who hasn’t been afraid to make controversial decisions, including pushing through in-person elections at the height of the pandemic in April. Trump needs at least one Rust Belt state he won in 2016: Wisconsin could book him a ticket back to the White House.
Our Take: Biden should be running away with the Florida vote. After all, he’s beating Trump with seniors, the bread-and-butter of the Republican panhandle base. But those gains have been largely erased by a surge in Latino supporters for Trump, who now poll about 50-50 even between the president and Biden — despite Clinton winning 59-36 in the same NBC-Marist poll in 2016. The shift largely has happened due to Cuban American voters in South Florida, who were relatively split about Trump four years ago but now support him by a roughly 3-to-1 margin. Democrats and Republicans alike say that shift has been influenced by Alex Otaola, a prominent Cuban YouTuber who went from being an Obama and Clinton voter to organizing massive car rallies for Trump in recent months. Don’t expect a quick answer on election night, given the Sunshine State’s infamous record of pending results. Massive vote delays in 2018 led to the Broward County elections supervisor being sacked. Republican lawyer Peter Antonacci was installed in a bid to smooth things over, but he’s already made his own mistakes. So while a Biden win in Florida would likely end Trump’s reelection chances, we likely won’t know the state's outcome for weeks.
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winner takes all
The state poised to be the pivotal vote in the 2020 election.
2016 Winner: Trump +.07 2020 Polls: Biden +4.3
Our Take: Everything to this point has led us to Pennsylvania, which is likely where election night will head as well. FiveThirtyEight gives Pennsylvanians the highest chance (31 percent) of delivering the decisive Electoral College bloc for the winner. Recent polls have buoyed Biden in his birthplace (he was born in Scranton), with the OZY/0ptimus forecast currently giving him a 69 percent chance of victory. But that could flip quickly, with Trump fueled by a GOP candy magnate and an election mess brewing in the Keystone State. Ballots were supposed to go out yesterday but were delayed because officials couldn’t finalize them due to a bevy of lawsuits and legislative issues.
Pennsylvania has particularly suffered from the large, pandemic-fueled shift to vote-by-mail. In its June primary, tens of thousands of votes arrived late and were tossed out, including nearly 15,000 in Philadelphia alone. That’s a bad omen for Democrats, who are likely to vote by mail en masse. Their votes will not be counted if they don’t arrive by 8 p.m. on Election Day (it’s worth noting that Trump-inspired U.S.P.S. delays have led to weekslong delays of regular mail). A seemingly bipartisan bill between Democrat Gov. Tom Wolf and GOP Senate President Joe Scarnati — to allow ballot drop-off boxes and start counting early votes before Election Day to avoid delays — has gone nowhere.
And so Pennsylvania, which saw a weeklong delay in that teensy June election, might not have its November results for weeks. If that happens, expect Trump to call the race in his favor early — when most of the Philly and mail-in vote isn’t counted yet, and the electoral map paints a bigly Trump victory. What ensues after? Well, chaos. Come on, it’s 2020: How could you expect anything else?