The Swing States Are All That Matter

The current campaigns of the remaining Democratic presidential hopefuls reflect two meta-narratives that vie for our attention and that of the candidates themselves. The first is the struggle between a centrist, incrementalist philosophy of governance epitomized by Joe Biden, and one that espouses rapid, frankly revolutionary change across a range of issues, epitomized by Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren.

The second narrative is implicit in the first, but outcome-oriented: the struggle between two competing theories of how to win the general election of 2020 and render Donald Trump a one-term president, one of which relies on fashioning a new coalition of left-leaning voters, and the other of which would appeal to the Democratic Party’s traditionally moderate base.

The moderates like to focus on this latter, outcome-oriented narrative; the progressives (as we shall call them) wave it away. Elizabeth Warren expressed this seeming indifference to political pragmatism when she one-upped the moderate congressman John Delaney in the last Democratic debate by saying “I don’t know why anyone would go to the trouble of running for president in order to tell us what we can’t do.”

It was a fine rhetorical flourish, but in fact there’s a very good reason why one might run for office with a careful eye toward what the average voter believes can and can’t be practically achieved: in order to win.

Let’s stipulate that Sanders, Warren, and the other progressive candidates are not running only for the fun of trotting out wild-eyed policy positions, and do care about beating Trump next year. But in their outrage at the injustices of American life, they seem to have convinced themselves that incremental change is no longer viable, and moderation on policy equates to playing into the hands of entrenched interests.

This leads them to a difficult political calculus, for they and their handlers have been in politics long enough to have learned that the American people are skeptical of sudden federally-driven policy change in general, and of arm-waving leftists in particular. With the arguable exception of Barack Obama, no Democrat who ran as a liberal (let alone as a socialist) has won the office in the last fifty years. What discomfort the electorate now feels about Trump stems from his own radicalism, his ham-handed break with the traditions of his office, and his disdain for (or ignorance of) the time-honored conventions of governing. Even progressives must realize that the electorate that put Trump in office is unlikely to roll the dice on the Green New Deal or Medicare for All.

So they must envision a different electorate that will be galvanized by quasi-socialist policies, one where millennials and GenX-ers vote in unprecedented droves, blacks vote in numbers not seen since Obama’s victories, white, college-educated women recant their tolerance of Trump, and white, non-college educated men return to the party of their union member fathers.

Taking the country as a whole, this hypothetical electorate might well constitute the majority of American voters in 2020. It’s almost a given that the Democratic presidential candidate will win the popular vote, as Clinton did in 2016. In fact, in the past three general elections, the Democratic candidate has averaged around 51% of the popular vote, with the Republican (including Trump) earning about 46%.[1]

But we don’t elect presidents by popular vote in this country. The Electoral College elects presidents. And given that fact, the swing states are all that matter.

Recall that under our system, the presidential candidate who wins a bare plurality of the popular vote in a given state is awarded all of that state’s Electoral College votes, effectively negating the votes for any other candidate within that state.[2] Hence a historically huge Democratic turnout in California or New York, or an outpouring of hard-core support for Trump in Kentucky or Georgia, means next to nothing in a general election, since the Electoral College votes of each of those states are, effectively, already counted based on their long record of party-line voting. But the defection or disaffection of a few thousand Democratic voters in the “Blue Wall” swing states of Wisconsin or Michigan, can mean everything (as it did in 2016).

Political analysts generally identify 14 such swing states, where, in election after presidential election, it’s uncertain which party will win the majority vote. They are listed in the box at right along with their respective number of Electoral College votes, which total 211. Winning 270 such votes wins the presidency. (This is probably an optimistic list from a Democrat’s point of view, as states like Florida and Ohio may have slipped irretrievably into the Republican column for the foreseeable future.)

What do we know about the swing states?  While their voting populaces differ in racial and ethnic makeup, degree and orientation of religious observance, degree of education, and a host of other regional differences, they have one thing in common: they are old.

Below is another list, showing which of the swing states were won by Trump in 2016 (ten out of the 14) and the percentage of registered voters in each state that are of a certain age.[3]  Study this list for a minute; I’ll wait.

Note that in eight of the swing states, voters age 65 and older make up fully a quarter or more of the voting population, and in no swing state are they less than 22% of voters. Voters age 45 and over make up a majority in every single swing state, and in five of the swing states they represent two-thirds or more of the voting populace. In all but three swing states, voters age 45 and older make up over 60% of registered voters.

What does the average age of swing state voters tell us about their political leanings? The unavoidable fact is that the older you are, the more likely you are to vote for Trump. In 2016, the voters over the age of 50 represented 56% of the national electorate, and the majority of them voted for Trump, irrespective of their race, gender, region, or level of education.[4]

To be sure, there are factors other than age that are powerful predictors of voting tendencies. In the 2016 election, white non-college educated people numbered 31 percentage points higher among Republican voters than Democratic voters, but if you are white and went to college, you were more likely to have voted Democratic than Republican.[5]

But more than any other single factor, the aging of the electorate has transformed American politics. In 1980, more than half of the electorate was under the age of 45. By 2016, well over half were above that age, and this aging trend, while slowing, will continue through 2036.[6] Demographic studies of party affiliation consistently show that the percentage of the population that self-identifies as Republican grows with age, regardless of other factors like race, religion, income, or education. There is abundant scientific as well as anecdotal evidence that people become more conservative as they age, for reasons ranging from the economic (older people have more to lose than younger ones) to the psychological (we lose our sense of curiosity as we age, and find comfort in uniformity of experience and like-minded company).

Given an aging, generally conservative electorate disproportionately populating swing states, what should be the Democratic strategy for victory in 2020? Surely not to back the likes of Sanders and Warren, whose anti-capitalist rhetoric plays to the under-40 crowd, or to make radical redistributionism the theme of the party platform.

Political pundit William Galston put it bluntly in a recent editorial:

“As Democrats should have learned from 2016, the outcome of a presidential election is starkly binary, and the cost of defeat is very high. They should choose the candidate who maximizes their chance of winning.”[7]

And that means winning the aging, increasingly conservative swing states.


[1] William Galston, Here’s What’s Sure to Happen in 2020 (Wall Street Journal, Sept. 3, 2019).

[2] The exceptions are Maine and Nebraska, which allocate electoral votes by congressional district.

[3] As of 2018, per the U.S. Census Bureau.

[4] Pew Research Center, An Examination of the 2016 Electorate, Based on Validated Voters (Aug. 9, 2018).

[5] Griffin, Frey, and Teixeira, States of Change: How Demographic Change is Transforming the Republican and Democratic Parties, Brookings Institute Center for American Progress (June, 2019).

[6] Ibid.

[7] Galston, What’s Sure to Happen in 2020.

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