Joe Biden has described himself as a “bridge” between the Democrats’ current and future generations of leaders. But he may also be a bridge between its present and future on the electoral map. Ronald Brownstein specially for the CNN.
Exactly eight weeks before Election Day, Biden has strong opportunities to recapture states that President Donald Trump won in 2016 both in the Rust Belt and the Sun Belt. But public and private polls consistently show that Biden is running slightly better in the former group of battlegrounds — centered on Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin — than the latter, which include North Carolina, Florida and Arizona.
That’s something of a surprise, because Trump has focused his message and agenda so precisely on the priorities and resentments of the older, rural and non-college Whites who dominate the electorate in Rust Belt states, while the Sun Belt states are adding many more of the younger non-White voters who increasingly compose the Democrats’ base.
Through the 2020s, many Democrats believe that the party will need to make greater inroads in both congressional and presidential contests across the diversifying Sun Belt — including not only this year’s targets but also emerging opportunities led by Texas and Georgia — to offset the likelihood that Republicans will compete more effectively throughout the preponderantly White Rust Belt.
But if Biden can regain enough ground in the Rust Belt in November to win the White House, he’ll buy time for Democrats to allow increasing racial diversity and a steady influx of college-educated White professionals to strengthen their hand in Sun Belt states that have leaned reliably Republican for decades.
That’s how Biden could offer Democrats a bridge: His potential to improve on Hillary Clinton’s showing with older and blue-collar Whites means that even if falls short in some or all of the Sun Belt states that many in the party see as its long-term future, he could still reach 270 Electoral College votes by recapturing Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, the three big Rust Belt states that Trump dislodged from the Democrats’ “blue wall.”
As on many fronts, Biden’s electoral strategy may not define the Democrats’ long-term direction, but he may revive just enough of the party’s past to sustain it until that future comes more clearly into focus. “You don’t want to be in a position of having to make the Sun Belt work [this year],” says Ruy Teixeira, a veteran Democratic electoral analyst who’s a senior fellow at the left-leaning Center for American Progress. “You want to be in a position of having a lot more degrees of freedom than that. That’s the beauty of Biden in this election.”
The electoral battlefield this year offers almost perfect symmetry between the Sun Belt and the Rust Belt. The six states noted above, which both sides consider the most competitive, split evenly between the regions. So does the next tier of possibly competitive states.
Though facing longer odds than in the first group, Democrats see opportunity in four more states Trump carried last time: Iowa and Ohio across the Rust Belt, and Georgia and Texas in the Sun Belt. Meanwhile, the two states carried by Hillary Clinton that Trump is most hoping to pry loose — again at longer odds — also divide between the Rust Belt (Minnesota) and Sun Belt (Nevada).
A geographic shift
The equal number of contested states in each region is in one sense unexpected. Over the past generation, Democrats have consistently run better in both presidential and congressional contests in the Rust Belt than the Sun Belt. Of the potentially competitive Rust Belt states this year, Democrats carried four of them in all six elections from 1992 to 2012 (Michigan, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Minnesota), Iowa five times and Ohio four. By comparison, they won Texas not at all, Georgia, Arizona and North Carolina only once and Florida three times; only in Nevada (four wins) did they prevail most of the time.
But the 2016 election — shaped by Trump’s polarizing message and persona — rattled this alignment. Behind big gains among Whites without college degrees, he surged forward in the Rust Belt, routing Clinton in Ohio and Iowa, narrowly capturing Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin and significantly reducing the margin in Minnesota, which Clinton held by less than 2 percentage points. Trump benefited from big gains in small-town and rural places, and his strength in those communities remains formidable to this day. Even now, “there is a huge urban-rural divide” across the Midwest, notes Craig Robinson, the former political director of the Iowa Republican Party.
The picture in the Sun Belt was more complex. Clinton solidified earlier Democratic gains in well-educated and diverse Virginia and Colorado, moving them from swing states toward a deeper shade of blue (to the point where neither side considers them seriously in play this year). And she significantly improved on President Barack Obama’s 2012 showing in Arizona, Georgia and Texas, three other states also being reshaped by increasing racial diversity and an influx of college-educated suburbanites, though she ultimately fell short in each. But with Trump’s strength among his core groups of older, non-college and rural Whites as the battering ram, Clinton lost ground relative to Obama in Florida, North Carolina and Nevada, winning only the latter.
Those results — combined with Trump’s strategy of targeting so much of his agenda and rhetoric at blue-collar and rural Whites on issues such as immigration and trade — seemed to establish the conditions for a historic geographic shift between the parties. When Trump took office, many Democrats feared he might consolidate his 2016 beachhead in the Rust Belt, forcing the party to make greater inroads across the Sun Belt if it hoped to beat him this year.
Instead, since taking office, Trump and the Republican Party have demonstrably lost ground across both regions. But because Trump began with less margin for error in the Rust Belt states, the consequences of that erosion have been more severe for him there than in the Sun Belt.
That was evident in the 2018 elections.
Roaring back after Trump’s 2016 inroads, Democrats convincingly won both the governor’s and Senate races in Minnesota, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin and a Senate contest in Ohio; although Republicans held the governorships in Iowa and Ohio, Democrats also ran much better in both contests than Clinton had in those states.
In the Sun Belt, the picture remained more mixed. Democrats broke through to win Senate seats in Arizona and Nevada and the governorship in the latter. But even with charismatic candidates who inspired huge turnout — and significant gains in white-collar suburbs around cities such as Atlanta, Dallas and Houston — the party fell just short in high-profile races for the Senate in Texas (behind Beto O’Rourke) and the governorships in Georgia (Stacey Abrams) and Florida (Andrew Gillum). Veteran Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson also lost in Florida. And Democrats were routed in the Texas and Arizona governor’s races.
Something of a surprise
While Biden has clear opportunities in both regions, public polls and internal surveys by his campaign again show him in a slightly stronger position across the Rust Belt battlegrounds than those in the Sun Belt. In their internal rankings, the Biden campaign and other Democratic groups such as the super PAC Priorities USA all place the three central Rust Belt swing states as slightly better opportunities than any of the three Sun Belt showdowns.
That’s not a prospect that all Democrats or analysts (myself included) expected when the campaign began.
“When the cycle started, I was of the belief that Arizona was going to be easier for Democrats than Wisconsin,” says Democratic pollster Andrew Baumann. “I thought those were the two states that were going to be the tipping point states.”
These assessments are shaped by the core tension in the modern electoral landscape: While changes in the underlying demography are more favorable for Democrats in the Sun Belt, their capacity to win White voters remains much greater in the Rust Belt.
The nonpartisan States of Change project, which Teixeira helps to direct, projects that since 2016 minorities have increased much more as a share of eligible voters in Arizona, Nevada, Texas, Georgia and North Carolina than in Michigan, Minnesota, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. By the project’s forecast, Trump’s best group, which is Whites without college degrees, will remain a majority of the eligible voters in all of the big Rust Belt battlegrounds (except Pennsylvania, where they will fall just below half) but make up no more than 41% of the eligible population in any of the most contested Sun Belt states — or, for that matter, Virginia and Colorado.
Yet the Rust Belt states may still prove somewhat easier for Biden because considerably more White voters — both with and without college degrees — appear willing to vote for him there. Recent public polls by CBS News and Fox News in Wisconsin; Quinnipiac University and Franklin & Marshall College in Pennsylvania; and Monmouth University in Iowa earlier this summer all showed Biden winning at least 40% of Whites without college degrees in those states and holding his deficit with Trump among that group there to about 10-15 percentage points.
By contrast, recent Monmouth polls in North Carolina and earlier this summer in Georgia; summer Quinnipiac surveys in Texas and South Carolina; and a new Dallas Morning News/University of Texas at Tyler survey in Texas each showed Biden attracting no more than 28% of Whites without college degrees in those states and trailing Trump by margins that stretched as high as 50 percentage points. (A Fox poll in North Carolina put Biden at 31% with those voters there.) Only in Florida (Quinnipiac) and Arizona (Fox) did Biden approach the 40% mark in the recent public polls with those blue-collar Whites, which he routinely reached in the Rust Belt.
Political experts offer several explanations for these huge disparities: More non-college Whites in the South are evangelical Christians, fewer have experience with labor unions and more may be receptive to Trump’s overt appeals to racial resentment. But whatever the cause, Trump’s towering margins among Southern non-college Whites, even if potentially slightly diminished from his 2016 levels, remain a huge obstacle for Democrats hoping to flip North Carolina, much less Georgia and Texas or, at some future point, South Carolina.
“In Texas and Georgia, North Carolina, the White non-college margins are like a mountain,” says Teixeira. “That’s something you always have to take into account.”
Not only this year, but through the 2020s, the Democrat prospect of overcoming those deficits with Sun Belt working-class Whites will likely depend on following the same formula that moved Colorado and Virginia reliably into their camp: benefiting from growth in the minority population while improving their performance among college-educated suburban Whites.
The most recent round of polls almost all show Biden substantially leading Trump among college-educated White voters across the key Rust Belt states; both the Quinnipiac and Franklin & Marshall surveys, for instance, showed Biden ahead with them in Pennsylvania by more than 20 percentage points. In the Sun Belt, his position with college Whites isn’t as strong or as consistent.
The latest polls show him establishing leads of around a dozen percentage points with them in Arizona and Florida, which would likely be enough to win those states, and a narrow edge in North Carolina that leaves the state at the tipping point. But in Texas and Georgia, Biden is still struggling to push much past 40% with those voters, about the same level of support O’Rourke and Abrams drew in their narrow defeats.
Another big uncertainty is whether Biden can inspire a large turnout among minorities, especially young people. That would improve the Democrats’ fortunes in both regions, but especially in the Sun Belt states where people of color dominate the new voters who turn 18 each year.
Though Biden struggled with young people during the Democratic primaries and public polls have offered contrasting pictures of their enthusiasm for the general election, a poll Baumann released last week for the advocacy group NextGen America found unexpectedly high levels of interest among young people, with Blacks and Hispanics as engaged as Whites. Among young people, because of their strong antipathy to Trump, “there is no question [Biden] is better positioned in terms of both margins and turnout than Clinton,” Baumann insists.
Biden’s own unique strengths and weaknesses reinforce these underlying regional dynamics. Polls have repeatedly raised questions about whether Biden, who also struggled with Hispanics during the primary, will match Clinton’s margins with that growing voter bloc; Trump, some in both parties believe, may be positioned to slightly improve his 2016 showing, particularly with Hispanic men. Conversely, strategists on both sides agree that Biden doesn’t alienate nearly as many Rust Belt non-college White voters as Clinton, whom many perceived as an elitist who looked down on them.
“Some of those White non-college, particularly older, voters who had moved toward Trump are coming back to Biden in the Rust Belt, which has blunted that movement which we saw moving away from Democrats,” says Baumann. “And it does certainly seem that Biden is a little weaker with Hispanics than Hillary was, which blunts his potential gains in the Sun Belt. So you put those things together and the Rust Belt still seems a little stronger.”
A Presidential race like no other
With the political foundation shifting in both regions, the range of possible results is multiplying. On Election Day in 2016, I wrote: “The risk for Hillary Clinton is that her party’s foundation in the Rust Belt is fracturing before the twin forces of diversity and rising education levels have advanced enough to provide Democrats a secure foothold in the Sun Belt.”
That’s exactly what happened to Clinton: She fell just short in the key Sun Belt battlegrounds and lost by even smaller margins in the decisive Rust Belt contests. That remains the nightmare scenario for Democrats this year: Trump mobilizes just enough non-college Whites to squeak by again in the Rust Belt, while Biden fails to energize quite enough non-Whites (and/or convert enough well-educated Whites) to flip the big Sun Belt battlegrounds.
But Trump now faces the risk of the opposite scenario. Biden could recapture the key Rust Belt battlegrounds by reeling back just enough older and non-college Whites while advancing further in white-collar suburbs and improving minority turnout even slightly. Simultaneously, the latter two dynamics could allow him to flip some of the Sun Belt battlegrounds, even if blue-collar Whites there remain overwhelmingly behind Trump. That would produce a blowout election.
Most troubling for Trump is that Biden can reach an Electoral College majority even if he breaks through on only one of these fronts.
“One of the benefits of the map that exists now is we have multiple paths to 270,” says Katie Drapcho, director of polling and research at Priorities USA. “Of the six [big swing states] we can win some of them, not win some of them, and still deny Trump a path to reelection.”
Of course, even though Biden’s position looks stronger at this point than Clinton’s, it’s worth the footnote that Democrats felt that way for most of the final weeks in 2016 as well.