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The Democratic freakout over the Electoral College, explained

Democrats face some “nightmare scenarios” in the 2020 election yet again, but there’s also reason for optimism.

Hillary Clinton’s campaign chair John Podesta speaks onstage at the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center in New York City on November 9, 2016.
Win McNamee/Getty Images
Emily Stewart covers business and economics for Vox and writes the newsletter The Big Squeeze, examining the ways ordinary people are being squeezed under capitalism. Before joining Vox, she worked for TheStreet.

It’s time to start worrying about the Electoral College.

You know the story of 2016: Hillary Clinton won by 3 million votes, and then Donald Trump became president. Could it happen again in 2020?

Democrats have spent a lot of time weighing “electability” this election cycle, but because of the way the United States’ presidential electoral system works, electability is a question of geography. As in, thanks for your input, New York and North Dakota, but we really need to hear out Pennsylvania and Florida.

Democrats are far from doomed, but “we really do have a lot of feasible nightmare scenarios,” said Sean McElwee, co-founder of the progressive think tank Data for Progress.

There’s plenty of space to discuss whether the Electoral College is fair (it’s not), but like it or not, it’s not going anywhere anytime soon. So as the Democratic primary gets into full swing and the party starts looking toward the general election — and the freakout about the electoral map approaches — it’s time to start talking strategy. Democrats need to get to 270 to win. How do they do it?

The short answer is there are multiple ways for Democrats to win the Electoral College, but there aren’t as many as you’d think. The party’s nominee needs to win all the states Clinton did in 2016 — she got a total of 232 electoral votes to Trump’s 306 — and then he or she has to get enough states to get to the magic number. The Upper Midwest trio that went to Trump last time around (Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania) are an obvious target, but there are also a handful of Sunbelt states (Florida, North Carolina, and Arizona) that Democrats can look to as well.

Some of those states are more of an uphill climb than the others, and none are guaranteed. It also depends on who the nominee is, because a Bernie Sanders path is different from a Mike Bloomberg, Joe Biden, or Elizabeth Warren one.

There is room for optimism, but maybe Democrats shouldn’t be measuring for Oval Office curtains just yet.

Michigan is probably an easier get than Wisconsin

It’s going to be tough for Democrats to win the Electoral College without the states that Clinton won in 2016, Dave Wasserman, editor of the Cook Political Report, told me. That means holding on to Minnesota, Maine, and New Hampshire, which Clinton won narrowly four years ago (Trump actually pulled out one of Maine’s electoral votes), and winning some mix of states she did not. The six most critical are Michigan, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Florida, North Carolina, and Arizona. Some of the places that used to be considered swing states probably are not anymore.

“Colorado and Virginia are no longer electoral battleground states; they have exited stage left,” Wasserman said. “And Iowa and Ohio are no longer Electoral College battlegrounds; they have exited stage right.”

Sen. Elizabeth Warren speaks at a town hall with members of the American Federation of Teachers in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, on May 13, 2019.
Bastiaan Slabbers/NurPhoto via Getty Images

It’s not that it’s impossible for those states to go in the opposite direction, but if they do, then it means the election overall is going pretty far one way or the other. There’s likely not a world where Iowa swings blue and Michigan goes red.

Of the Upper Midwest trio, Michigan and Pennsylvania are probably the most gettable. They’re Rust Belt states that in presidential contests before 2016 had been in the Democratic column, and it’s not hard to imagine them there again.

“We kind of regard Michigan as Trump’s flukiest win,” said John Miles Coleman, associate editor of Sabato’s Crystal Ball at the University of Virginia, noting that they have the state in the “leans blue” column. Democrats scored some important victories in Michigan in the 2018 midterms, and the same goes for Pennsylvania. “The Democrats did pretty well in the suburban parts of Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, and in a close national race, it’s easy to see Pennsylvania flipping back to blue,” Coleman added.

Wisconsin is the big question mark in the Upper Midwest. The situation for Democrats isn’t dire for Democrats in the Badger State, but it’s not great, either. On the upside, Democrat Tony Evers won its governorship in 2018 over Republican incumbent Scott Walker, having a Democratic governor in general is good for the presidential nominee, and the state has a high rate of ticket-splitting. On the downside for Democrats, some of the polls out of Wisconsin aren’t great, or at least show a super-tight race, and its voter base is moving more in the direction of Ohio than, say, Colorado.

“Wisconsin hasn’t been looking that good, and it’s always very scary to come down to one state,” said Celinda Lake, who runs the Democratic polling and strategy firm Lake Research Partners.

There are some Sunbelt states Democrats can aim for

So let’s say Wisconsin is at the very least a toss-up — where else can Democrats look for some electoral votes? The answer is the Sunbelt.

North Carolina went to Barack Obama in 2008, but to Mitt Romney in 2012 and Trump in 2016, and the margin last time around was under 4 points. The state has a high population of black voters that Democrats have struggled to turn out in recent elections. It’s gradually been moving to the left. It has a Democratic governor, Roy Cooper, who was elected in 2016. Beyond the presidential race in 2020, the governorship will be on the ballot, as well the Senate seat held by Thom Tillis. Democrats would have to hope voters favor the party all the way down the ticket.

Joe Biden greets supporters after the second Democratic primary debate in Miami, Florida, on June 27, 2019.
Saul Loeb/AFP via Getty Images

Democrats have had an eye on Arizona for a while (Clinton made a trip there prior to the 2016 election, which didn’t quite work out.) Josh Ulibarri, a partner at Lake Research Partners and expert in Arizona politics, explained why he thinks the state is in play.

Arizona’s population is becoming more Latino and younger, which favors Democrats, and transplants from states such as California who may have historically been a little more right-leaning are “finding the Arizona brand of the Republican Party too Republican and too conservative, and they’re looking for a new home.” Democrats Sen. Kyrsten Sinema and Arizona Secretary of State Katie Hobbs won there in 2018, and the share of newly registered Republican voters has declined, with more voters registering as independents. “Arizona is right on that bubble for lots of good reasons,” Ulibarri said.

Texas could perhaps be in play. Leading Democratic candidates are pretty close to Trump in some head-to-head match-up polling, and Beto O’Rourke did well against Ted Cruz there in 2018 (though he still lost). But then again, Democrats have been talking forever about turning Texas blue.

And, of course, there’s the perennial question of Florida. The state voted Republican in 1992, 2000, 2004, and 2016, and it voted Democrat in 1996, 2008, and 2012. Among the pollsters and strategists I spoke with for this story, this was in many ways the most complex one. Yes, it has a Latino population, but the Latino vote isn’t a monolith — Florida’s heavily Cuban population does not mirror the Latino population in Nevada, for example. And Florida sort of sat out the blue wave in 2018, when Andrew Gillum lost the governor’s race and Bill Nelson lost his Senate seat. “Florida is a state that fluctuates a lot based on the nominee,” Lake said.

Electoral College ties and some other scenarios to consider

There are also some other scenarios to play out and electoral votes to pay attention to.

Two states — Maine and Nebraska — do their electoral votes a little differently, so they can hypothetically be split between candidates. Basically, they each give two electoral votes to the popular votes of their states and then one electoral vote to the winner of each congressional district in their states. In Maine, that means two votes up for grabs, and in Nebraska, three.

Trump picked up Maine’s Second Congressional District in 2016, and Coleman said he thinks it’s likely to happen again in 2020. “It’s monolithically white, blue-collar,” he said. Clinton won the statewide vote overall by 2.9 points in 2016, so Democrats will need to hold on to it, but it could be close. Nebraska’s Second Congressional District, which encompasses the Omaha metropolitan area, is one Democrats could look to pick up. Obama won it in 2008, and Dems have been trying to flip it again for a while.

Supporters of Bernie Sanders cheer as he speaks during a rally in Portland, Maine, on September 1, 2019.
Ariana van den Akker/Portland Press Herald via Getty Images

Georgia is also a state Democrats have been talking about for a while. But most of the strategists I spoke with agreed that it is at the very least a reach.

And it’s not just states Democrats didn’t get in 2016 and would like to in 2020 that are in play — there are also states they need to hold on to and risk losing. New Hampshire, Maine, and Minnesota were all pretty close calls for Clinton last time around. Trump specifically has indicated he’s eyeing Minnesota, which voted more Republican than the national vote in 2016 for the first time since 1952. “He’s definitely trying to put Minnesota into play and divide the state over racial issues and immigration and using the socialist label there,” Lake said. “And there’s a question where do you have Amy [Klobuchar] on the ticket or not? It makes a big difference.”

Klobuchar dropped out of the race just before Super Tuesday and endorsed Joe Biden. Notably, she was reelected to the Senate in 2018 and won’t be up for reelection until 2024.

McElwee warned against focusing too much on a single state. “A lot of people are thinking 2020 is going to be a rerun of 2016, and there are lots of reasons to believe that’s not true,” he said.

A Sanders path is different from a Biden path

There are a lot of unknowns about how the 2020 race will play out (and if anything, 2016 taught us it’s probably a bad idea to try to predict the future). But at this juncture, the biggest question is probably who the actual Democratic nominee will be. And when it comes to gaming out the Electoral College, that makes a difference.

Right now, it’s most obvious to look at the map for Sanders, who may have the clearest path to the nomination. So how might the general election play out for him?

“If Bernie Sanders is the nominee, he’s going to lean into the working-class states where his populism has more appeal. Those include Michigan and Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, although his pledge to ban fracking is problematic in Pennsylvania,” Wasserman said.

Sen. Bernie Sanders greets supporters during a rally in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, on February 26, 2020.
Jim Watson/AFP via Getty Images

On the flip side, one place Sanders might struggle is Florida. His comments about Fidel Castro and the Cuban communist regime aren’t going to do him any favors among the state’s Cuban population. And his support skews young, which Florida voters are not. But maybe he could make up for it by getting Puerto Ricans displaced to Florida out to vote.

And in a state like Arizona, Sanders may gain in appeal to young and Latino voters, but he struggles more with other demographics. “The Democrats’ gains [in states like Arizona] have been more on the backs of white college-educated voters in the suburbs,” Coleman said. One Arizona poll from December showed Sanders trailing Trump by 13 points in a head-to-head matchup. Biden, on the other hand, was just a point behind the president.

While Sanders’s path is probably more through the Rustbelt than the Sunbelt, Biden’s might be a mix of both. He could also put Florida in play and perhaps Georgia, especially if he were to have Stacey Abrams, who came close to winning the governorship there in 2018, on the ticket with him.

If Bloomberg were to be the nominee, his advantage would lie in more heavily urban states, such as Florida and Arizona. He could probably also try to make a play for Texas and put a lot of money into the state.

And Warren’s path could be tough if she doesn’t expand beyond her primary coalition. “Her support is very limited right now to liberal whites with college degrees. Her coalition might be quite poorly suited for winning the Electoral College because so many [of those people] are concentrated in states that don’t matter in deciding the winner,” Wasserman said.

Democrats have loads of time to worry about this

The good news for Democrats is that there’s plenty of time to try to game out the Electoral College and figure out how to win. The bad news is there’s probably a lot of worrying that’s going to happen between now and November.

So let’s get the doomsday stuff out of the way now. Wasserman estimates the Democrats need to win the popular vote by 4 points or more to win it in 2020, which is a lot, so Democrats could very well win the popular vote again and still lose. And if there’s a 269-269 tie, then the decision goes to the House, which would probably give the presidency to Trump.

Trump has a major advantage — so it’s worth it for Democrats to find a strategy sooner rather than later.