How Trump Did (and Didn't) Reshape the Electoral Map

How Trump Did (and Didn't) Reshape the Electoral Map
Stephanie Strasburg/Pittsburgh Post-Gazette via AP
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In the months leading up to the presidential election, there was much speculation that Donald Trump’s unorthodox candidacy and strong appeal to working-class white voters would shake up the familiar red/blue Electoral College map. Now that the election is over, it’s worth asking: To what degree did that happen?

The Broad Features of the Map Are Basically Unchanged

Trump did cause some shifts in a number of states (discussed below), but there are still many commonalities between the more familiar 2012 map and the 2016 presidential election results. Democrats ran strongly in the Northeast and on the West Coast, while Republicans dominated much of the South and Mountain West. A comparison between the final results in 2012 in each state and this year’s statewide results (based on ballots counted so far), shows that for the most part, red states stayed red, blue states stayed blue and competitive states remained competitive.

Note that the line is a “break even” rather than a “best fit”: Trump outperformed Romney in the states above the line and underperformed him elsewhere.

Trump Did Shift Some States -- and That Worked to His Advantage

That being said, Trump did shift the map toward himself in a number of states. The table below shows his share of the two-party vote, Romney’s share of the two-party vote and the difference between those figures for the 20 states where Trump made the greatest gains.

Despite the constant (and understandable) focus on swing states, the list is fairly diverse. Trump made gains in some deep-blue states (e.g. Rhode Island, Hawaii and New York) and some highly red states (e.g. West Virginia, North Dakota) as well as gains in some swing and blue-leaning states. On the presidential level, Republicans don’t get much out of increasing their vote share in deeply red and blue states, but the patterns here suggest that Trump’s increased appeal to working-class whites isn’t confined to the Rust Belt.

Trump also made some gains in light-blue Maine and Minnesota. These states haven’t voted for a Republican presidential candidate in decades, but, if the next presidential election is close, they could become tossups.

And finally, Trump made important gains in swing states like Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Ohio and Michigan. His gains there outpaced his two-point improvement over Romney in the popular vote (Romney lost by four points; Trump will likely lose by around two), and they gave him the electoral votes needed to secure the presidency.

Democrats Can Still Win -- But They Got the Raw End of the New Map  

It would be easy to compare Hillary Clinton’s popular vote lead and Trump’s Electoral College win and conclude that Democrats will have a tough time winning the White House again. But that’s not really correct -- in a close election, Democrats have plenty of paths to the White House.

As others have noted, Trump had a fragile advantage in many of the swing states. His margins in Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Florida and Michigan were relatively thin. He could fortify that margin by governing well and adding voters to his coalition. But if he fails to do that, Democrats could win the Electoral College by shifting only a small percentage of voters in those states. Clinton also managed to basically hold on to Obama’s margin in Virginia and Colorado despite losing ground in the national popular vote compared to 2012. In other words, Democrats can still line up enough swing states to win the Electoral College in a close election.

That being said, Democrats mostly got the worse end of recent shifts in the map. I’ve listed the 10 states where Clinton gained ground compared to Obama, despite losing ground in the popular vote.

Most of these states are either deeply red (Utah) or deeply blue (Massachusetts, Washington, D.C., California, etc.), and running up the margins in blue states won’t help Democrats win the Electoral College.

Democrats also made some progress in quadrennially targeted, right-leaning Arizona, Georgia and Texas -- which is decent news for them. It’s possible to imagine a scenario where Republicans turn Iowa into a safe state and Democrats respond by attempting to pull Arizona into the tossup category. And there’s a conceivable universe where Democrats give up much of the Rust Belt and try to win by flipping Arizona, North Carolina and Florida.

Clinton’s gains in Georgia and Texas may or may not pay off. Trump won the former by five points and the latter by nine, so it’s not impossible to imagine a future where Trump fortifies his position with working-class whites in the Midwest and pushes Georgia and Texas closer to the Democrats. On the other hand, Republicans have been able to hold on to these states despite years of demographic change and Democratic targeting. So it’s unclear when or even if these gains will yield electoral votes for Democrats.

Some might look at these changes, read various election postmortems and conclude that Democrats can only realistically win back the White House if they retool their platform and style to appeal to non-college-educated white voters in the Midwest. And that strategy might work. But it’s worth remembering that at this time four years ago, many Republicans believed that the GOP could only survive if it passed comprehensive immigration reform and focused on reaching out to Hispanic/Latino voters, millennials and women. Trump found a different route to the presidency, and it’s too early to say the next Democratic nominee couldn’t do the same.  

David Byler is an elections analyst for RealClearPolitics. He can be reached at dbyler@realclearpolitics.com. Follow him on Twitter @davidbylerRCP.

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