Why America's Midwest is the place to watch this election

By Dr Christopher B. Budzisz
Associate Professor of Politics at Loras College

With the 2020 US presidential election less than two months away, there is little doubt Donald Trump will lose the country’s popular vote, and likely by a wider margin than he did in 2016 (when he lost the popular vote to Hillary Clinton by nearly 3 million votes).

But every US presidential election is, in essence, a race to just 270.  That number represents a simple majority of the 538 votes in the Electoral College.

A device created via the US Constitution to balance state and national interests, and to reflect the American Founders’ concerns with direct popular appeals, the Electoral College is the formal mechanism for selection of the president.

When voters cast their ballots in states across the country they are actually voting for a slate of electors who in turn cast the official vote. Each state has a number of electoral votes equivalent to its representation in the US House and Senate.

As such, larger states offer a greater electoral prize. In nearly all cases the electoral votes are allocated on a state-by-state winner-take-all basis determined by the candidate receiving the largest number of votes in the state.

The exceptions to this being Nebraska and Maine which allocate by statewide winner and within the congressional districts of the state. Former vice president Joe Biden leads Donald Trump in national polling, and has held a substantial and stable advantage nationally.

This reflects a highly polarised environment, and one in which few people are open to changing their minds. New information and events tend not to dramatically shift opinion.

One can see this in the limited impact of the country’s social unrest and response to the Covid-19 pandemic have had on moving vote preferences.

Protesters hold placards reading Black Lives Matter and messages about slain black man George Floyd.

The Midwest matters

Given the Electoral College, measures of national support can obscure parts of the election landscape, including the American Midwest.

The core of the competitive Midwest states for 2020 is in the upper Midwest in Michigan, Wisconsin, and Iowa. According to current polling averages, Biden leads in the first two of these.

While Midwestern states do not offer the largest prizes in the Electoral College, they were key to Donald Trump’s path to victory in 2016.

His razor-thin victories in Wisconsin and Michigan, comfortable margin in Ohio, a blow-out win in Iowa, and a near-miss in Minnesota, are important elements in the story of 2016. And several states in the region offer a path, albeit a narrow one, to maintain the White House in 2020.

While Trump trails in several of these battleground states, demographic and electoral variables offer the incumbent at least some hope.  These include the relative percentage of non-college educated whites and rural voters, party support, and underestimates of Republican strength in polling.

Several Midwestern states have high percentages of demographics consolidated by Republicans in recent elections — most notably non-college educated whites and rural voters.

According to estimates by Dave Wasserman of the non-partisan Cook Political Report, 63% of the 2016 vote in Iowa was from non-college whites, while that number was 61% in Wisconsin, and 54% in both Michigan and Minnesota.

Consolidation of this voting bloc by Republicans is one of the most important stories of the last 20 years in US elections.

Republicans also continue to expand their rural advantage, while the 2018 midterms suggest Democratic expansion in suburbs.

Joe Biden (right) and his wife Jill attend an event at a baseball stadium.
Joe Biden and his wife Jill attend an event in Des Moines, Iowa in 2019. Picture: Flickr/Gage Skidmore

The question is not whether Trump will continue to build on strengths in rural areas, but whether Biden’s performance in other areas make any such consolidation by Trump irrelevant.

A battle of competing margins — rural/suburban/urban — may not be one that favours the president, but it is a battlefield available to him.

Perhaps a sign of negative partisanship (party affiliation driven more by hostility to others than by affinity to one’s own party), but Trump’s divisiveness has not weakened support for him amongst Republicans.

Voter registration patterns also do not point to an exodus from the party. In the US system, voters themselves are required to register to be able to vote, and while nearly all of the states in the Midwest do not register voters by party, demographic patterns of registrations in several of these states do not show obvious weakness for the Republicans.

Broader studies suggest that since 2016 changes in party affiliation have not resulted in a clear advantage for either party.

Shy Trump voters?

A final element to consider is the underestimation of Republican support.

As Sean Trende, senior elections analyst for Real Clear Politics has recently noted, past polling in the Midwest tended to underestimate turnout for non-college whites. And, education weighting procedures now employed by pollsters may not completely eliminate this.

Several factors limit the likelihood of a repeat of 2016 in the contested parts of the Midwest, however. These include Democratic down-ballot strength, likely improvement in areas Democrats underperformed in 2016, an issue advantage for Biden, and his relative appeal to unaffiliated voters.

Democratic candidates down-ballot in US Senate and House races in several of these states, including Iowa, Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Michigan show margins similar to Biden’s.

This suggests Democratic mobilisation and enthusiasm, and may serve as evidence against the so-called shy Trump voter theory — the idea that there are voters who don’t want to publicly state their support for Trump.

Decreasing ticket-splitting (choosing candidates of different parties for different offices), decreasing divergence between a congressional district’s House and presidential outcome, and the trend of a state’s vote for Senate mirroring the state’s choice for president, all mean a Trump victory in such states would be exceptional.

Signs reading 'Biden President' and 'ENOUGH' on a front lawn in Ohio.
In the Midwest, a number of states remain very much up for grabs. Picture: Flickr/Dan Keck

In such a high-salience and polarised election, increases in turnout are expected in those Democratic areas which saw declines from 2012 to 2016.  Declines in places such as Milwaukee, Wisconsin and Detroit, Michigan led to exceedingly narrow Clinton losses in both states.

While often slightly more favorable to the president than elsewhere, voters in the Midwest, as in the country as a whole, tend to give Trump an advantage over Biden regarding handling of the economy. On issues such as handling the pandemic, social unrest, and addressing racial issues, voters in these contested Midwest states often give Biden higher marks.

Many voters see Biden as a more unifying figure and, perhaps unsurprisingly, Biden so far has proven a more attractive choice for those voters without partisan affiliation. While most states and their electoral votes are secure for one candidate or the other, in the Midwest several states remain very much in play.

The calculations to 270 for both campaigns require success in the contested states of the Midwest, and at the moment a repeat of 2016 does not appear likely.

Banner image: Donald Trump appears at a campaign rally in 2016. Source: Flickr/Gage Skidmore

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