How Many Midwestern States Does the 2020 Democratic Nominee Need to Carry to Win the Presidency?

Democratic nominees have won the White House in every cycle since the formation of the Republican Party in which they carried at least half of the region’s states

Only six states flipped their partisan preference for president from 2012 to 2016, but four of those were in the Midwest – Iowa, Michigan, Ohio, and Wisconsin – and that was enough to propel the GOP back in control of the White House.

Over the decades, Democrats have generally not had much success in the Midwest region in presidential elections, carrying a majority of the 12 states in just seven of 41 cycles since 1856 (the first presidential election with a Republican Party nominee):

  • 1912, Woodrow Wilson (winning nine of 12 states): Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, Ohio, Wisconsin
  • 1932, Franklin Roosevelt (12): Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, Ohio, South Dakota, Wisconsin
  • 1936, Franklin Roosevelt (12): Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, Ohio, South Dakota, Wisconsin
  • 1964, Lyndon Johnson (12): Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, Ohio, South Dakota, Wisconsin
  • 1992, Bill Clinton (seven): Illinois, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Ohio, Wisconsin
  • 1996, Bill Clinton (seven): Illinois, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Ohio, Wisconsin
  • 2008, Barack Obama (seven): Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio, Wisconsin

Democratic nominees also won the White House during both cycles in which they split the Midwestern states evenly against their Republican opponent with each carrying six states:

  • 1948, Harry Truman: Illinois, Iowa, Minnesota, Missouri, Ohio, Wisconsin
  • 2012, Barack Obama: Illinois, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio, Wisconsin

Holding serve and winning at least half of the states in the region has thus far been a sufficient condition for Democratic success at the ballot box, but it has certainly not been a necessary one.

Democratic nominees won the presidency whilst losing a majority of the states to the GOP in the Midwest region eight times: in 1856 (James Buchanan), 1884 (Grover Cleveland), 1892 (Cleveland), 1916 (Wilson), 1940 (Roosevelt), 1944 (Roosevelt), 1960 (John Kennedy), and 1976 (Jimmy Carter).

Electoral College vote tallies are also more instructive than simple state-by-state counts as in a few of the cycles mentioned above Democratic nominees won more Electoral College votes in the Midwest despite losing more states (in 1892, 1940, and 2000).

But with Hillary Clinton carrying only two Midwestern states in 2016 (Illinois and Minnesota) – one fewer than Michael Dukakis in 1988 – it seems improbable that Trump will be reelected if Democrats add multiple states from the region to that column.

If Democrats add two or three states to their Midwest tally that might be enough, and if they hit the magic number of six (adding Michigan, Iowa, Ohio, Wisconsin) they are assured of victory.

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3 Comments on "How Many Midwestern States Does the 2020 Democratic Nominee Need to Carry to Win the Presidency?"

  1. IA was mentioned at the end, but was omitted at the beginning of the piece (“…’three’ of those…”).

    PA, too, is sometimes considered part of the Middle West, though it is 1 of the Thirteen Original States and its greatest concentration of population is located in the Southeast region, as part of the ‘Acela Express Corridor’.

    “…add two or three (Midwest) states…” Merely luring away the 2 largest, OH and MI, would still the Ds a few votes short; indeed, of the six entire states that switched from D to R in ’16, they would need FL – with a large portion of its electorate comprised of Midwestern transplants – plus 1 other (2 more if one of those is IA) in order to assure an Electoral College victory in ’20.

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