What Can We Learn from Bellwether Counties in Swing States?
The Trump era of politics has jumbled up the political maps of past elections. Some areas that were once Democratic swung toward Trump in 2016, while some ancestrally Republican areas flipped to support Democrats both in 2016 and even more so in the 2018 midterms.
Key bellwether counties in the swingiest states appeared during the 2016 and 2018 cycles that can help serve as a guide for 2020. Of course, bellwethers are bellwethers until they aren’t. Cable news loves to point to Vigo County, Indiana on election night coverage because Indiana is one of the first two states to close its polls and it has picked the winner of every presidential race since 1956. However, given demographic trends, it wouldn’t be surprising to see Vigo County pick Trump again in 2020 while Biden wins the country. Individual bellwethers aren’t set in stone, but a combined grouping of them can be helpful if coalitions seem likely to remain relatively stable across a handful of cycles.
Looking across these past two cycles, there are only three states that have consistently split their tickets at the statewide level on the same ballot—the ultimate indication that even in this super-partisan age, voters in those places are willing to support either party, or even pull the lever for both simultaneously. In each of these states—Arizona, Iowa, and North Carolina—voters have elected at least three candidates from both parties at the statewide level in the past two cycles.
Then of course there are the three “Blue Wall” states of Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin that favored Republicans, including Donald Trump, in 2016 before swinging back hard to Democrats in 2018 as they swept every statewide contest in the three states that year. These six states are critical presidential swing states that will determine the next President. And layering their political importance, Democrats probably need to win at least three of the four states holding Senate seats to win the chamber in 2020 (Pennsylvania and Wisconsin aren’t conducting Senate elections this year).
Across these six states, we took a look at which counties swung the most between parties in these two cycles to determine which could serve as bellwethers for who might win statewide in 2020 at both the Senate and presidential levels. These counties might serve as the best indication leading up to November, and even on election night, to reveal whether a state is going to tip toward one party or the other, and whether it might split its statewide winner across multiple parties, a phenomenon that is occurring less and less elsewhere across the country.
What we found is that there is indeed at least one bellwether county in each of these swing states, and more often than not, suburban areas tend to be the most predictive and impactful. About half of these bellwether counties are either mostly suburban or is an urban county with heavy suburban influence. This distinction is a bit hard because the Census Bureau only describes areas as urban or rural which means one must make a judgment call on what suburban means. We are going to describe suburban as metropolitan areas that are not the core city or cities. Because these suburban areas tend to be more populated than others, they are not only a bellwether, but their votes add up to help pick winners. This analysis also includes some urban counties at the core of a small metro area as well as some counties that are primarily small-town or rural. Because while the suburbs might be the most impactful, these other areas are also important areas that campaigns cannot ignore.
Arizona has conducted nine partisan statewide elections in the last two cycles. In 2016, it held elections for President and U.S. Senate, and the state voted Republican for both offices. In 2018, it conducted elections for U.S. Senate, Governor, Secretary of State, Attorney General, Treasurer, Superintendent of Public Instruction, and Mine Inspector. Democrats won the contests for the Senate, Secretary of State, and Superintendent of Public Instruction, while Republicans won the positions of Governor, Attorney General, Treasurer, and Mine Inspector.
So, in this politically mixed state, which county can serve as a bellwether? Arizona only has 15 counties total. Four of them vote consistently Democratic and did so in every statewide election in this data set, including Pima County (home to Tucson). Ten of the counties voted straight-ticket Republican in every one of these statewide elections. The remaining county is Maricopa, home to Phoenix and its suburbs. Maricopa has voted for the winner in all nine recent Arizona elections. Perhaps that is unsurprising, because Maricopa contains over half of Arizona’s population, which means unlike most other bellwether counties, rather than simply a predictor it is really more of a decider since it casts such a large proportion of the state’s votes.
Maricopa county is defined by the Census as an urbanized area upwards of 80%, but in reality, it straddles a line between urban and suburban. While 37% of Maricopa residents live in Phoenix, 63% live elsewhere in the county. And those voters will likely determine the results of both the presidential and Senate elections this cycle.
Iowa has conducted eight partisan statewide elections in the last two cycles. In 2016, it held elections for President and U.S. Senate, and the state voted Republican for both offices. In 2018, it conducted statewide elections for Governor, Secretary of State, Attorney General, Auditor, Treasurer, and Secretary of Agriculture. Democrats won the contests for Attorney General, Auditor, and Treasurer, while Republicans won the positions of Governor, Secretary of State, and Secretary of Agriculture. It was truly a split decision by voters in terms of partisan results.
In this mix, where is a bellwether that might indicate where the state is headed in 2020 state? Unlike Arizona, Iowa has a whopping 99 counties. Thirteen of them have voted for the winner of all eight recent elections.
One of them is a core county of a small metropolitan area in western Iowa, which is typically more conservative than the rest of the state. It is Woodbury county, home of Sioux City. The Census defines Woodbury as a fully urbanized area.
Six of the predictors are suburban counties surrounding Democratic urban counties. Dallas, Marshall, Jasper, and Boone counties surround the greater Des Moines, Iowa metropolitan area. The Census Bureau describes Dallas county as over 50% urbanized, Boone as under 20% urbanized, and the other two as having no urbanized population. It should be noted that Marshall county is technically its own micropolitan area rather than officially part of the Des Moines-Ames metropolitan areas, but Marshall borders two counties in that cluster (Story and Jasper). The other two suburban predictor counties are Muscatine, which is part of suburban Davenport, and Bremer, which is part of suburban Waterloo. According to the Census Bureau, neither has any urbanized areas. Typically, these six counties collectively make up about 8% of the total vote in Iowa, which means they punch slightly above their weight in the 99-county state.
The last six counties that have voted for all eight statewide winners over the past two cycles in Iowa are rural/small town counties in eastern Iowa—which has become a tossup region as the state has trended more Republican than the country altogether in the last two cycles. These six counties are Buchanan, Fayette, Jackson, Poweshiek, Tama, and Chickasaw. Unlike the suburban counties above, these six will only cast about 3.5% of Iowa’s votes in a typical election which means they have a little under half the weight of the suburban ones at deciding winners.
Michigan conducted five partisan statewide elections in 2016 and 2018: President, U.S. Senate, Governor, Secretary of State, and Attorney General. Democrats won every contest except that of President.
Michigan has 83 counties and only one of them voted for Trump and then all for Democrats in 2018. The one Trump-voting county is tiny Gogebic in the Upper Peninsula on the Wisconsin border. Gogebic has a population of about only 15,000. Gogebic is not part of any metropolitan area and the Census describes it as having no urbanized population.
Gogebic was a reliably Democratic county at the presidential level having voted Democratic in every election since 1976. However, it switched to Trump by double digits in 2016 before moving back to its Democratic roots in 2018. Of course, Joe Biden could win Michigan without Gogebic, but it could serve as a guide on how well Biden is doing among Obama-Trump voters who swung against Trump in 2018.
North Carolina is unique among these swing states because all of its relevant statewide elections occurred on the same ballot as the state voted for Donald Trump. It conducted 12 partisan statewide elections in 2016: President, U.S. Senate, Governor, Lieutenant Governor, Secretary of State, Attorney General, Auditor, Treasurer, Superintendent of Public Instruction, Commissioner of Agriculture, Commissioner of Labor, and Commissioner of Insurance. Democrats won the contests for Governor, Secretary of State, Attorney General, and Auditor, while Republicans won the contests for President, U.S. Senate, Lieutenant Governor, Treasurer, Superintendent of Public Instruction, Commissioner of Agriculture, Commissioner of Labor, and Commissioner of Insurance. Voters in North Carolina split their ticket even in this hyperpartisan year, pulling the lever to give Trump a decisive win while simultaneously ushering in a Democratic Governor and others of his party to govern the state.
Similar to Iowa, North Carolina has 100 counties. None voted for the winner in every single one of the last 12 elections. But four of them voted for at least 10 winners—with one of those four picking 11 of 12 victors. It should be noted that all four of these predictor counties were a little bit to the right of the state, so if a Democrat is winning them in November, chances are slightly higher than with a normal bellwether, that the Democrat would win statewide.
The 11-winner county is New Hanover: the core of the Wilmington metro area in the southeastern end of the state. The Census Bureau describes New Hanover as a fully urbanized area. In the only race they missed, New Hanover voters went with the Republican candidate for Auditor while the Democrat won statewide. New Hanover typically casts a little over 2% of North Carolina’s votes, punching double above its weight.
Two of the four counties that picked 10 of 12 winners are part of the Raleigh metropolitan area. (Lee and Franklin). Voters in those counties went with both the Republican candidates for Governor and Attorney General while the state voted Democratic. The Census Bureau describes Franklin as being less than 20% urbanized, while it describes Lee as having no urbanized areas. These two counties cast a little over 1% of North Carolina’s votes so they are actually only a small influence unlike most suburban bellwethers.
The last bellwether county is Jackson, which is part of western North Carolina, a region that has swung far to the right over the last decade. However, Jackson is one of the few true swing counties left in the area. Jackson voters went with the Republican candidates for Auditor and Attorney General as the state was voting Democratic in those races. The Census Bureau describes Jackson as having no urbanized areas. Jackson is probably best described as a micropolitan area with lots of rural land surrounding it. Jackson typically only casts about half of a percent of North Carolina’s votes.
Pennsylvania has conducted seven partisan statewide elections in the last two cycles. In 2016, it held elections for President, U.S. Senate, Attorney General, Auditor General, and Treasurer. In 2018, it conducted statewide elections for Governor and U.S. Senate. Republicans won the 2016 contests for President and U.S. Senate, while Democrats won the 2016 contests for Attorney General, Auditor General, and Treasurer, and swept both 2018 contests.
Pennsylvania has 67 counties, and only one picked the winner in all seven races. That honor goes to Erie, which is the core of the Erie metropolitan area. The Census describes this county as a population that is over 50% urbanized which could indicate a large suburban population around the urban core of the city of Erie.
Erie was a reliably Democratic county at the presidential level having voted for the Democratic nominee in every election from 1988 until Trump won it in 2016. However, Erie voted for three down-ballot Democrats in 2016 and was swept by Democrats in 2018—which indicates it could go against Trump in 2020.
Wisconsin has conducted seven partisan statewide elections in the last two cycles. In 2016, it held elections for President and U.S. Senate. In 2018, in conducted elections for U.S. Senate, Governor, Attorney General, Secretary of State, and Treasurer. Republicans won both 2016 contests while Democrats won all five 2018 elections.
Wisconsin has 72 counties, and only one went with the winner in all seven elections. That is Kenosha in the southeastern edge of the state. Kenosha is considered a suburb of Chicago and the Census describes Kenosha as being nearly totally urbanized as such. It will be the one to watch on election night in this crucial swing state.
When looking to see if Donald Trump will lose in 2020 and whether Democrats can win back both the Senate and the White House, these 21 counties might be the best bellwethers in the country to watch on election night to see which party will prevail. They tend to be more suburban than either urban or rural, but all three types of communities are represented in these predictive areas. And more than anywhere else in the country, they could forecast who will be sworn in to lead the country next January.