No primary ballots have been cast, but a consensus is already emerging that next year’s presidential election will be decided by fewer states than any election in recent memory: Wisconsin, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Florida. Democratic strategist Jim Messina, who managed President Barack Obama’s reelection campaign, said the circumstances dictate an unusually narrow playing field. “We are now looking at the smallest map in modern political history,” he told The Post’s Dan Balz.
Based on this analysis, it is easy to envision Democrats investing a disproportionate amount of the party’s energy and resources into winning a few key battleground states in 2020. Indeed, Democratic hopefuls are already making frequent stops in the Rust Belt between visits to early primary states. Former vice president Joe Biden and Sen. Amy Klobuchar (Minn.) have made their supposed appeal to Midwestern voters a central part of their “electability” pitch. “I’m accustomed to winning places like Pennsylvania and Ohio, Michigan and Wisconsin,” Biden boasted at a campaign stop this summer.
Democrats can no longer take their “blue wall” in the upper Midwest for granted; that much is clear. But winning back the states that Trump turned red should not come at the expense of the party’s efforts to expand the electoral map, compete for new voters and build a more diverse coalition nationally. If it does, Democrats are likely to regret it even if they pull off a victory in the presidential race.
Narrowing the playing field to a few swing states could severely undermine Democrats’ efforts to win back the Senate. The potential success of the next president’s domestic agenda depends on control of the upper chamber, where Republicans currently hold 53 seats. With legitimate pickup opportunities in Arizona, North Carolina and Georgia (where two seats are up for grabs), Democrats need to energize voters in places that are widely considered less winnable and therefore less important to the outcome of the presidential race than the Rust Belt. Fiercely competing for those states’ electoral votes could help generate the enthusiasm Democrats need to swing the Senate and advance progressive goals.
The consequences could be similarly massive further down the ballot. That includes not only House elections, in which Democrats have a chance to expand the majority they won in 2018 but also state and local races that, despite their importance, analysis of the electoral map tends to ignore.
After losing nearly 1,000 state legislative seats during the Obama era — a result, in part, of a myopic focus on electoral college math — Democrats flipped more than 300 seats and gained control of six legislative chambers in the 2018 midterms. The party now has a chance to build on those gains, with Arizona and North Carolina among the states where majorities are within reach. These legislative elections will affect millions of working families. They will also have major implications for the redistricting process, which will influence the partisan makeup of Congress for the next decade and beyond. Accordingly, it will be essential for Democrats to build a robust presence in many states regardless of how they ultimately vote in the presidential race, especially since Trump has been so explicitly hostile to this fast-growing group of voters.
Recognizing the stakes, some progressive leaders are beginning to caution against a strategy that would artificially shrink the electoral map. “Democrats, let’s do better and go big,” former Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams wrote last week in a memo to party leaders, citing her own near-victory in 2018 to argue that “any decision less than full investment in Georgia would amount to strategic malpractice.” Abrams also called on Democrats to “compete in the changing landscape of the Sun Belt,” where the party has a chance to cement its advantage with the Latino voters comprising a rising share of the electorate. One more point is becoming increasingly important as Trump’s presidency deteriorates week after week: Progressives should not “go small” at a time when Trump’s solidifying unpopularity gives them a historic time to win — and govern.
Nobody, of course, is suggesting that Democrats should not fight hard to win back the states they lost in 2016. But “going big,” as Abrams puts it, actually improves Democrats’ chances of defeating Trump by creating more possible paths to victory. It also reflects a fundamental understanding that the party’s future depends on its ability to reach new voters and build progressive power in places where it does not currently exist. To win in the long run, Democrats need to compete everywhere today.