Get more FiveThirtyEight
Presidential elections are decided at the margins, meaning how a handful of states shift from one election to the next can be enough to cast one party out of the White House and bring the other one in. This was certainly true in 2020, as Joe Biden edged out President Trump thanks to narrow victories in key swing states such as Arizona, Georgia, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin — all states Trump carried in 2016. However, it wasn’t a uniform swing. The size and scope of these shifts varied, and many may not be lasting. Some formerly blue states returned to their pre-2016 status; some once-red states lurched to the left, in some cases even voting Democratic for the first time in decades; and some competitive states didn’t shift much at all. Below, we’ve broken out how 16 battleground states voted since 2000 and what the ever-changing Electoral College map could mean going forward.
Let’s start with the much fabled “blue wall” that Biden won back. By winning Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin in addition to every state Hillary Clinton carried in 2016, Biden clinched the presidency. In fact, it looks like Wisconsin will be the tipping-point state in the Electoral College, or the state that delivered Biden the presidency, although we’re still awaiting the final vote certification in several states.
And even though these states ended up in Biden’s column, his margin of victory was pretty narrow. He won Michigan by about 3 percentage points, Pennsylvania by a little more than 1 point, and Wisconsin by less than 1 point. Granted, Trump carried each of these states by less than 1 point in 2016, but Biden’s margins were slim and it's unclear moving forward whether these states will remain blue.
Biden was able to win these three states by improving on Clinton’s margins in predominantly suburban and exurban counties around big cities like Detroit, Milwaukee and Philadelphia, where more white voters with a college degree backed the Democratic presidential ticket — a trend that was true across the country. In fact, it was thanks to gains in these types of places that Biden was able to offset Trump’s otherwise much stronger performance in rural areas, as well as Trump’s slight improvement in the city of Philadelphia proper. Case in point: Even though Biden is on track to win by a slightly larger national margin than Barack Obama in 2012, his margins in Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin were much smaller than Obama’s in 2012.
This underscores just how much these states have changed since 2008, gradually (or, in some cases, not so gradually) shifting to the right. Part of this boils down to demographics. Non-Hispanic white voters without a four-year college degree, who make up a majority of the population in these three states,1Of the population age 25 years or older. have moved sharply toward the GOP in the Trump era. And while some pre-election polling suggested these voters might not back Trump to the same extent as they did four years ago, it appears that wasn’t the case. White voters without a college degree not only stuck with Trump in 2020 — in some places, they even supported him by even greater margins.
But Biden’s victory didn’t just involve winning back historically blue turf. He also won by breaking through in two traditionally Republican states in the Sun Belt, Arizona and Georgia, which have gradually shifted blue in the Trump era.
After comfortably backing then-GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney by 9 points in 2012, Arizona shifted more than 5 points toward the Democrats in 2016 and then another 4 points in 2020 to hand Biden a slim 0.3-point win. Similarly, Georgia went for Romney by 8 points in 2012, but then shifted about 3 points toward Democrats in 2016 before moving another 5 points in 2020, which was enough for Biden to carry it by about 0.3 points. The fact these two states ended up in Biden’s win column wasn’t a total surprise, though, as the 2018 midterm elections foreshadowed Biden’s potential to carry each state. Democrats won a U.S. Senate seat in Arizona for the first time since 1988 and lost Georgia’s governorship by about 1 point.
Biden won these two states in large part by improving upon Democrats’ performance in each state’s metro area. For instance, he won Maricopa County, which includes Phoenix and usually makes up 60 percent of Arizona’s total vote share, by 2 points. He also surged in the Atlanta metro area, improving on Clinton’s margin in the 10 counties that make up the Atlanta Regional Commission by 9 points, enabling him to win Georgia. Biden was also aided by the fact that both of these states are more racially diverse than states in the Upper Midwest.
While the same forces at work in Arizona and Georgia were also a part of the story in North Carolina and Texas, these two states still ultimately remained in Trump’s column.
In both states, Biden did better in the more diverse and well-educated major metropolitan areas, but that proved insufficient. However, he still made some gains. In Texas, for instance, Biden became the first Democratic presidential candidate to carry Tarrant County (Fort Worth) since 1964, and in North Carolina, he improved on Clinton’s margins in the two most populous counties in the state, Mecklenburg (Charlotte) and Wake (Raleigh). He even carried some suburban and exurban counties that Trump won in 2016, such as Williamson County outside of Austin, Texas, and New Hanover County, North Carolina (Wilmington).
But Trump still piled up a vote haul in Texas’s extensive rural areas and mid-sized cities large enough to overcome Biden’s improvement in the state’s major metro areas. And in North Carolina, Biden lost ground in places where a large share of white voters don’t have a four-year college degree. He also did worse than Clinton in some rural North Carolina counties with large Black populations and in many heavily Latino Texas counties along the U.S.-Mexico border.
Even as southern states like Georgia, North Carolina and Texas moved to the left in this election, one nearby battleground did not: Florida.
Long regarded as a pivotal swing state, Florida was one of the few states that voted more Republican in 2020, with Trump carrying Florida by more than 3 points after winning there by just 1 point four years ago.
Part of the reason Trump was able to bolster his margin in Florida and move the state further to the right was because of his improved showing among Hispanic voters, especially Cuban Americans. Trump ultimately didn’t win urban counties like Miami-Dade, but it is where he improved the most, in part because of his increased support among Cuban American voters. (Miami-Dade is roughly one-third Cuban, and areas where Cubans were more heavily concentrated saw the biggest swings toward Trump.) Trump also improved his vote share in Osceola County, which has a large Puerto Rican population, although not by nearly as much as in Miami-Dade.
But by narrowing his deficit with Hispanic voters in addition to once again running up huge margins in more rural parts of the state, Trump managed to win a larger share of Florida’s vote than he did in 2016. As Florida — generally considered a purple state — voted more Republican for the fourth cycle in a row, five other ostensibly purple states that in the end went pretty decisively blue. Some of them featured very tight races in 2016, but the 2020 results, if anything, suggest that a couple may not really be battleground states moving forward — at least in presidential contests.
After moving away from the GOP in the Obama era, and sticking with Democrats in 2016, Colorado and Virginia went for Biden by more than 10 points in 2020, calling into question just how “swingy” they really are. At the very least, the Trump GOP appears to be a poor fit in these states, as both have relatively diverse populations — Colorado’s population is about one-fifth Hispanic and Virginia’s is about one-fifth Black — and their white residents are more likely to hold a four-year college degree than those in any other battleground state. What’s more, the big metropolitan areas in each state have also moved sharply toward the Democrats in recent years, with the Denver area and Washington, D.C., suburbs in northern Virginia becoming deep blue.
As for the three other states that narrowly went for Clinton in 2016 — Maine, Minnesota and New Hampshire — we might not want to revoke their purple-state status just yet. However, they did return to roughly where they were pre-2016, backing Biden by high, single-digit margins. Yes, each of these states are among the more rural states — and Trump did have an advantage in the most rural parts of these states (see Maine’s 2nd Congressional District, where he won an electoral vote) — but it still wasn’t enough to overcome the margins Biden ran up in the more populous parts of these states.
One way to read Trump’s rather decisive victories in Iowa and Ohio is that those states aren’t really battlegrounds anymore, and instead may have experienced a permanent shift to the right after being quite competitive prior to 2016. Considering both states have a large share of white voters without a college degree, this makes sense, as these results speak to just how entrenched this group has become with the GOP. Biden did gain some ground in urban and suburban counties in these states, but less populous areas stuck with Trump — or even moved further to the right — keeping both states firmly in Republican hands.
Meanwhile, Biden did hold steady in Nevada, but the fact the state didn’t nudge toward the left could spell opportunity for Republicans down the road. While Nevada is far more ethnically diverse than Iowa and Ohio (its population is about 29 percent Hispanic), it’s similar to those two Midwestern states in that its white voters are far less likely to have a four-year college degree than in many other battleground states. Coupled with Trump’s slight improvement among Hispanic voters, that meant the president was able to reduce his deficit in Clark County (Las Vegas), home to almost 70 percent of the state’s vote, by about 1 point while also still winning more votes in many of the state’s rural counties. Biden’s gains in the Reno area, which has a higher share of white voters with a college degree, cancelled out shifts elsewhere in the state, but it’s possible Democrats could have trouble holding onto Nevada in the years ahead.
All in all, the shifts we witnessed in the 2020 election give us at least some clues to how the Electoral College map may look going forward. Arizona and Georgia will likely now be seen as key swing states, while Colorado, Virginia, Iowa and Ohio may no longer be in the conversation around battleground states. Meanwhile, Florida’s shift to the right could make it a firmer linchpin in Republican electoral strategy, as Democrats will likely turn to North Carolina and Texas in the hopes that demographic change can make them winnable in the near future. After all, as we saw in 2020, it’s small shifts that can change the outcome of an election.