2019 has now come and gone, leaving just 10 months between us and election night as of the writing of this article, and as per tradition election enthusiasts have flooded the internet with their predictions for the presidency, coloring each of the 50 states with varying shades of red and blue. Most maps are bound to encounter some criticism, of course, sparking debate over the standing of the political lean of various states. The Milwaukee suburbs and working class vote are surely enough to push Wisconsin into the “lean R column”, right? Or, perhaps, the factory workers have been hit too hard by the trade war to even think about voting Trump into office a second time? Florida can’t possibly go blue in 2020 after electing Senator Rick Scott and Governor Ron DeSantis during the 2018 blue wave, can it? Well, we won’t know for sure until every last vote is counted, but it’s safe to say that some states are more predictable than others.
Swing states, or tossup states, are the most commonly discussed races of the election, and for good reason. Florida, for example, will cast 29 electoral votes to the winner of its highly contested election; this is one of the largest electoral rewards in the country. Nevada, New Hampshire, Wisconsin, and more recently, Arizona, will undoubtedly be endlessly talked about as “tipping point” states, and “crucial” in the pursuit of the presidency. However, there is one place in the US that has been, and is likely to remain, highly underrated in its importance. The place I’m referring to, surprisingly, is Nebraska, and more specifically its 2nd congressional district, which has been allowed to give its single electoral vote separate from the rest of the state.
Nebraska’s 2nd district is located in the easternmost portion of the state, encompassing the population-dense Omaha area, as well as a portion of suburban Sarpy County. There is a near-perfect political balance between the light-blue Douglas county, carrying much of Omaha’s Democrat-leaning urban vote, and Sarpy county, containing the right-leaning suburbs just south of Omaha. In 2016, this district voted for Republican congressman Don Bacon by a margin of only 1.2 points, while Trump won by a slightly larger margin of 2.3 points; In 2018, Bacon won this district by just 2 points. A major contributing factor to these thin margins is the fact that this district is, noticeably, extremely urban, as only about 3% of the district’s residents live in rural areas. For context, Nebraska’s 3rd congressional district in the eastern portion of the state is 51% rural in population. Of course, It’s no secret that the GOP has been struggling to maintain parts of their once-loyal suburban base, pointing to an even closer race in this district come 2020.
Now this being said, who cares? This district’s single electoral vote pales in comparison to Florida’s 29, or Wisconsin’s 10, or even New Hampshire’s 4. Well, let’s discuss a hypothetical. Upon a detailed examination of the current electoral breakdown, President Trump has 125 electoral votes locked in (MT, ID, WY, UT, AK, ND, SD, NE At Large, KS, OK, NE-1, NE-3, LA, AR, MO, MS, AL, TN, KY, IN, SC, WV), or 179 including TX and GA. His opponent, on the other hand, is likely to have at least 183 electoral votes locked in (CA, OR, WA, HI, IL, MD, DE, D.C, NJ, NY, RI, VT, CT, MA, ME-1), or 188 including NM. Assuming TX and GA vote Republican again in 2020, and NM goes blue (a very likely scenario), we are left with 171 electoral votes that have yet to be won, NE-2 being one of them. Now, let’s get a bit more speculative here, and say Trump carries Iowa, Ohio, and Maine’s 2nd district, all of which he won by at least 8 points in 2016. It wouldn’t be much of a stretch, either, for Trump to lose Colorado, Virginia, and Nevada as a result of urbanization and Republican losses in the NOVA and Denver suburbs. He lost these states by 4.9 points, 5.3 points, and 2.4 points respectively in 2016. Trump also faces tough elections in New Hampshire, Maine at large, Minnesota, Michigan, and Pennsylvania; he lost New Hampshire by less than a percentage point and Minnesota by just over a percentage point in 2016 and is polling poorly against nearly every potential opponent in the available 2020 matchups.
Trump won Pennsylvania and Michigan by very small margins in 2016, but is haunted by the looming obstacles of the highly populated deep-blue Detroit and Philadelphia areas, that may prove to be difficult to offset again in 2020. In North Carolina and Florida, Trump enjoys a more inelastic base of support (most notably Florida’s panhandle and North Carolina’s Charlotte suburbs), decent polling performance, and relatively decent margins of victory in 2016 (between 1.2 and 3.5 points), pointing to a modest chance he carries both in 2020. Wisconsin, a state Trump won by a small margin in 2016, has shown some favorable polling results for the president as of late. Debatably, among the “blue wall” states of 2016, Wisconsin is the most likely to remain in the Trump column come 2020 as a result of its large working class population and the enduring GOP strength in the Milwaukee suburbs.
Sabato’s Crystal Ball, Inside Elections, and my own HGN Forecasting all confirm the validity of our speculations, showing all of the previously mentioned states under the same columns we put them in. NV, CO, VA, MI, MN, NH, ME, and NM are all rated as at least “Tilts D”, and OH, IA, GA, and TX are all rated as at least “Tilts R”. Wisconsin and Florida are rated as “Tossup”, as well. Pennsylvania is rated as “leans D” by HGN, “Tossup” by Sabato’s Crystal Ball, and “Tilts D” by Inside Elections. North Carolina is rated “Leans R” by both Sabato’s Crystal Ball and HGN, and is rated as “Tossup” by Inside elections. In short: our electoral hypothetical we set up is very possible, and maybe even probable.
If you’ve noticed, I left Nebraska’s 2nd district out of this hypothetical (this district, for context, is currently rated as “Tossup” by nearly every forecast). Now, “what does this have to do with the importance of NE-2”, you may ask? Well, add up the current scoreboard of this hypothetical, and you get a 269 R -268 D breakdown – a breakdown that can be swayed, of course, by Nebraska’s competitive 2nd district. Its single electoral vote no longer seems so trivial, even in the face of states like Florida and Wisconsin. Now obviously, Nebraska’s 2nd district isn’t going to outweigh the importance of other swing states, but, rather, It will appear to be much more strategically significant in the race to 270. In 2016, Nebraska was visited only twice by the major candidates and received next to nothing in terms of political advertising; NE-2 also has yet to see any major activity in the current 2020 election cycle.
This hypothetical isn’t the only likely, or at the very least relatively believable scenario in which Nebraska’s 2nd district is crucial; there are at least 10 scenarios in which Nebraska’s 2nd district is absolutely necessary to push either candidate to 270, depending on which states you believe are in play. And again, this is in no way indicative that NE-2 is suddenly as important as Florida; there are many more winning combinations that require Florida than there are requiring NE-2. Rather, this piece is bringing to light the fact that NE-2 is wildly underrated as a stepping stone to the white house, and has a larger-than-expected chance to be one of the “tipping point” elections of 2020.