President Trump’s rally in Pennsylvania on Monday has rekindled speculation that in order to retain the White House, Trump must win the Keystone State in 2020. Former vice president Joe Biden, who was born in the state, has emphasized his ability to win it back for the Democrats, going so far as to locate his campaign headquarters in Philadelphia. There’s only one problem with this narrative: It’s wrong.
Trump would surely benefit from Pennsylvania’s 20 electoral votes, but he doesn’t need them to win. Arizona, Wisconsin and Maine are the states to watch; if Trump wins there, he’s highly likely to win a second term.
The 2016 election proved that Trump can lose the popular vote by a significant margin and still win if he carries the Republican core that went for Mitt Romney and just a few select states. Even in the 2018 debacle, Republican candidates won in virtually every state Romney carried. Excepting Kansas, a deep-red state that voted Democratic for governor only because the GOP nominee — former Kansas secretary of state Kris Kobach — was toxic, Arizona was the only Romney state that Republicans lost.
Arizona flipped blue in two races, one for U.S. Senate and the other for Arizona’s secretary of state. Democrats also picked up a House seat and a number of state legislative seats. They did this with support from formerly Republican voters in the well-off, highly educated suburbs of Phoenix and Tucson. Combined with strong backing from the state’s burgeoning Latino population, it was just enough to turn a state that Republicans have dominated for decades into one that is up for grabs in 2020.
It’s almost impossible to see a path for Trump’s reelection without carrying Arizona. The state’s 11 electoral votes are crucial, and if he fails to win there, given the state’s longtime GOP tilt, it’s hard to see how he can carry three of the five Midwestern states that he flipped in 2016.
Fortunately for Trump, the 2018 exit polls show how hard it will be for the Democratic nominee to carry the Grand Canyon State. Trump had a 50 percent job approval rating among Election Day voters, the exit poll found. Republican candidates lost because some Trump backers voted Democrat. It’s hard to see Trump backers opposing Trump himself.
If Trump can carry Arizona and the rest of the Romney states, he starts with 206 electoral votes. He has the chance to grab 53 more by winning Florida, Ohio and Iowa — all states that Republican candidates for governor carried in 2018. Exit polls also reveal that Trump boasts a job approval rating of more than 50 percent in Florida and Ohio. Trump might have a race on his hands, but he looks to be the favorite in both states.
There was no exit poll in Iowa, but current trends also suggest he should be the favorite to win. The GOP victory in the governor’s race was matched by strong showings in the state legislature. Republicans would also have carried Iowa’s U.S. House vote had it not been for the abysmal performance of white nationalist Rep. Steve King. Trump performs better there in state polls than in most other Midwestern states (and note: Iowa polls seriously underestimated Republican support in 2018). With the state’s economy booming, including in manufacturing, Iowa leans toward Trump.
Those three states would put Trump only 11 electoral votes away from the 270 needed to win. While winning either Pennsylvania or Michigan again would put him over the top, he doesn’t need them. All he needs is to carry Wisconsin and Maine’s 2nd Congressional District, and there’s good reason to think he’s at least a toss-up to win both.
Wisconsin has shifted to the right in the past decade. Gov. Scott Walker (R) nearly won reelection in 2018, losing by only 1 point. The GOP carried the statewide popular vote for the state assembly and U.S. House, and a conservative judicial candidate won a statewide race this April despite being massively outspent. The 2018 exit poll showed Trump had a 48 percent job approval rating on Election Day, and the Badger State is yet another where statewide polls significantly underestimated Republican support in both 2016 and 2018. By all measures, Wisconsin is experiencing an economic boom, again with a large increase in manufacturing jobs. Trump is not the favorite here, but he looks to be in better shape than in either Michigan or Pennsylvania.
Wisconsin would bring Trump to 269 electoral votes, creating a tie in the electoral college. The House of Representatives would then determine the outcome, based not on the majority of members but on the basis of which candidates won a majority of the states. Republicans currently have a majority in 26 House delegations, enough to reelect Trump if they all held firm.
But getting just one more electoral vote removes that pressure, and he can get it from Maine’s 2nd Congressional District. Trump easily carried it in 2016, and Republican Rep. Bruce Poliquin and the GOP gubernatorial nominee each won a plurality there in 2018. Trump is no cinch to win it again, but he surely is at worst a toss-up and is again better positioned there than in Pennsylvania or Michigan.
Pennsylvania will surely be a battleground state in 2020, and Trump might end up winning it again. But that would be icing on the cake. Arizona, Wisconsin and Maine are the true cusp states in next year’s race, and last time I checked, Joe Biden has never lived in any of them.