‘The new swing states:’ Presidential battleground map shifts heading into 2020

Democrats and Republicans see a reshuffled map for the next presidential campaign that puts a handful of upper Midwest and Sun Belt states at the center and minimizes the role of some traditional battlegrounds.

After the Democrats’ suburban dominance and the GOP’s rural success in the 2018 elections, members of both parties say they think the Republican strongholds of Arizona and Georgia will come more into play in 2020, while the swing states of Ohio and Iowa are increasingly turning red.

And there’s general agreement that at the outset of the 2020 contest, three historically Democratic-leaning midwestern states President Donald Trump flipped in 2016 — Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin — along with the perennial battleground of Florida will be at the core of the fight.

“In a really close race, I believe Florida and the three industrial Midwest states will matter the most,” said Democratic pollster Paul Maslin, a presidential campaign veteran. “We don’t have a big margin for error here. It’s going to be extremely competitive.”

Democrats are encouraged about their prospects in the upper Midwest after sweeping the 2018 Senate and gubernatorial races in Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. If all other states vote the same way as 2016, but Democrats bring those three states back into the fold in 2020, they would eclipse the 270 electoral votes necessary to win.

“The new swing states are in the upper Midwest,” said Alex Conant, a Republican strategist who worked on Marco Rubio’s 2016 presidential campaign. “Unlike previous races where both parties have tried to expand map in ways favorable to them, the map is going to be pretty clear from the onset this cycle.”

Two traditional midwestern swing states that may not carry the same level of importance this time around, however, are Iowa and Ohio. President Barack Obama carried those states in each of his campaigns, but Trump won them comfortably in 2016. In 2018, Democrats picked up two House seats but lost a close gubernatorial race in Iowa, while Republicans held onto the governor’s mansion but lost the Senate contest in Ohio.

Even with the mixed results in those states, operatives on both sides think that Trump’s strength with rural working-class voters should allow him to start with a slight edge in Iowa and Ohio, a state that every presidential election winner has carried since 1964.

“I wouldn’t look at Ohio as the key swing state anymore,” said former Ohio Republican Party chairman Matt Borges. “The new coalition that’s been formed kind of takes Ohio out of swing-state status.”

Many Democrats agree. During a briefing with reporters last month, Guy Cecil, the chairman of the Democratic super PAC Priorities USA, grouped Iowa and Ohio with Texas, as Trump won all three by similar margins, and the Democratic leaning Colorado, Minnesota and Virginia, as states that could become competitive but won’t likely be the tipping point in the election.

Cecil listed six “core” 2020 battleground states based on the group’s internal data: Florida, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Michigan, New Hampshire and Nevada. Of those “core” battlegrounds, Florida was the brightest spot for the GOP last month, as they won the Senate and gubernatorial races there. The state also approved a constitutional amendment restoring voting rights to roughly 1.5 million convicted felons, which Democrats believe could work to their advantage in 2020.

“That’s changing the game dramatically,” said Ben Tulchin, a pollster for Bernie Sanders’ 2016 presidential campaign.

Cecil also identified three states where Democrats could potentially expand the map: Arizona, Georgia and North Carolina. North Carolina has typically been a more competitive state, but Trump won all three by roughly the same margin in 2016. Democrats also came closer to beating Trump in these states than in Iowa and Ohio.

Democrats have long dreamed of turning Arizona and Georgia blue, and the midterms provided them with some optimism that they may be able to do so in 2020. In Arizona, Kyrsten Sinema became the first Democrat to win an open-seat Senate race since 1976. According to a post-election memo from Republican Martha McSally’s campaign, Trump was never viewed favorably by more than 80 percent of GOP voters during the primary, much lower than his standing nationally.

And in Georgia, Democrats flipped a House seat and around a dozen state legislative seats in the Atlanta area, while falling just short in the governor’s race.

“I would hope after losing 13 legislative seat in suburbs of Atlanta, people are looking at why it happened and how to make sure it doesn’t happen again,” said Eric Tanenblatt, a top GOP fundraiser based in Georgia. “We shrunk our base in metropolitan Atlanta.”

Meanwhile, Republicans don’t envision Trump expanding much beyond the states from his 2016 coalition. Colorado, Minnesota and Virginia are continuing to trend in the Democratic direction. Two other states Hillary Clinton carried, Nevada and New Hampshire, are more evenly divided, but offer fewer electoral votes than the other key battlegrounds.

“You have to resist the urge to reach in an environment like this and only get you to the numbers you need,” said Scott Jennings, a seasoned Republican operative.

Even with the possibility of new states entering the playing field, Democrats are determined not to repeat the mistakes of 2016, when Hillary Clinton tried to expand the map in Arizona, Georgia and Texas at the expense of locking down critical midwestern states.

“The fact that Trump won by a combined 100,000 votes in Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania, that’s going to be the bulk of our focus,” Tulchin said. “You have to kind of take care of business in the core states that get you to 270 before you get creative.”

Democrats are also well aware that their 2018 victories will not guarantee success when Trump is back on the ballot. In the 2010 midterms, Republicans won the Senate and gubernatorial elections in Iowa, Pennsylvania, Ohio and Wisconsin, as well as the governor’s race in Michigan. Obama went on to carry all five states two years later.

“You can’t draw a straight line from the midterm results to the presidential results,” said Democratic pollster Mark Mellman.

Alex Roarty contributed.

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