Which State Will Be the Most Competitive in the 2020 Presidential Election?

Odds are strong the state will be from the Southern or Midwest regions

The early Democratic strategy coming out of the 2016 presidential election was to find a way to return the narrowly-decided purple states of Michigan (0.22-point Trump win), Pennsylvania (0.72 points), and Wisconsin (0.76 points) back to the blue column.

While those states remain important to Joe Biden’s road to the White House, they will not necessarily be among the most competitive races this cycle.

Biden is boasting particularly gaudy polling numbers at this stage of the campaign, with the electorate pulling several points in his favor from Hillary Clinton’s numbers in an array of previously competitive states.

As a result, Biden currently has a small to moderate advantage in the states which hosted Trump’s most narrowly decided wins in 2016 – the three aforementioned states plus Florida (1.19 points), Arizona (3.50 points), North Carolina (3.66 points), and Ohio (8.07 points).

Thus the current political center of gravity has shifted to the seventh, ninth, and 10th most competitive states won by Trump – Georgia (5.10 points), Texas (8.98 points), and Iowa (9.41 points) – where polling averages find the two presumptive nominees essentially in statistical ties.

While Democrats should hardly feel confident that their nominee will look this strong come Election Day, it does raise the question as to which state will ultimately be the most narrowly decided between Trump and Biden in November.

At this point in the campaign, it seems the true ‘toss-up’ states which could be decided by a few points for either candidate are mostly located in the Midwest or the South.

This correlates to the last generation of presidential elections during which the most closely fought states were all located in one of these two regions.

The most narrowly decided contests over the last eight cycles were located in:

  • 1992: Georgia (0.59 points)
  • 1996: Kentucky (0.96 points)
  • 2000: Florida (0.01 points)
  • 2004: Wisconsin (0.38 points)
  • 2008: Missouri (0.13 points)
  • 2012: Florida (1.07 points)
  • 2016: Michigan (0.27 points)

However, there was a fairly equal regional distribution of those states that were generally competitive races in the 2016 cycle.

Of the 17 states decided by single digits between Trump and Clinton:

  • Five were in the Midwest: Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Ohio, Iowa
  • Five were in the South: Florida, North Carolina, Georgia, Virginia, Texas
  • Four were in the West: Nevada, Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico
  • Three were in the Northeast: New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, Maine

Taking a longer historical view dating back through the last 48 elections to the dawn of the modern two-party era in 1828, only four states have hosted the closest competitive race in the nation more than twice.

Kentucky has done so five times (1896, 1900, 1920, 1952, 1996), California four times (1868, 1880, 1892, 1912), Maryland four times (1828, 1832, 1872, 1904), and Missouri four times (1908, 1956, 1968, 2008).

Connecticut (1888, 1932), Florida (2000, 2012), Michigan (1940, 2016), Minnesota (1972, 1984), New Hampshire (1916, 1936), New York (1864, 1884), and Ohio (1944, 1948) have each done so twice.

Twenty-two states have not yet had such an honor during this 188-year span: Alaska, Arkansas, Colorado, Idaho, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Maine, Mississippi, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, New Mexico, North Carolina, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Texas, Utah, Vermont, West Virginia, and Wyoming.

Of those states only Iowa, North Carolina, and Texas currently appear to have a chance to get on that scoreboard during the 2020 cycle.

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2 Comments on "Which State Will Be the Most Competitive in the 2020 Presidential Election?"

  1. 1. MI going R in 2016 – by a 47.5% to 47.27% – seems as flukish as IN going D in 2008. Indeed, it is highly unlikely that the Wolverine State will join OH (1944 and 1948) as the “closest competitive” venue of the now-51 discrete contests for two consecutive cycles.

    2. NH and MN were among the 6 states OVERALL that were most narrowly decided in ’16. Do their omissions in the report mean that the R ticket (Pence could easily be dumped on a whim, it ought to be noted) is not expected to carry either?

    • Dr Eric Ostermeier | July 13, 2020 at 10:07 am | Reply

      RE #1: Maryland (1828, 1832) and KY (1896, 1900) also enjoyed the back-to-back closest race distinction.

      RE #2: Correct. Under the assumption that the electorate has moved x points to the Democratic nominee, I would say that those states are (currently) out of reach for the incumbent.

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