Can Donald Trump Win the 2020 Election through the Swing States Again?

July 13, 2020

Donald Trump’s only path to another term in the White House is through the swing states and not the national popular vote. In other words, he has to repeat his wining strategy in 2016 where he lost the popular vote by 2.1% but won the Electoral College by 74 votes. (I eliminated the 7 faithless electors.)

Both his national polling numbers and job approval ratings suggest that without the help of divine intervention, his winning the national vote is highly unlikely with only four months and a pandemic.

But does this strategy have any chance of working at this point? To discover the answer to this question, we need to look to the past to see a possible future: 2016, 2012 and 2008 presidential elections.

In this analysis, I have included the three past presidential elections from ten swing states: Florida, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Ohio, Michigan, Arizona, Georgia,, North Carolina, Iowa and Minnesota. In the last three presidential elections, each of these states, except Arizona, voted for two different party candidates in separate elections.

In 2016, Donald Trump carried all but Minnesota, for a total of total of 131 electoral votes. Of all these swing states Clinton, the first woman to run for president from a major party, carried only one: Minnesota. The table below shows each of the swing states two party percent of the vote and the percent difference of votes cast and a graph of the data below it.

FLORDA          47.849.02-1.22
PENN            47.548.2-0.7
WISCONSIN       46.547.2-0.7
OHIO            43.651.7-8.1
MICHIGAN        47.347.5-0.2
ARIZONA         44.648.1-3.5
NORTH CAROLINA  46.248.5-2.3
GEORGIA         45.350.4-5.1
IOWA            41.751.2-9.5
MINNASOTA       46.444.91.5
AVERAGE %45.6948.672-2.982

The average percent difference between the two candidates for all ten states was nearly -3%, the percent Clinton lost by in these 10 swing states. Not much, but enough to put Hillary Clinton’s name in the history books with an asterisk. In Elections, unlike horseshoes, being close doesn’t matter.

In 2008, we had two non-incumbents facing off for the ultimate political prize. John McCain, the U.S. Senator from Arizona. McCain started the Republican primary season as an underdog, but made a comeback when he won the New Hampshire primary by defeating future nominee Mitt Romney.

Through out the general election campaign, McCain was considered an underdog against the first African-American candidate to run for president, Barack Obama.

And it showed in our ten swing states, where John McCain almost matched Hillary Clinton’s 2016 loss. The Table below, shows both Obama and McCain’s percentage of the vote in each state.

FLORDA          50.948.222.68
PENN            54.544.210.3
WISCONSIN       56.242.313.9
OHIO            51.546.94.6
MICHIGAN        57.340.916.4
ARIZONA         44.953.4-8.5
NORTH CAROLINA  49.749.40.3
GEORGIA         46.946.90
IOWA            53.944.49.5
MINNASOTA       54.143.810.3

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The only state McCain won was Arizona, his home state. Nationally, he lost to the country’s first Black American president by 5.9%. Another asterisk in probably the most monumental election in history.

The 2012 presidential election pitted Obama against Mitt Romney, the first Mormon presidential candidate to run for the highest office in the land. (A lot of firsts in these three elections!) In the Table below, you can see that Romney won three of these swing states.

FLORDA         50.0149.130.88
WISCONSIN      52.845.96.9
OHIO           50.747.73
ARIZONA        44.553.5-9
NORTH CAROLINA 48.3550.4-2.05
GEORGIA        45.553.3-7.8
IOWA           51.946.25.7
MINNASOTA      52.644.97.7
AVERAGE %50.16648.2331.933
Table 3 2012 Obama vs Romney Swing State Results

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Of the three election cycles, Romney did better than either Clinton or McCain. He only lost by 1.9% in all of these 10 swing and carried Arizona, Georgia and North Carolina.

The question is whether Trump can repeat his 2016 swing state victories in 2020? This question will likely be determined by two variables: voters overall appraisal of his job approval and their comparison of Joe Biden as an alternative.

At this point in the campaign, our best gauge of how either candidate is doing in each swing state are the latest polls conducted there. Using the average of state level surveys conducted since June 1, 2020 from Real Clear Politics, I have added it to each swing state’s data, as seen in Table 4 below.

North Carolina47.544.23.3
OHIO 44.744.70
AVERAGE %48.2443.364.88

Biden is behind Trump in only one state, Iowa by a -1.3% and tied with him Ohio. That doesn’t mean Trump can’t win any of the swing states, but it suggests the road to victory through the swing states is going to be a rocky one.

The other problem for Donald Trump is that Joe Biden is not Hillary Clinton. By that I mean his unfavorable ratings are significantly less than her’s were in 2016 prior the general election.

Real Clear Politics unfavorable average for Clinton right before the 2016 election was 54.4%, compared to Biden’s current average of 46.1%, over 8 points less than her negative ratings in 2016. Donald Trump’s current unfavorable rating is 56%, some 12 points higher than Biden’s unfavorable rating.

So to sum up, if Trump is unable to win the popular vote he will have to again rely on the swing states, many of which he won in 2016. But the times have changed and I will repeat again, he doesn’t have Hillary to help him this time. In recent swing states polls, he is upside down in all but Iowa.

He has four months to make up some ground on Biden. He has the convention bounce and of course, the Presidential Debates and maybe some good news on the pandemic. I will be returning to swing states again as we get closer to the election. I love politics, don’t you….Be safe.

By Jim Kane

Jim Kane is a pollster and media advisor, and was for fifteen years an Adjunct Professor of Political Science at the University of Florida. Kane is founder of the polling firm USAPoll and served as the Director of the Florida Voter Poll. His political clients have included both Republican and Democratic candidates, including the Republican Party of Florida, and both the Sun-Sentinel and Orlando Sentinel newspapers. At the University of Florida, Professor Kane taught graduate level courses in political science on Survey Research, Lobbying and Special Interest Groups in America, Political Campaigning, and Political Behavior. In addition to his professional and academic career, Jim Kane has been actively involved in local and state policy decisions. He was elected to the Broward County Soil and Water Conservation Board (1978-1982) and the Port Everglades Authority (1988-1994). Kane also served as an appointed member of the Broward County Planning Council (1995-2003), Broward County Management Review Committee (Chair, 1990-1991), Broward County Consumer Protection Board (1976-1982), and the Broward County School Board Consultants Review Committee (1986-1990).

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