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The 8 states where 2020 will be won or lost: A POLITICO deep dive

Minnesota’s Iron Range. Wisconsin’s “WOW” counties. Suburban Charlotte. The city of Philadelphia.

Each is a shorthand for the building blocks of victory in the swing states that will determine the presidential election.

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At the traditional, post-Labor Day start of the fall campaign, POLITICO is zeroing in on eight critical battlegrounds where the 2020 election will be won or lost: Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Michigan, Minnesota, North Carolina, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.

The selection of these swing states is based on a variety of factors — polling, demography, past and recent election history, voter registration, interviews with state and local party officials, strategists and pollsters. The individual campaigns have also revealed the places they are prioritizing through staffing, resource allocation, TV and radio advertising and candidate visits.

Within each of these swing states, the roadmap ahead for President Donald Trump and Joe Biden is clear. The president must max out his performance with rural voters. Biden needs a robust turnout in the big cities, particularly among African-American voters. Trump must halt his erosion in the suburbs, and turn out white working-class voters who didn’t vote in 2016. Biden has to increase his current share among Latino voters and recapture some of the places that flipped to Trump after twice voting for President Barack Obama.

Together, these eight states represent 127 electoral votes — and a departure from the fairly static map of the pre-Trump era. Missing from this swing state list are familiar presidential battlegrounds like Colorado, Ohio and Virginia. In their stead are states like Arizona and Georgia — which haven’t voted for a Democratic nominee since the 1990s — and Minnesota, which hasn’t voted for a Republican in nearly a half-century.

The contours of the 2020 map reflect the disruptive political forces unleashed by Trump. His path to victory in 2016 revealed the limits of the Obama coalition, and drew sharp lines of demarcation around what’s been called the diploma divide: the gap between white voters with a college degree and those without one.

Race, class and educational attainment have always played pivotal roles in presidential voting. But, as with everything else, Trump has accelerated and amplified existing differences — while harnessing them to his political advantage.

The question is whether his brand of smash-mouth, feed-the-base politics has gone too far — or whether there is still room to grow his base. His campaign is convinced it there is.

Still, while national polls have generated a portrait of Biden holding a commanding lead, it’s something of a mirage. In the swing states that matter, it is trench warfare: Biden’s advantage, according to the RealClearPolitics polling average, is within the margin of error in half of the eight states. And Trump is a president whose support has been notoriously difficult for pollsters to survey.

Consider this fact: From July 2016 until Election Day in the three Rust Belt states that Trump unexpectedly picked off — Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin — 94 public polls were released. Trump led in just three of them.

Here’s a look at the eight swing states that will decide the 2020 election:

arizona

electoral votes

11

recent poll

D+4

2016 vote

R+4

Migration from California, a growing Latino population, and shifting attitudes among white college-educated voters are reshaping the state’s political landscape, giving it a new status as a true battleground. And Trump’s term in the White House, both Arizona Republicans and Democrats say, is serving as an accelerant. — Laura Barrón-López

Full state profile ≫

Florida

electoral votes

29

recent poll

D+3

2016 vote

R+1

Biden has a marginal lead over Trump in polls here. Last month, for the first time in at least a decade, more Florida Democrats cast primary election ballots than Republicans. Democrats also dominated voting by mail and became competitive in several red districts where they didn’t have a prayer before. Yet for all of those promising signs, they’re haunted by the uneasy feeling that Trump will win anyway in November. — Marc Caputo

Full state profile ≫

Georgia

electoral votes

16

recent poll

R+2

2016 vote

R+5

The prospect of turning Georgia blue for the first time since 1992 is a stretch. For Biden to win the state, Democrats will need something close to a blowout win in the Atlanta suburbs and a surge in Black voter turnout. It’s a tall order, but the party took significant steps in that direction in 2018, when Stacey Abrams only narrowly lost her bid for governor in 2018, and Democrats flipped one suburban congressional seat and came close to picking up a second. — Elena Schneider

Full state profile ≫

Michigan

electoral votes

16

recent poll

D+6

2016 vote

R+0

Trump won Michigan in 2016 by a total of just 10,704 votes out of some 4.7 million cast, a lightning-in-a-bottle victory over a fatally flawed opponent. Four years later, Trump’s already-microscopic margin for error has disappeared, and his supporters in the state privately question how much longer he will contest Michigan. — Tim Alberta

Full state profile ≫

Minnesota

electoral votes

10

recent poll

D+5

2016 vote

D+2

It’s been so long since Minnesota voted Republican in a presidential election that many Democrats suspected a head fake when Trump first boasted about his intent to compete there. But two months before the general election, the race has tightened and both Trump and Biden are pouring millions of dollars into the state. — David Siders

Full state profile ≫

North Carolina

electoral votes

15

recent poll

D+1

2016 vote

R+4

Listen to analysts, candidates and operatives from both major parties in North Carolina, and what emerges is a specific image of a decisive voter. She’s white, college-educated, unaffiliated and moved to a close-in suburb of Charlotte or Raleigh in the last decade or two — and as Election Day looms, she’s still making up her mind. — Michael Kruse

Full state profile ≫

Pennslyvania

electoral votes

20

recent poll

D+5

2016 vote

R+1

Biden has beaten Trump in nearly every public poll in Pennsylvania this year. Still, almost everyone on both sides expects another squeaker like in 2016, when Trump took Pennsylvania in 2016 by an eyelash. — Holly Otterbein

Full state profile ≫

Wisconsin

electoral votes

10

recent poll

D+6

2016 vote

R+1

Republicans here admit they’re battling intense energy on the Democratic side. After a dropoff in turnout four years ago, Democrats came roaring back in the 2018 midterms and held strong in this year’s local elections. But after the searing experience of 2016, when Trump unexpectedly took Wisconsin by fewer than 23,000 votes, every expectation is that the state will be a nail-biter again in November. — Natasha Korecki

Full state profile ≫

Polling data courtesy FiveThirtyEight.


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