This article is part of a special series covering the US elections this November, which will be featured on DEBAT. It provides an in-depth, historical overview of the US electoral map and explains this in relation to this year’s expected voting patterns. DEBAT will publish an article on Monday, Wednesday and Friday until Election Day.

How the Electoral Map in the United States is changing, and what it means for this year’s election.

In the United States of America, the breakdown between red and blue states, the respective ‘camps’ of the Republicans and the Democrats, is the defining feature of American politics. Not only pundits and politicians speak in terms of red and blue, but everyday people, too. As the United States grows more polarized, so does our language and our attitudes towards those in the other camp.

But red states, blue states, and swing states alike change over time, sometimes suddenly and sometimes slowly. Why and how a state shifts to the right or to the left depends on statewide, regional, and national trends, and understanding those trends is key to understanding how the United States picks its President. It is important to remember that the US presidential election is not one election: it is 51 separate elections, with each contest earning a certain number of points for its winner. Thus, understanding America’s electoral map, how it has changed, and how it is still changing, can be a challenge. This article is an attempt to comprehensively explain the changes that have taken place in four key regions of the United States, and how those changes will affect the upcoming US election and those in the future.

To speak in the broadest of terms, Donald Trump’s unique style of conservative politics has allowed the Republicans to make inroads in white, working-class communities, while the Democrats have improved their standing in suburban America and states with large minority populations. Democrats remain dominant in cities, while Republicans reign supreme in rural areas. But these demographic trends alone do not determine the states that each party will pick up in 2020. With the COVID-19 pandemic showing no signs of letting up and the unemployment rate now at approximately 8%, it is entirely possible that this year may see a Democratic landslide, where the states trending toward the GOP (such as Michigan, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, and Ohio) flip back to the Democrats for one more election cycle, while the states trending towards Democrats (such as Texas, North Carolina, Georgia, and Arizona) make the leap early. In a democracy with 330 million inhabitants, it is difficult to make claims about where the country is headed as a single entity, so it is better to look at important regions in more detail.

The Upper Midwest and The Rust Belt

Left to right: Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio, and Pennsylvania

The states that delivered perhaps the most stinging rebuke to the Democratic Party in 2016 were those in the Upper Midwest, a region which broadly overlaps with the area known as the “Rust Belt,” The term refers to a series of geographically concentrated industrial communities that have seen their manufacturing sectors collapse over the past few decades. These communities, and the blue-collar workers who live there, were once the beating heart of the Democratic base, but the economic decline of the area has seen this group become disenchanted with the Democratic Party.


Before 2016, Wisconsin had not voted for a Republican since 1984. Needless to say, it came as a surprise when Wisconsin broke with three decades of tradition by voting for Donald Trump. This shock result was not an isolated incident: it was part of a much larger trend of white, blue-collar workers across the Upper Midwest abandoning the Democratic Party for the Republicans in astonishing numbers. Contrary to popular belief, it wasn’t just far-right conservatives who voted for Trump: 13% of Trump’s voters voted for Barack Obama in 2012.

The reasons behind this trend are complex. A large part of it is economic: as mentioned before, over the past few decades, Wisconsin, along with the rest of the Rust Belt, lost its prestige as a center of manufacturing and all the well-paying jobs that came with it. Manufacturing job losses increased dramatically during the 2008 financial crisis, and never recovered, despite the Obama Administration pouring almost one trillion dollars of public spending into a recovery plan and bailing out the automotive industry. Trump’s appeal to Wisconsin, and to the rest of the Rust Belt, was simple, if based on a falsehood: ‘I will bring those jobs back.’

Source: Federal Reserve Economic Data

It did not help that the Democrats’ appeals to keep Wisconsin in their corner seemed unimpressive. Hillary Clinton did not even visit Wisconsin during the 2016 election campaign, a fact that became an oft-cited metaphor for Democrats abandoning the region more broadly. This election cycle, the Democratic Party does not seem to be repeating that particular mistake, with the Democrats even going so far as to host their annual party conference, or convention, in Wisconsin. (Largely digitally, as a result of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.)

However, Trump has been banking on the fact that this shift was not solely based on economic anxiety, but also racial enmity. The Wisconsinite city of Kenosha became a hotspot for clashes between protesters and counter-protesters during the worldwide Black Lives Matter protests of earlier this year. Following a series of riots in the city and a mass shooting perpetrated by a far-right teenager, Trump pivoted to a “law-and-order” message in Wisconsin, attacking protesters as violent and declaring that the Democrats would allow “low-income housing to invade [suburban] neighborhoods,” Similar racist appeals played a key part in Trump’s victory in 2016, although this is less quantifiable than job losses. Current polling indicates that this “law-and-order” messaging does not seem to be working, and Democrat Joe Biden maintains a formidable lead in Wisconsin.


Michigan, too, was  a long-standing Democratic stronghold, having voted for a Democrat in every election since 1988. 2016 marked a sharp right-hand turn for the state, with Michigan voters shifting by almost 10 percentage points toward the Republicans.


Note: These figures and ones like them below are rounded up or down to the closest tenth of a percentage point.

The result was a razor-thin margin of victory for Donald Trump, who won by 10,704 votes in a state with close to 10 million people. This victory, while hardly resounding, was part of the aforementioned rightward shift across the region.

Both The Economist and FiveThirtyEight predict that Biden is on track to win Michigan this year. Trump himself seems to be feeling that way too, having recently pulled advertisements in the state to focus on Arizona, Florida and Georgia. What the future holds for Michigan beyond 2020 is less certain: Whether the Democrats can hold onto the state and the rest of the Upper Midwest throughout the decade depends on how many Obama-to-Trump voters they can win back, and whether they can get them to stay. That itself depends on what Democrats are able to offer a community still in decline.


Ohio has long-retained its status as a key battleground state. So much so, in fact, that Ohio has notably voted for the winning candidate in every single presidential election in the past 60 years. However, while the Buckeye State normally decides its elections by relatively thin margins, Ohio made a sharp right turn in 2016, delivering Donald Trump a resounding eight-point victory.


Note: These figures and ones like them below are rounded up or down to the closest tenth of a percentage point.

The implications of this sudden change are hard to know for certain: while The Economist and FiveThirtyEight both say that Ohio is a tossup this year, some pundits claim that Ohio is already a red state, and the rest of us are still catching up. Of course, whether 2016’s rightward shift is a one-time fluke, or a sign that the Buckeye State is shifting permanently into the Republican camp, is yet to be seen.


Minnesota was the one state in this region that held out for Hillary Clinton in 2016. On its face, this wasn’t particularly surprising. Minnesota has voted for a Democrat in every Presidential election since 1972. However, a look at the numbers shows a more foreboding story for the Democrats: Clinton just scraped by, winning only a plurality of votes. Her 1.5% margin was the closest that a presidential election in the state has been since 1984, an election notable for the fact that the incumbent, Ronald Reagan, won every single state in the country except for Minnesota.


Note: These figures and ones like them below are rounded up or down to the closest tenth of a percentage point.

A look at the county-by-county electoral map tells a similar story to the rest of the Upper Midwest: rural, once-industrial areas, with a population that is largely white and without university degrees, voted for Donald Trump, while urban areas (such as twin cities St. Paul and Minneanapolis) voted for Hillary Clinton.

Given Clinton’s slim margin in 2016, there has been speculation that the Republicans could make a successful play for the state this year, but Republicans’ hopes of flipping Minnesota in the 2020 election have largely been crushed in the wake of COVID-19 and Donald Trump’s subsequent collapse in the polls. But conservatives are keeping an eye on the state for the future: while the GOP looks unlikely to win the Land of 1000 Lakes come the 2020 election, a Republican victory in Minnesota may be on the cards for 2024 or beyond.


Ultimately, it is Pennsylvania that may be the most influential of all these states, due to its likelihood of being this election’s so-called “tipping point” (the state that delivers enough electoral votes for a candidate to officially secure a majority in the Electoral College.) This was the role that Pennsylvania played last year, putting a capstone on its slow shift towards the Republican Party by awarding Donald Trump its 20 electoral votes and propelling him to victory, thanks largely to his wins in rural counties and former industrial regions, places where he turned out more votes than the Democrats could muster from the cities to compensate.

The Keystone State may very well be the key to this year’s election, and as of now, the odds for 2020 look good for the Democrats. Aside from Trump’s handling of COVID-19 and the ongoing recession, the Democratic candidate, Joe Biden, has a few advantages that may be important. For one, Joe Biden is from Pennsylvania. Specifically, he is from Scranton, a well-known working-class mining city. (Despite its critics, the theory of a “home state advantage” in American politics is demonstrable. For a proper explanation, see Michael Lewis-Beck and Tom Rice’s 1983 paper in the American Journal of Political Science titled Localism in Presidential Elections: The Home State Advantage.) Biden is also notable for opposing a ban on fracking, (which provides 26,000 jobs in Pennsylvania,) despite a ban being a popular position in the Democratic Party. Polling indicates that Democrats have a considerable lead here:  The Economist gives Biden an 88% chance of winning Pennsylvania, while FiveThirtyEight gives him a slightly more conservative 87% chance.

The Southwest

Left to right: Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas.

Trends in the Southwest look good for the Democrats, but they don’t guarantee victory in either of the region’s more competitive states, Arizona and Texas, which both lean towards the Republicans in the upcoming presidential race.


There was once a time where Arizona produced the most fervent of right-wingers. Barry Goldwater, the infamous Republican presidential candidate of 1964, most notable for defending segregation on the national stage, is the most obvious example. Times have changed. The Democrats are hoping to finally seize Arizona from the Republicans in 2020, and they have reason to believe that it might work.

A few trends are working in the Democrats’ favor. The first is the growth of Phoenix and its surrounding suburbs, which make up Manitoba County. Although this area is historically Republican, Hillary Clinton vastly improved the Democrats’ standing here in the 2016 election, bringing the Democrats within two percentage points of claiming Arizona’s largest population center.

The second trend working for the Democrats is Arizona’s increasing Latino population. As a border state, Arizona has a much higher rate of Latino residents than many other states in the union, at an estimated 30.1% of the population. Latinos tend to vote for Democrats and often side with the Democrats on particular issues, (it is worth noting that this trend is not without its outliers.) However,  slightly less than a third of the state’s Latino population, and 7.9% of the state’s population as a whole  are believed to be undocumented immigrants, (it is difficult to say for sure,) and thusly cannot vote.

There is evidence that Arizona has already shifted somewhat to the Democrats’ camp: aside from the fact that most of Arizona’s congressmen and congresswomen in the House of Representatives are Democrats, the Democrats also won a statewide race for Senate in 2018, flipping a seat and electing Kyrsten Sinema as the first openly LGBT+ woman to sit in the United States Senate. Her Republican opponent, Martha McSally (who still made it to the Senate after being appointed directly by the Governor) is up for election again in 2020. However, with her Democratic opponent Mark Kelly up by six points in the polls, she is unlikely to keep the seat, meaning that Arizona stands a good chance of sending two Democrats to the Senate in 2020, win or lose the presidential election.


The biggest prize any Democrat could hope to seize in the modern era is Texas. The second-largest state in the country by population, with a worldwide reputation as the heart of American conservatism with a give-me-liberty-or-give-me-death attitude, the idea of a blue Texas is too good for the Democrats to pass up, and questions about it have been making the rounds for more than a decade.

Texas shares the same southwestern trends that have the potential to flip Arizona: first, urban centers like Austin, Houston, San Antonio, Dallas, and Fort Worth are growing. All five have seen an average population increase of 16% in the last decade, with the populations of both Fort Worth and Austin growing by more than 20%. These cities are increasingly Democratic: the counties that surround and include Austin, Dallas, Houston, and San Antonio vote for Democratic candidates by large margins, while Tarrant County (which surrounds and includes Fort Worth) has historically voted for Republicans, although Donald Trump only won 51% of the vote here in 2016.

The second reason is an increase in registered voters, especially within those cities. Almost all of Travis County, containing Austin, has been registered, with 97% of the 850,000 eligible voters in the city registered to vote.

The third is a large Latino population, especially along the border with Mexico, although the Latino population is not growing at an especially quick rate compared to the population of non-Latinos. While there are 1.4 million more Latinos in Texas than there were in 2010, they now make up a smaller share of the population than they did in 2010, (which was 38.2%.) Today, approximately every third Texan (32%) is of Latino descent.

Like Arizona, pundits and analysts can also point to Texas’ recent Senate race as evidence of its leftward shift – unlike Arizona, this race was not a victory for the Democrats, but it was incredibly close. Ted Cruz defeated Beto O’Rourke in 2018 with only 50.9% of the vote, which made the 2018 race the narrowest Senate race in Texan history since 1978.

The Southeast

Left to right and top to bottom: Arkansas, Louisiana, Kentucky, Tennessee, Mississippi, Alabama, West Virginia, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida.

The “solid south,” as it was once called during the era of pro-segregation Democratic candidates, has spent a long time on both sides of the aisle. Few “swing states” are located in this particular part of the US, which has maintained its strong conservative bend for centuries. The 21st-century Democrats have not had much luck in this region. Only Virginia (which once boasted the capital of the short-lived Confederate States of America) is a safe bet for liberals. These trends are unlikely to change significantly in 2020. Kentucky, Tennessee, Alabama, Mississippi, Arkansas, Louisiana, and West Virginia are all likely to remain red for this year and the foreseeable future. However, the South is not as red as it used to be, and some parts of Dixie are starting to look up for grabs.

North Carolina

North Carolina has long been a target for the Democrats: Since the era of Jimmy Carter, (the last Democrat to win all major southern states in 1974,) North Carolina has only been won by a Democratic candidate once, when Barack Obama was awarded the state’s 15 electoral votes in 2008.


Note: These figures and ones like them below are rounded up or down to the closest tenth of a percentage point.

A young, diverse population and massive growth in urban areas such as Raleigh and Charlotte are giving Democrats hope that this year might be a repeat of 2008, and perhaps also become indicative of a new trend in North Carolina’s voting patterns. However, there are worries among those same Democrats that the COVID-19 pandemic might hurt their chances in the state, with many university students returning home, often leaving the state to do so, and being unable to vote in person.


Georgia is part of what is known as the “Deep South,” and it has a conservative reputation to match. Nobody was expecting a Democratic victory in 2016, and few are daring to hope for one in 2020, but what is starting to become clear is that Georgia is changing. Looking back at the 2016 election, Hillary Clinton won more votes in Georgia than any Democrat had won before, and more importantly, she won the suburbs surrounding Atlanta, which have always been a GOP stronghold. Much like Texas, Georgia has also become more competitive in recent statewide elections: in the 2018 gubernatorial election, Stacey Abrams, the Democratic candidate, lost her bid for the governorship by only 1.4% of the vote, generating national buzz. Abrams later wrote In a letter to influential Democrats that the party must seize the opportunity to win Georgia in the upcoming presidential election, stating that  “any decision less than full investment in Georgia would amount to strategic malpractice.” 

While the Democrats are putting up a fight in Georgia, a Biden victory in Georgia is not particularly probable. That being said, the state is on its way to becoming a much more serious battleground, and is likely to be the recipient of even more attention in 2024.


Florida has been a long-standing swing state, and the inner workings of the state’s political culture do not always align with the rest of the country. Florida should, and perhaps will, get an article of its own to explain why the state is like it is, at least politically speaking.

Some parts of Florida are politically consistent. Some parts are less so. The panhandle, for example, (the northwest section of Florida running horizontally) consistently votes in a similar fashion to its southern brethren, such as Alabama. That is to say, quite conservatively. The southeast part of the state, with a large Latino population, tends to vote for the Democrats, but not always in large numbers, and only for centrist Democrats like Joe Biden or Hillary Clinton. Unlike much of the rest of the country’s Latino population, Latinos in southern Florida are largely of Cuban descent. They or their parents fled following the country’s socialist revolution, and tend to harbor conservative, anti-socialist sympathies. Famously, Bernie Sanders was trounced here in the 2020 primaries.

Yet, the key to this state, geographically speaking, is the area known as the I4 Corridor, a large section of Central Florida that swings from Democrats to Republicans and back again much more than other parts of the state. Some have even taken to calling Interstate 4, the highway whence the area derives its name, as  “the road to the White House.” The region consists of urban, suburban, and rural areas alike, contains 43% of Florida’s voters, straddles 19 counties, and has billions of dollars spent on it in campaigning every year. While the trends in this area are complex, to say the least, there are some patterns that are similar to the rest of the country: white voters increasingly vote for the Republicans, Latino voters generally vote for the Democrats, larger cities (such as Tampa and Orlando) vote for Democrats, while more rural areas and smaller cities vote for Republicans. The I4 Corridor also contains The Villages, a famous retiree community whose core boasts approximately 80,000 people and whose surrounding metropolitan area is the fastest-growing in the United States. The Villages swung big for Donald Trump in 2016, but a victory there for Trump is far less certain in 2020. COVID-19 has rattled the faith that America’s seniors once had in Donald Trump, particularly in Florida, and his attacks on Biden for being somewhat forgetful in his old age reportedly aren’t helping.

How Florida votes this year will impact the outcome of the election, and may even decide it. The Economist and FiveThirtyEight both predict that Biden will win the state in 2020,  but the race is still close.

New England

Top to bottom, left to right: Maine, Vermont, New Hampshire Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Rhode Island.

New England has a reputation at home and abroad of being the heartland of American liberalism. Located in the far northeast of the United States, this forested coastal region boasts some of the finest universities in the nation and the world. Harvard, MIT, Yale, Brown, Dartmouth, and Tufts are just some of the names that you might recognize. The region is also the wealthiest in the country, (although defining exactly what that means can be tricky.) Wealthy and well-educated, the region has benefited from globalization and has a large urban population, centered mostly in Massachusetts and Connecticut. One might expect this area, as perfectly as it epitomizes Thomas Piketty’s description of the ‘brahmin left,’ to be as blue as blue can be. But this is not the case everywhere.


Maine is an oddity in United States electoral politics for being one of two states that can split its votes in the electoral college to reflect how its residents voted. In Maine, if a candidate wins a majority or a plurality of the votes within one of the state’s two congressional districts, the candidate can claim one of the state’s four electoral votes. (The remaining two votes not awarded for winning a district go to the overall winner in the state.) Before 2016, this was a relatively pointless quirk, as Maine had never had to split its electoral votes, either voting entirely for Republicans or entirely for Democrats. This changed with Trump’s victory in Maine’s rural second congressional district, a largely rural area on the border with Canada. In many ways, this resembled his victories elsewhere: this area of Maine is largely white, blue-collar, and rural, all good indicators for a Republican candidate. Trump is not expected to win this area again in 2020, but may still pull off a (rather limited) upset.

New Hampshire

New Hampshire is a swing state. Even for those who follow American elections fervently, this may come as a surprise. Due to its small size, New Hampshire is rarely discussed outside of the primary season, and only then because of its early primary election, which awards it special importance.

For a long time, Republicans won in New Hampshire consistently; in fact, from the end of the Second World War all the way to 1992, only one Democratic candidate, Lyndon B. Johnson, won the state in a presidential election. After 1992, New Hampshire changed hands intermittently between Democrats and Republicans.

Fun fact: The election of 2000 was the most contentious recent US election, with weeks of uncertainty over who had won Florida’s decisive electoral votes. Yet, if Al Gore had won 7,211 more individual votes in New Hampshire, its 4 electoral votes would have carried him to victory despite Bush’s win in Florida.


Note: These figures and ones like them below are rounded up or down to the closest tenth of a percentage point.

New Hampshire’s rightward lurch in the 2016 election went unnoticed among that night’s other events, but it was significant. Hillary Clinton won New Hampshire by 0.4% of the vote, the second-smallest margin of victory in 2016 after Michigan, and the smallest in absolute terms,  with approximately 2,700 votes deciding the election. This shift may have been a fluke, but it may also be an indication that New Hampshire may be headed back to the Republican camp after a two-decade dalliance with the Democrats.

This overview should have provided the reader with a general awareness of the important trends in this year’s battleground states, as well as an understanding of how and why certain states and regions are switching allegiances. That being said, one should always keep in mind that elections are messy, and rarely go the way that analysts want or expect. If this year hasn’t made it clear enough, surprises are around every corner in the real world. Only time will tell how these trends continue to play out, and if, when, and by how much the states will shift. Until November 3rd, all the rest of us can do is watch, and wait.