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Why presidents who win re-election typically win a state they narrowly lost the first time


In less than two months, Americans will decide who the next president of the United States is for the next four years. The race is extremely close, such that even an electoral vote one way or the other could determine whether Joe Biden heads to the White House or President Trump returns for a second term.


Trends show that Trump is developing an advantage with core groups of voters in Florida and in Pennsylvania, and Republicans still maintain an advantage in North Carolina as the state consistently votes to the right of the rest of the country. If the GOP carries Florida, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, Iowa, and Ohio, and the remainder of states that are reliably Republican like Texas, Georgia, Tennessee, excluding Arizona, the electoral count stands at 268 electoral votes for Trump and 270 for Joe Biden, allowing the former vice-president to win the electoral college.


This is largely because of two states, Maine and Nebraska, that assign electoral votes based on congressional districts rather than just the classic “winner-take-all” method used by the other 48 states. In Maine, Trump is strongly favored to win an electoral vote from the state’s inland and more conservative 2nd congressional district, as he did in 2016, even if he does not carry the entire state.


In contrast, Nebraska’s 2nd congressional district, which includes the more populated Omaha area, is more moderate than the rest of the state overall, and could theoretically go to Biden if he does well with college-educated voters in that area. If Trump were to win the district under this electoral situation, both he and Biden would be tied at 269 Electoral College votes, and Trump could win re-election in that situation.


However, there are ways that President Trump can expand his coalition so that the presidency is not completely tied to the outcome of Nebraska’s 2nd congressional district. Historically, presidents who win re-election have done so by winning a state that they narrowly lost the first time they ran for office.


President Obama has been the only president in recent history to have lost two states when he was re-elected in 2012 that he won in 2008, losing Indiana and North Carolina in the 2012 election. It’s possible that President Obama won such in such a massive landslide against John McCain in 2008 that he hit his electoral ceiling, which is not the case for President Trump in 2020.


For example, President George W. Bush narrowly carried New Hampshire in the 2000 presidential election, but was able to secure re-election in 2004 by narrowly carrying New Mexico and Iowa, while losing New Hampshire to John Kerry. For President Trump, there are three very clear options of states that he narrowly lost to Hillary Clinton in 2016: Minnesota, Nevada, and New Hampshire. The corresponding Senate race in New Hampshire was barely decided that year, by a razor-thin margin of 1,017 votes.


Analysis indicates that Nevada may be Trump’s best target of these three states to flip, as it has a lower share of college-educated voters compared to Minnesota and New Hampshire. However, Minnesota, once a reliably Democratic state, has been almost entirely moving to the right outside of the Minneapolis-St. Paul area. Like Michigan and Wisconsin in 2016, it could very easily be a “surprise state” to flip from blue to red in 2020. Rural parts of the state, including the iconic “Iron Range,” area in northwest Minnesota, a formerly Democratic region, has strongly trended away from the Democrats.


Given the closeness of the race in New Hampshire in 2016, its also very possible that New Hampshire could flip from blue to red as well. It’s also not out of the range of possibility that the Senate races in Minnesota, Michigan, and New Hampshire could also flip from blue to red, boosting GOP control of the Senate.


President Trump needs to flip only one of the three states mentioned to win the Electoral College and the White House if he holds Pennsylvania. If he narrowly loses the Keystone State, Michigan and Wisconsin together would get him over 270 electoral votes, as well as Michigan and Nevada combined.


It seems very unlikely that President Trump will win in all the same states that he won in 2016, based on history. Arizona, in particular, may end up being a traditionally GOP-held state that ends up being more favorable to the Democrats than the upper Midwest, as Trump has been running stronger in Pennsylvania and Florida than in Arizona.


This being the case, Trump must win states he did not win in 2016 to offset any potential electoral losses that he might incur in the election.



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