At the margins, who controls America’s imperfect democracy could be decisive
Notoriously, Hillary Clinton never paid a campaign visit to Wisconsin in the five months between securing the Democratic nomination on 7 June 2016 and polling day, before losing the Badger State by less than 23,000 votes out of nearly three million cast. There is an element of mythology about Clinton’s Rust Belt absence. In truth, Trump didn’t spend any days there in the final month before polling day either – though he did devote five days campaigning earlier on – and he gave only slightly more in-person attention to Pennsylvania and Michigan too.
Those three states were worth 46 Electoral College votes – more than enough to tip the election – and had two important things in common: they all voted for Trump by margins of less than 1%, and they all had (and still have) a Republican-controlled state legislature. All bar Pennsylvania also have Republican governors. Add Florida to that list, which Trump won by 1.2% and where the GOP is similarly entrenched at state level, and Trump’s path to the White House is flanked not just by judicious electoral targeting but also by friendly state apparatus.
“Party-friendly state apparatus” is not a concept all that familiar to those in the UK, where elections are run according to the same rules the country over and where officials are required and expected to execute the administration of elections impartially and to a high standard. By contrast, arguments over, for example, voter suppression in Georgia, where 670,000 voter registrations were cancelled last year and where the Secretary of State – responsible for running the election – is the Republican candidate, are more routine. Within constitutional limits, states can apply their own rules as to who can vote, and how, and where and when.
As far as the 2020 presidential race goes, this is a particularly crucial round of elections. Almost three-quarters of the states elect their governors afresh next week, including all four Trump-won knife-edge states mentioned earlier, plus also New Hampshire, Minnesota, Nevada and Maine (all won by Hillary by less than 3%), and Arizona and Georgia (the other states Trump won by 5% or less). Only North Carolina (Trump, 3.7%), of these swing states doesn’t elect its governor this time.
After the 2016 experience, we should be more than a little sceptical of state-level polling and insofar as the 2020 election goes, we don’t need it: we’ll have the real results soon enough. But not yet. For now, polling is all we have. This is a summary of the average lead in the most recent polls in the gubernatorial battles in the ten states mentioned above (from RCP):
Wisconsin – Dem +1
Florida – Dem +1
Pennsylvania – Dem +21
Michigan – Dem +9
New Hampshire – Rep +9
Minnesota – Dem +7
Nevada – Rep +1
Maine – Dem +8
Arizona – Rep +13
Georgia – level
In some ways, were the Republicans to lose the House that would provide Trump with a very handy excuse for everything from not building the Wall to the deficit to Iran (the Democrats are 1/2 to win, which I think is a touch too short). He operates off hate and to do so, he needs a target. A Democrat House would provide him with one.
But against that has to be offset the risk of his party losing control of the executive machinery of some, perhaps most, of the crucial states for the 2020 presidential battle: defeats which could prove pivotal in two years’ time.
p.s. I’m grateful to @eddie2003PRT for drawing my attention to this issue and convincing me of the importance of these elections.