The other known is that American politics has been at some of its most polarized levels in history during the course of the Trump presidency, which means the bulk of the red vs. blue map is likely to remain unchanged from four years ago (or even 20 years ago for that matter).
However, we thought now is as good a time as any to publish a baseline state-of-play electoral map upon which all of those great unknowns will play out and alter as the months between now and the election unfold.
As has become the norm in American presidential politics, the race to 270 electoral votes is almost certain to come down to a handful of battleground states. So, don’t let all those national polls showing a big advantage for Joe Biden cloud your vision too much. Yes, at this current snapshot in time, it is clear that Biden has the advantage both nationally and in many key battleground states. But the idea that this race is all wrapped up in June seems a bit far-fetched. It’s been more than 30 years since a winning presidential candidate won more than 400 electoral votes, so blowout presidential elections are hard to come by.
Trump’s campaign war chest is one of the clearest structural advantages he currently has in the race. The Trump campaign ended April with nearly twice as much cash on hand as the Biden campaign. The former vice president has been working to close that gap as he attempts to consolidate all corners of the party following a competitive primary season that ended in March. In a clear signal, the Trump campaign is currently playing more defense than offense. It is rapidly increasing its advertising spending in what are expected to be the most contested battleground states rather than focusing an increase in resources on expanding the playing field. The Biden campaign hopes to seize on its current momentum by expanding the map and creating multiple pathways to 270 electoral votes while making Trump defend some states that have been reliably red in recent cycles.
The unknowns are pretty clear at this point too.
What will the continued impact of the coronavirus pandemic be this fall when voters train their minds on the choices before them for the presidency? Will the country be in the midst of a resurgence of a spreading virus? Will the economic fallout from the spring shutdown have been contained by the fall? Will a recovery be underway in a way most Americans can experience? Will the country’s assessment of how Trump performed in the handling of the crisis and the economic aftermath be as it is now? Will Biden be perceived as an acceptable alternative for Americans who are displeased with the country’s current course? Will the method by which votes are cast and counted be dramatically different than ever before for many voters? And will the reenergized movement for racial justice in America as evidenced by the protests across the country in the wake of George Floyd’s death translate into a voter surge in November?
Presidential reelection campaigns traditionally serve as a referendum on the incumbent. As a candidate and as President, Trump has consistently disrupted political rules and norms. He will need to find a way to defy that historical precedent and turn the contest into a choice — made more of a challenge given the decades Biden has spent in the public life, including eight years as vice president.
This raises another unknown. Has the window closed for the President and his team to have a clean dominating shot at defining Biden in a negative light for voters? The plan was to follow in the footsteps of the George W. Bush and Barack Obama reelection campaigns and do so immediately following the primary season, when Biden was low on cash and not yet fully staffed up and in fighting form for a general election campaign. That time has certainly passed, but the question remains whether the Trump team will be able to cut through all the events that have dominated the public’s consciousness and simply drive the news cycle each and every day with a negative narrative framed around Biden. The President and his campaign have already previewed lots of potential avenues they intend to pursue, but how those attacks land is still far from clear.
This map is not meant to be predictive of what it will look like in November. It is an inaugural snapshot based upon conversations with Democratic and Republican operatives across the country, campaign aides and officeholders about how they all see the current landscape. And, eventually, all the component parts of modern-day campaigns will be playing a role in how it takes shape including polls, candidate visits, TV and digital ad buys, and the strength of campaign organizations on the ground.
Its goal is to reflect where the battle for 270 electoral votes is likely to be most engaged.
Trump starts with a solid base of 125 electoral votes from 20 states that are most likely to be uncontested in the fall. When you combine that base of solid states with the additional 80 electoral votes that are currently leaning in his direction, it brings Trump’s total to 205 electoral votes — 65 votes away from reelection.
Biden begins his general election quest with a solid base of 190 electoral votes from 15 states and the District of Columbia. When you add in the 42 electoral votes that are leaning in his direction, it brings his total to 232 electoral votes — just 38 away from winning the presidency.
That leaves us with six states worth a total of 101 electoral votes that will likely prove decisive in selecting the direction the country heads in for the next four years: Arizona, Florida, Michigan, North Carolina, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.
There will be much for people to quibble about here. There are those who argue that Michigan has already drifted to leaning Democratic and there are those who believe New Hampshire and Nevada are true toss-ups or that North Carolina may not be really at risk for the President to lose.
All of that may be true. And this map will be dynamic and change as the campaign unfolds and the candidates make their tough choices about where their time and resources are spent and where they are wasted.
Over the coming months, states will move from lean to battleground status and back, but this initial snapshot is our best sense of where the campaigns believe the fall battle will be most engaged and where the most work will be done by both sides to sway voters to their candidate.
Alabama (9), Alaska (3), Arkansas (6), Idaho (4), Indiana (11), Kansas (6), Kentucky (8), Louisiana (8), Mississippi (6), Missouri (10), Montana (3), Nebraska (4), North Dakota (3), Oklahoma (7), South Carolina (9), South Dakota (3), Tennessee (11), Utah (6), West Virginia (5), Wyoming (3) (125 total)
Georgia (16), Iowa (6), Maine 2nd Congressional District (1), Nebraska 2nd Congressional District (1), Ohio (18), Texas (38) (80 total)
Arizona (11), Florida (29), Michigan (16), North Carolina (15), Pennsylvania (20), Wisconsin (10) (101 total)
Colorado (9), Minnesota (10), New Hampshire (4), Nevada (6), Virginia (13) (42 total)
California (55), Connecticut (7), Delaware (3), DC (3), Hawaii (4), Illinois (20), Maine (3), Maryland (10), Massachusetts (11), New Jersey (14), New Mexico (5), New York (29), Oregon (7), Rhode Island (4), Vermont (3), Washington (12) (190 total)