The five key states that could decide the US presidential election

A voter casts a ballot in the upcoming US general elections as early voting begins in Ann Arbor, Michigan on September 24, 2020.
A voter casts a ballot in the upcoming US general elections as early voting begins in Ann Arbor, Michigan on September 24, 2020. © Emily Elconin, Reuters

The US presidential election on Tuesday will likely be decided in five key states: Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin, Georgia and Florida. Democrats are hoping to avoid a repeat of 2016, when votes in just three states swung the election. FRANCE 24 takes a look at the dynamics at play in these battlegrounds.

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Republican President Donald Trump famously won the 2016 presidential election by carving out a narrow path to victory, in part by flipping the staunchly Democratic  “blue wall” states of Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania – states the Democrats thought they could count on.

In doing so he won the Electoral College despite losing the national popular vote. The US “winner takes all” system made his narrow victories in those three states decisive – of the estimated 120 million votes cast in 2016, slightly more than 100,000 decided the election.

Here is a look at five of the key states in play in the 2020 race for the White House.  

Pennsylvania

The birth state of Democratic candidate Joe Biden, Pennsylvania is the largest of the three former “blue wall” states in contention. Philadelphia and Pittsburgh tend to vote Democrat by large margins while rural areas lean heavily towards the Republicans.

Historically, Democrats have tended to edge out the GOP among the state’s White working-class voters. As was the case in many traditionally Democratic areas outside big cities, Ronald Reagan won many of these voters – the so-called “Reagan Democrats” – in his 1980 victory against Jimmy Carter and 49-state re-election landslide in 1984. His successor, George H. W. Bush, largely retained them four years later. But from Bill Clinton’s 1992 victory through Barack Obama’s 2012 re-election, the Democrats won enough of this White working-class swing vote to keep Pennsylvania in their column every time.

That changed in the 2016 election. Trump won by record figures in rural, conservative areas while flipping largely White working-class areas from the Democrats – such as Erie and Luzerne counties, both post-industrial “rust belt” areas.

If the polls are to be believed, this time is likely to be different. Biden has a 4-point lead in Pennsylvania, according to an aggregate of polls published by RealClearPolitics on Sunday. The numbers in suburban Philadelphia – the kind of upper-middle-class area that formed a crucial part of Reagan’s and Richard Nixon’s GOP coalitions – look especially bad for Trump: An NBC/Marist poll in September showed Biden leading there by a whopping 28 points.

However, some data suggests that, after erroneously predicting a Clinton victory in 2016, such polls may be misleading. When Pennsylvania voters were asked who would win the state in a Monmouth poll in July, Trump came out on top by 1 point. In the same survey, 57 percent said they thought there were “secret” Trump voters in the area.

The schedules of both campaigns in the final days of the race show they regard the state as vital. Trump held four rallies in Pennsylvania on Saturday and will return on Monday, the last day of campaigning. Biden has an event planned in Philadelphia on Sunday. The Biden campaign has said he and running mate Kamala Harris will campaign in “all four corners” of the state on Monday.

Michigan

Michigan has many of the same dynamics at play as Pennsylvania, notably seeing many White working-class Reagan supporters switching to the Democrats – putting the state in their column in every presidential election from 1992 through 2012 – until a return to the GOP helped Trump carry the state in 2016.

Again, polls suggest that Biden will once again turn the state blue: the RealClearPolitics average has him 7 points ahead. He appears to be in a stronger position with the Democratic base in Michigan than Hillary Clinton was last time: Biden beat Bernie Sanders decisively in the primary, whereas the leftist Vermont senator won a surprise victory over Clinton in 2016. An EPIC-MRA poll in June put Biden as much as 16 points ahead of Trump.

However, Democratic Congresswoman Debbie Dingle of Michigan – who warned the Clinton campaign that she was in trouble there in 2016 – told The Atlantic that the latter poll was “bullshit”. She said she was “seeing lots of Trump signs starting to pop up”. Nevertheless, Dingle has also said that Biden is in a better position than Clinton was, noting that “a lot of people took [it] to heart when Hillary used the word ‘deplorables’” to describe Trump supporters and felt that she “looked down on” them.

As in Pennsylvania, both 2020 campaign schedules have underlined the swing state’s importance. Biden held a rally there on Saturday with former president Barack Obama. Trump held a “Make America Great Again Victory Rally” in Michigan on Friday. Biden’s wife Jill and Trump’s children Eric and Tiffany all campaigned there on Thursday.

Wisconsin

In 2016 Trump became the first Republican presidential candidate to win Wisconsin since Reagan and his famous 1984 landslide victory. Again, winning over White working-class voters who had long voted Democrat was the linchpin of Trump’s success. Reflecting the situation across the United States, the Republican base is concentrated in rural areas while Democratic strongholds are urban, including Wisconsin’s biggest city Milwaukee and liberal college town and state capital Madison.    

The polls have suggested that voters in affluent suburbs surrounding major US cities appear to be ditching Trump. But some surveys suggest that the pivotal Milwaukee suburbs may be an exception, with a Marquette Law School poll published in early September putting Trump 10 points ahead. 

In 2016, Trump campaigned in Wisconsin five times after the party conventions. By contrast, Hillary Clinton did not campaign at all in the state during the same period; she subsequently described her campaign as having been “caught by surprise” there.

Overall, the RealClearPolitics average gives Biden a 6-point lead in Wisconsin. Trump and Biden both campaigned there on Friday – the most recent of several trips both candidates have made to the state this year.

Georgia

No Democrat has won Georgia in a presidential election since Bill Clinton in 1992. But the GOP’s dominance of the state has loosened: a Democratic candidate flipped Georgia’s 6th congressional district by a narrow margin in the 2018 midterm election.

Largely composed of leafy Atlanta suburbs, the 6th district is the former seat of Bill Clinton’s chief Republican antagonist, right-wing former House speaker Newt Gingrich.

Republican Brian Kemp came out ahead by just 55,000 votes in the hotly contested 2018 gubernatorial election, with critics – including his Democratic challenger Stacey Abrams – alleging voter suppression. According to data analysed by The Economist, “the number of possibly disenfranchised voters was close to 50,000”, within the official margin. Regardless, the tight result underlined the GOP’s tenuous hold on Georgia.

The number of young and minority voters in Georgia has proliferated over the past decade. “The demographics move against us,” incumbent Republican Senator David Perdue told a group of GOP activists in April.

Biden is edging out Trump by just 0.8 points in Georgia, according to the RealClearPolitics polling average. Biden travelled to the state on Tuesday, giving a speech at Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s former retreat; Trump held a rally there on Sunday.

Florida

Now the third-most-populous US state, Florida has picked the winner in every presidential election since 1996 – but its status as a bellwether really captured the world’s attention in the 2000 presidential election. The vote hung on the Sunshine State’s then 25 (now 29) electoral college votes, which went to George W. Bush after a Supreme Court ruling on the recount.

Florida’s population has boomed over past decades thanks to influxes of largely White pensioners and largely Latin American immigrants. Some two-thirds of White voters in Florida told an AP exit poll in 2016 that they voted for Trump. Trump also performed well among the state’s sizeable Cuban-American population, largely descended from exiles who fled Fidel Castro’s communist regime, winning 54 percent of their vote. Clinton won by 71 percent among Latino Floridians of other origins.

The RealClearPolitics polling average has Biden leading by 1.2 points in the state, and some surveys suggest that support for the two candidates is shifting. After Florida’s pensioners played a significant role in Trump’s 2016 victory, a Quinnipiac poll in early October put Biden 15 points ahead among those residents over 65.

Late last month a survey for Telemundo put Biden and Trump at 48 and 43 percent, respectively, among the state’s heterogeneous Latino demographic. In comparison, Clinton won 62 percent of Florida’s Hispanic vote in 2016.

“If Biden is going to flip Florida, he has to at least match Clinton’s numbers among Hispanics and that looks like it’s not going to happen,” Brad Coker, a pollster at Mason-Dixon Polling and Strategy, the firm conducting the survey, told Politico.

Trump and Biden both hosted rallies in Tampa on Friday.  

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