The 10 swing state counties that tell the story of the 2020 election

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Results of this election and the changes from past elections say an enormous amount about where the country is and is going

Donald Trump and Joe Biden.
Donald Trump and Joe Biden. Photograph: Morry Gash/AFP/Getty Images
Donald Trump and Joe Biden. Photograph: Morry Gash/AFP/Getty Images

Last modified on Tue 15 Dec 2020 09.28 EST

Looking at the results of the 2020 election at the more granular level of counties and precincts, it can mostly be defined by one thing: stasis. But beneath that stasis the results of this election and the changes from previous elections say an enormous amount about where the country is and is going. The counties that swung the most mostly fall into two categories: Latino areas swinging strongly towards Trump, and white-majority suburban areas swinging towards Biden. These 10 swing state counties were crucial to the final results, and help tell the story of what happened in 2020.

Maricopa county, Arizona

Home of Phoenix and environs, Maricopa county is perhaps the most important individual county to the 2020 presidential election. The county makes up an absolute majority of the population of the swing state Arizona, and the winner of the state almost always wins the county. This year, Biden was able to flip Arizona by just over 10,000 votes, his margin coming entirely from winning Maricopa county by around 45,000. It was the first time the county had voted for the Democratic nominee for president since 1948. In many ways, Maricopa was a microcosm of the election: narrowly won by Trump in 2016 and Biden in 2020, containing urban and suburban areas, and having large communities of both college-educated white moderate voters and Latino voters. Maricopa was one of the linchpins of the Biden strategy of flipping white suburban voters – which he did just enough to win. Precinct results show Biden doing clearly better than Clinton in the white-majority suburban areas. They also show the result of Democrats’ failure to keep their margins among working-class Latino voters, especially in the seventh congressional district, which was carried by Bernie Sanders in the primary. Within Maricopa we can see the results of the trade-off Democrats made to win this election.

Hidalgo county, Texas

On the border with Mexico, Hidalgo county, centered on McAllen, is over 90% Hispanic. Working-class and with very high rates of poverty, historically solidly Democratic Hidalgo represents the center of Biden’s failures with Latino voters and working-class voters more broadly. Hidalgo swung 23 points towards Trump, destroying any hopes Democrats had of winning Texas. Hidalgo saw a 27% increase in turnout, as Trump was able to break expectations by activating low-turnout voters to his side. Young, rapidly growing and working-class, Hidalgo is exactly the type of place Democrats need to win to enact any sort of progressive agenda in the future. For many years the conventional wisdom was that turnout in places like Hidalgo would benefit Democrats, but the consequence of Democrats’ focus on flipping white suburban voters was that these new voters were ignored by the party and Trump was able to capitalize. Like most working-class Latino areas, Hidalgo voted for socialist Bernie Sanders in the primary. Going forward, Democrats need a message of class-focused populism to build a base in communities like Hidalgo and build a progressive governing majority.

Collin county, Texas

The flip side of Hidalgo county, Collin county in suburban Dallas is an example of the places that powered Biden to competitiveness in Texas and other suburb-heavy sun belt states. Collin county, like other suburbs in Texas, has long been a Republican bastion, giving enormous margins to GOP candidates up and down the ballot. George W Bush twice won Collin by over 40 points, and Mitt Romney won by over 30 in 2012. This year, however, Collin went for Trump by just four points, a 13-point swing to the Democrats from 2016. Collin and Hidalgo counties represent the twin patterns of this election: affluent white suburban areas swinging towards Democrats and working-class Latino areas swinging to Republicans.

Miami-Dade county, Florida

Miami-Dade county is fairly unique politically, but you can’t tell the story of the 2020 election without talking about it. Miami and the surrounding area are heavily influenced by the politics of the Cuban diaspora, but the county is also home to many other communities. Miami-Dade saw one of the strongest swings in the country towards Trump, from going to Clinton by 30 points to Biden by just seven. While much of this was powered by Cuban-majority areas, Biden lost ground all over the county, including Black-majority areas. The immense losses in Miami-Dade are one of the biggest swings, and biggest shocks, of the election, costing two Democratic seats in the House of Representatives and putting Florida nearly out of play. The story in Miami-Dade is that the Republicans can mobilize massive numbers of working-class people who usually don’t vote. This has scrambled the entire American political landscape, and put Democrats in a precarious position going forward.

Gwinnett county, Georgia

Gwinnett county, in suburban Atlanta, was key to Biden flipping Georgia. The suburbs were the first area of Georgia to support Republicans as the state moved from solidly Democratic to solidly Republican, and are now in the vanguard again as the state has moved back into the Democratic column. Gwinnett voted Republican every year between 1980 and 2012, voting for George W Bush by over 30 points twice. After going narrowly to Clinton in 2016, the county followed the pattern of suburban realignment more strongly than almost anywhere else in the country, voting for Biden by 18 points, a 75,000-vote margin. Winning big in places like Gwinnett was the key to Biden’s strategy for victory, and he was just able to do it.

Lackawanna county, Pennsylvania

Lackawanna county is the home of Scranton, Joe Biden’s home town, and is a longtime working-class Democratic stronghold. Lackawanna tells two stories in 2020: one of Biden doing just enough for victory and another of a permanent realignment of historic Democratic working-class areas away from the party. Lackawanna voted for Biden by eight points, a five-point swing towards native son Biden that helped push him just over the top in Pennsylvania. Biden was able to recapture enough support in north-east Pennsylvania and places like it in the midwest and north-east, combined with his increased support in the suburbs, meant that he was able to recapture the states Trump so surprisingly captured in 2016. But under the surface, the result in Lackawanna shows a long-term realignment brought about by decades of neoliberalism and declining union density and accelerated by Donald Trump. Obama was able to win Lackawanna twice by over 25 points. The 2020 result is a swing of nearly 20 points since the Obama era, despite Biden’s local connections. It is clear that many working-class regions have permanently moved away from solid Democratic status.

Chester county, Pennsylvania

Chester county, in suburban Philadelphia, is one of the GOP’s historical bastions, voting Republican every year but the landslide of 1964 until 2008. This year, Biden won Chester by 17 points and nearly 54,000 votes. Biden’s strength in the Collar counties around Philadelphia was crucial to his win in the state, and is the main thing keeping Democrats competitive since their collapse among voters in rural and post-industrial areas. Places like Chester form the heart of the new Democratic coalition, and Democrats will have to keep and improve Biden’s margins – and match his margins in down-ballot races – to put together governing coalitions in the future.

Mahoning county, Ohio

Mahoning county, home of Youngstown, is maybe the most powerful symbol of Democratic loss in the working-class midwest. After voting Democratic by enormous margins for decades, Mahoning went to Trump this year, the first time a Republican has won it since Nixon in 1972. Mahoning went for Hillary Clinton in 2016, Obama by over 25 points twice, and even Michael Dukakis by over 25 points. Biden’s shocking loss this year shows a combination of further erosion among white working-class voters and among black voters. Mahoning represents perhaps the final nail in the coffin of the class-based New Deal coalition that has shaped American politics since 1932.

Waukesha county, Wisconsin

Crucial Waukesha county, in suburban Milwaukee, has long been a bastion of Republicanism. This year, however, Biden’s strength with suburban voters closed the gap just enough for Biden to win the state. While Trump won by 21 points, the swing in Waukesha and the rest of the Milwaukee suburbs was just enough for Biden to win the state by around 20,000 votes. While the movement in suburban Milwaukee and the suburbs more broadly was enough to win the election for Biden, it was not as much as many Democrats expected.

Northampton county, North Carolina

Northampton county is a strong example of a serious problem for Democrats: erosion among black voters. These losses may indeed have cost Biden the state of North Carolina. Northampton county is 60% black, and this year went for Biden by 20 points. This was a five-point swing against the Democrats, and the smallest margin for Democrats in the county since the Republican landslide of 1972. Losses among black voters this cycle should be very worrying to Democrats.

While the results of the election mostly show stasis, within these results, there was some confounding of expectations. First, the sheer scale of Latino defections to Trump was shocking to many. On the other hand, the swing toward Biden was enough to win the election, but below the expectations of many Democrats, and these voters often split their ticket for down-ballot Republicans, costing the Democrats a chance at a governing majority. Furthermore, the stasis in rural, white areas was a surprise itself. Many of these areas swung dramatically towards Trump in 2016, and it was expected that Biden would rebound at least a bit as there was no more room to fall for Democrats. Instead, these areas mostly stayed the same or even swung to Trump a bit. The results of 2020 confirm the huge swings and coalitional realignment of 2016 are here to stay. We head into the future with a Democratic party weaker than ever among working-class voters of all races and more reliant than ever on a wealthier, whiter and more affluent coalition.

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