Meet the voters who hold the key
These blocs in swing states could be decisive
WASHINGTON – In 2016, Donald Trump demolished the Democrats’ vaunted blue wall in the Midwest by winning Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania by the slimmest of margins. And he flipped Florida red again after it had gone for Barack Obama in both of his runs for the White House. Then came 2018.
In last year’s midterm elections, key blocs of voters swarmed precincts in unheard-of numbers compared with recent non-presidential elections, with Democrats – especially women – scoring big victories across the country, including in the Upper Midwest. That flipped control of the U.S. House of Representatives back to Democrats for the first time since 2011.
Now the 2020 election looms large. Just like 2016 and 2018, next year’s election is likely to come down not just to the proverbial swing states themselves but the voting blocs that define them and – importantly – whether they show up at the polls.
Those include working-class voters outside Detroit and Pittsburgh. Suburban women outside Milwaukee and Philadelphia. Rural voters in northern Florida, or Pennsylvania, or Wiscon
sin. Hispanic and black voters in South Florida and southeastern Michigan. They all played pivotal roles in the last two elections, one way or another.
“It would be very hard for Trump to win reelection if he loses two of those states,” said J. Miles Coleman, associated editor of Sabato’s Crystal Ball, a political handicapping and analysis website at the University of Virginia Center for Politics. “You can’t take any of them for granted.”
Who are these voters? Reporters from around the USA TODAY Network took a look at what are considered the key voting blocs in each of the four key swing states.
Swing voters in Michigan
Trump won Michigan’s 16 electoral votes by fewer than 11,000 votes out of nearly 4.8 million cast, or about twotenths of 1%. Heading into 2020, the consensus among political handicappers is that Trump faces a tough reelection campaign there. But nothing’s a given, as both sides know well after 2016. Here are some of the key blocs of voters who will have a say in what happens in 2020:
The missing (suburban) voters from 2016
One of the biggest surprises in 2016 was how many voters declined to even cast a ballot for president: More than 75,000 Michiganders who went to the polls didn’t vote for president at all, more than double the number in 2008. Of those, nearly half – more than 35,000 voters – were from counties won by Hillary Clinton. The state hadn’t backed a Republican nominee since 1988.
Voter apathy may explain part of it, with people turned off by either Trump or Clinton, who did little outreach in the state. In 2020, expect both sides to take nothing for granted: “The get-out-thevote effort is going to be huge in 2020,” said Susy Heintz Avery, a former Michigan Republican Party chairwoman and co-director of the Michigan Political Leadership Program at Michigan State University. “Bigger than we’ve seen in a long time.”
African American voters in Detroit (and elsewhere)
Clinton did almost as well in Detroit as President Barack Obama did in 2012, winning 95% of the vote in the majority black city. But Clinton got about 47,000 fewer votes in the city than Obama did.
Amid criticism that Clinton took those predominantly Democratic votes for granted, party officials say that’s unlikely to happen again. Democrats have more than a dozen organizers on the ground in Detroit, pointing out that health care protections remain as uncertain as ever. The Trump campaign, meanwhile, is running ads in newspapers and on radio in Detroit touting the administration’s record and launching “Black Voices for Trump.”
Macomb County, the Thumb and the I-75 corridor
It’s hard to set aside the role that Macomb County, just north of Detroit, played in 2016 when it swung more than 30,000 votes from Obama in 2012 toward Trump.
While Macomb is historically known as a working-class area, it has become a somewhat more suburban county, with growing diversity and affluence. Famously independent, it retains its reputation for colorful politics and a cache of union-centric voters.
Now the question for some who voted for Trump in 2016 is whether the president can still count on their support or whether a Democrat could attract those votes. If the eventual Democratic nominee can appeal to those voters in Macomb County, it’s possible he or she can use that to woo working-class voters all over Michigan.
Swing voters in Pennsylvania
Trump won Pennsylvania’s 20 electoral votes by about 44,000 votes, or about seven-tenths of a percentage point, marking the first time since 1988 that a Republican presidential nominee won there. Some handicappers consider the state a toss-up in 2020, though his viability there may be in question after Democrats saw key gains in last year’s midterms. Still the state is close enough that few are ready to suggest the president can’t do it again.
“It will be a tough slog for him,” said Terry Madonna, a pollster and political scientist at Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster. “But I’m not ready to say he can’t win.”
Here are three voting blocs which could make the difference in Pennsylvania in 2020:
In 2016, Trump won over thousands of new voters as Republican registration efforts showed huge gains while Democratic numbers dipped slightly.
Whether those voters will remain with Trump is a key question, Madonna said. While little research is available specifically on those new voters, a poll by Franklin & Marshall in October indicated that just 37% of registered voters statewide believe Trump should be reelected. Of the 59% who want a change, four out of five say they’ll vote for whoever runs against him.
And some of those new voters from 2016 are among those considering changing horses.
Rural and blue-collar voters in Steelers Country (and elsewhere)
In 2016, Trump generally trounced Clinton among rural voters and bluecollar voters in Pennsylvania. That was especially true in Steelers Country – areas in and around Pittsburgh and southwestern Pennsylvania, where, over decades, manufacturing jobs and once vibrant industrial cities have shrunk or been virtually abandoned.
Madonna says many of those voters have begun to feel “left behind … economically and culturally.” And it wasn’t just there. Take Erie County in the northwestern part of the state, a former working-class Democratic stronghold that went for Trump. The same was true in some older industrial areas in the center and eastern parts of the state.
“Trump’s probably going to live or die politically on the economy,” Madonna said. “He will have to make the argument to blue-collar workers that he’s made things better.”
College-educated women in the suburbs
Clinton easily won the Philadelphia suburbs in 2016 thanks in large part to college-educated women, including some Republicans who rejected Trump.
Madonna expects the trend to continue. But to be decisive for Democrats, those voters may have to turn out in even larger numbers to offset Republican strength elsewhere. Trump, meanwhile, will be running on the strength of the economy.
Trump’s win in Wisconsin in 2016 came as a surprise – the state, which has 10 electoral votes, hadn’t gone for a Republican nominee since Ronald Reagan in 1984 – but some handicappers say it’s likely to favor him again in 2020.
Here are some key voting blocs that could make the difference:
The small-town vote
The Trump wave in Wisconsin three years ago was a rural, small-town phenomenon. And no region of the state epitomized that as much as the state’s Seventh Congressional District, which sprawls across Wisconsin’s northern tier. Trump won the district by 20 percentage points in 2016, compared with just 3 points for Republican nominee Mitt Romney in 2012.
A key to 2020 is whether Trump can match or exceed his 2016 outcome in the rural parts of the state. If he’s going to win, he’ll need big margins there to overcome his problem attracting votes from urban areas, especially in Milwaukee and Dane counties.
Women, college educated voters in the southeastern suburbs
For decades, the most Republican parts of Wisconsin were the suburban counties outside Milwaukee. But in 2016, Trump underperformed there.
That’s not to say Trump won’t carry most of these communities – he likely will. The question is by how much and whether it’s enough to overcome Democratic strength elsewhere. Key to that calculus will be how he performs with women and college-educated voters in places such as Waukesha and Ozaukee counties. They may be up for grabs, depending on whether the eventual Democratic nominee is acceptable to voters who may consider themselves moderate or conservatives.
African Americans in Milwaukee
After generating huge turnouts for Obama, Wisconsin’s biggest and most urban city couldn’t deliver the state and its 10 electoral votes for Clinton.
Part of the reason was a drop in African American turnout in a state Clinton failed to visit during the fall campaign. In 2020, Democrats are promising a much stronger effort to win over what is considered a key voting bloc in the state.
“I was there in 2016 watching the tumbleweeds roll down the street.
There was no activity,” U.S. Rep. Gwen Moore, D-Milwaukee, said recently to an audience in the nation’s capital. “We’re not going to ignore those people that are the foundation for the party.”
Swing voters in Florida
Political observers are predicting another tight race in 2020, though the president may be in a good position to win Florida and its 29 electoral votes again. Polling has Trump in a close race with all the leading Democratic challengers. As for his approval rating remaining below 50%, Aubrey Jewett, associate professor of political science at the University of Central Florida, says Trump “doesn’t have to be real popular. He just has to be a little more popular than the person he’s running against.”
And there is evidence Florida is leaning Republican. While Democrats made gains in other parts of the country in last year’s midterms, Florida Republicans elected a governor and flipped a U.S. Senate seat.
Here’s a look at some key voter blocs:
Tampa, its suburbs and the I-4 corridor
It’s almost a cliché that Florida’s elections are determined by a simple formula: Democrats win big in the south, Republicans win big in the north, and it all gets decided by the counties separating the two along Interstate 4 northeast from Tampa to Daytona Beach.
After a 2018 midterm election that saw Republican Ron DeSantis win the governorship and former Republican governor Rick Scott upend Democrat Sen. Bill Nelson, the region still looks as swingy as ever: A recent New York Times/Siena College poll shows Trump leading all the top Democrats, though within or near the margin of error.
Hispanic and African American voters
Democratic hopes of flipping Florida in 2020 also revolve around finding ever larger support in the state’s Hispanic and African American communities, especially in South Florida.
Democrats are counting on increasing turnout in those communities, looking toward an influx of 30,000 to 50,000 Puerto Ricans who have come to the state since Hurricane Maria devastated the island in 2017. Trump has opposed statehood for Puerto Rico, which may push some Puerto Rican voters toward the Democratic nominee.
Meanwhile, Francesca Menes, a Haitian American woman who resigned as treasurer for the Florida Democratic Party because she was unhappy with the state of Caribbean American voter outreach, warned that Democrats can’t take black immigrant communities from Haiti, Jamaica, the Bahamas and Nigeria for granted.
“One of my frustrations with the party is that they see black voters as monolithic,” she said. “It’s always the narrative that black voters will always turn out, so we don’t need to work for them.”
Retirees and rural voters across the state
Trump’s biggest strengths in Florida rest with retirees and white, rural voters. Exit polls in the state showed that white voters made up nearly two-thirds of the electorate in 2016, and he won them with 64% of the vote. Voters over 50 made up half of the electorate, and Trump won them by greater than 55% of the vote.
But some of those voters may be up for grabs in 2002.
“Will they turn out in the same levels, and will they ardently support Trump like they did last time?” Jewett asked. “If they do, Democrats are in trouble and Trump’s looking a little better in Florida.”
Poll worker Betty Hammond places an “I Voted” sticker on Bernadette Sadler, 53, in the 2018 midterm elections in Detroit.
In Milwaukee in 2016, a drop in African American turnout helped deliver Wisconsin to Republican Donald Trump.