In the aftermath of the 2016 Presidential election, observers of American politics were provided with a vast amount of new data from the results. The easy conclusion to come to was that Donald Trump had improved in areas with large amounts of white voters without college degrees, who tend to be disproportionately concentrated in competitive states in the upper Midwest. Indeed, Trump had won or vastly improved in counties that had voted strongly for Barack Obama four years earlier. For the first time since 1984, Saginaw County, Michigan voted for the Republican nominee for President. And in Sauk County, Wisconsin, Donald Trump was the first Republican to win since 1988.
On the other hand, Hillary Clinton had done exceptionally well for a Democrat in counties with high proportions of voters with college degrees. Fort Bend County, Texas voted Democratic for president for the first time since 1964. Orange County, California did so for the first time since 1936. However, voters with college degrees tended to be concentrated in noncompetitive states in the electoral college. This meant that this trade of voters with and without college degrees was mostly to the benefit of Donald Trump. The gains that Hillary Clinton did make in traditionally Republican states such as Arizona and Texas were not enough to flip them.
After years of hand-wringing over the 2016 loss, Democrats nominated former Vice President Joe Biden. Many believe he has the appeal to win over Obama-Trump voters while also making further inroads with college-educated voters. When these two factors are combined, it is possible that longstanding voting patterns at the county level could once again be upended.
Traditionally Republican counties that Joe Biden could flip
Johnson County, Kansas: Last voted Democratic in either 1932 or 1916
Depending on the source, Johnson County, outside of Kansas City, has not voted for a Democrat for president since 1932 or 1916. Either way, it stands at the top of the list for a potential flip from Republican to Democratic. Around 55 percent of the population aged 25 and older in Johnson County holds a bachelor’s degree or higher. This makes it the second-most educated county nationwide that Donald Trump carried in 2016.
Morris County, New Jersey: Last voted Democratic in 1964
This affluent north-central Jersey county was where former Governor Chris Christie got his start in electoral politics as a county freeholder. It has long been a bastion of Rockefeller Republicanism where commuters to New York City would live. However, the Trump-era Republican Party has turned these suburbanites towards the Democrats in droves. Clinton won about 46 percent, the highest percentage for a Democrat here since 1964. 54 percent of the population here has a college degree. This means there’s a decent chance that Morris’s long Republican streak may come to an end.
Tarrant, Denton and Collin Counties, Texas: Last voted Democratic in 1964
This trio of counties in the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex have been at the center of the rapid realignment in Texas’s urban areas. Tarrant was the most populous county in Texas that Donald Trump carried in 2016. Like his performance statewide, it was underwhelming compared to past Republican presidential nominees. If Biden has any chance of winning Texas, it likely means he’s winning Tarrant by a couple of points. With polls typically showing a dead heat in Texas, a flip here would not be surprising. Internal polling of Texas’s third congressional district, which contains most of nearby suburban Collin County, also in the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex, has shown Joe Biden leading by double-digits. While that lead might be inflated, it gives an idea of how Tarrant and Denton might be behaving.
Riley County, Kansas: Has never voted for a Democrat for President
Since George McGovern’s presidential run in 1972, small cities with colleges have been a reliable Democratic constituency. But Riley County, home to Kansas State University, has remained Republican-leaning since Kansas was admitted as a state in 1861. However, that deep-rooted Republican loyalty has been waning in the past few cycles. Donald Trump only carried Riley by three percent in 2016 with a 46 percent plurality. One potential upside for Trump here is that not all from Kansas State students will be voting in Riley due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Nevertheless, 2020 might be the best shot Democrats have had at carrying the county.
Frederick County, Maryland: Last voted Democratic in 1964
Once referred to colloquially as “Fredneck” by Marylanders from more Democratic areas, Frederick County is starting to look much different than it did as recently as the early 2000s. In the past three presidential elections, Republicans have only won Frederick County by margins within 4 percent. With 41 percent of its population holding a bachelor’s degree or higher and roughly a quarter being non-white, 2020 could be the year Frederick finally flips, joining other increasingly Democratic Washington metropolitan counties.
Chesterfield County, Virginia: Last voted Democratic in 1948
Chesterfield was once the bedrock of Republican strength in Virginia. However, the Richmond suburbs have gotten increasingly Democratic over the last two decades as they have gotten more diverse and college-educated whites have fled the Republican Party. Located just south of Richmond, Chesterfield now has a population that that is 40 percent college-educated and over a third nonwhite. Biden is expected to win Virginia by high-single to low double-digits. This means there’s good reason to believe that Chesterfield ends its long Republican streak this cycle.
Seminole County, Florida: Last voted Democratic in 1948
As Orlando’s population has grown exponentially, so have the counties surrounding it. A Republican operative recently described the city as a “heart pumping blue blood in every direction.” Seminole County, just north of Orlando, has been teetering on the edge of flipping Democratic for the last three presidential cycles. There is good reason to think it finally does so this time. With Democrats losing ground in other parts of the state such as the panhandle and the Halifax area, Seminole would seem like the kind of place they could make up ground in. However, a Biden win in Seminole would not necessarily mean he is winning statewide; both Bill Nelson and Andrew Gillum carried it in 2018 while very narrowly losing the state.
Ada County, Idaho: Last voted Democratic in 1936
Home of the city of Boise, Ada County has grown by nearly a quarter in the last decade. There was significant third-party voting here in 2016. This was likely due to its significant Mormon population being repelled by Trump, who only received a 48 percent plurality. If Biden can run up the score in Boise proper and keep the margins down in its typically ruby-red suburbs, he has a decent chance of ending Ada’s long Republican streak.
Maricopa County, Arizona: Last voted Democratic in 1948
Usually comprising about 60 percent of Arizona’s statewide vote, Maricopa County could be the most important battleground in the country this year. It contains huge population centers such as Phoenix and Mesa. It’s hard to see how the candidate who is winning Maricopa is also losing statewide. Joe Biden has had a small but consistent lead in Arizona for a couple months now, indicating that he is likely favored to win here.
Other Traditionally Republican Counties to Watch
- Williamson County, Tennessee: Last voted Democratic in 1976
- Douglas County, Colorado: Last voted Democratic in 1964
- Hamilton and Hendricks Counties, Indiana: Last voted Democratic in 1912
- Delaware County, Ohio: Last voted Democratic in 1916
- Hunterdon County, New Jersey: Last voted Democratic in 1964
- Ozaukee and Waukesha Counties, Wisconsin: Last voted Democratic in 1964
- Carver County, Minnesota: Last voted Democratic in 1932
- St. Johns County, Florida: Last voted Democratic in 1976
These counties might appear to have the ingredients for a Democrat to win them, such as high college education. However, they have remained significantly Republican-leaning due to other factors. In most of these, a Biden win would be shocking. However, the margins this year compared to past years could prove to be interesting.
Traditionally Democratic Counties that Donald Trump could flip
As of this writing, the polls indicate that Joe Biden is likely to improve on Hillary Clinton’s performance across the board. But if Donald Trump is winning again, it likely means he is doing even better among non-college white voters than he did in 2016. Here are a few outstanding Democratic counties that Trump could win.
Carlton County, Minnesota: Last voted Republican in 1928
Like many counties in Minnesota’s Iron Range region, Carlton has seen a dramatic shift away from its Democratic roots as the party has embraced environmentalism. Donald Trump came within 300 votes of winning Carlton County in 2016, the closest a Republican has come since 1928. Furthermore, Republican Rep. Pete Stauber, who represents the area, is only facing token opposition in his re-election, and could carry Carlton.
Deer Lodge County, Montana: Last voted Republican in 1924
Barack Obama won this small county nearly two to one in 2012, but Hillary Clinton only held onto it by seven points in 2016. Democrats might have reason to be optimistic about rebounding here though, as they have since been winning Deer Lodge by Obama-esque margins.
Portage County, Wisconsin: Last voted Republican in 1956
Over the past century, Wisconsin has gone through periods of Republican dominance. Portage County though, has stayed reliably Democratic for nearly that whole time, only bucking the party four times since 1912. Then, 2016 came and Hillary Clinton only won it narrowly. While Democrats do have somewhat of a cushion here with 32 percent of the population holding a bachelor’s degree or higher, Portage is also 91 percent white, making a Trump win here possible if things go right for him.
Russell County, Alabama: Last voted Republican in 1972
This majority-minority county in Alabama’s black-belt region swung hard towards Trump in 2016, likely due to decreased African-American turnout. While Clinton still won it narrowly, its margin suggests that a further slump in black turnout could leave open the possibility of a Trump win.