The results of this month’s election point toward a 2024 presidential contest that will likely be decided by a tiny sliver of voters in a rapidly shrinking list of swing states realistically within reach for either party.
With only a few exceptions, this year’s results showed each side further consolidating its hold over the states that already lean in its direction. And in 2024 that will likely leave control of the White House in the hands of a very small number of states that are themselves divided almost exactly in half between the parties – a list that looks even smaller after this month’s outcomes.
Stanley Greenberg, a veteran Democratic pollster, speaks for many strategists in both parties when he points to the enormous “continuity among the elections” since Donald Trump emerged as a national figure. “We’ve now gone through 2016, ’18, ‘20 and ‘22 – and all looked pretty much alike,” he says. “And it has locked in the coalitions.”
Looking at the Electoral College, this year’s results offered more reason for optimism to Democrats than Republicans. Five states decided the last presidential race by flipping from Trump in 2016 to Joe Biden in 2020 – Arizona, Georgia, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. Democrats have already won six of the eight Senate and governor races decided across them this month and could notch a seventh victory if Democratic Sen. Raphael Warnock defeats Herschel Walker in a Georgia run-off in December.
“Republicans can’t be happy that in the states they have to win, we won – and by not just a little bit,” says Simon Rosenberg, founder and president of NDN, a Democratic research and advocacy group, who was the most visible skeptic in either party of the “red wave” theory this year. “It’s very encouraging as we go into 2024 because we were able to stare them down and beat them … [even] with inflation being so high. And it wasn’t just their bad candidates – its far more than that.”
Still, the results also showed Republicans tightening their grip on Ohio, Iowa and Florida: though Democrats won all three in both of Barack Obama’s presidential victories, each now appears securely in the GOP’s column for 2024 (and likely beyond). And the perennial liberal hope of putting a “blue Texas” in play clearly looks like it will be deferred again after Republican Gov. Greg Abbott’s double-digit victory against an energetic and well-funded opponent (former Rep. Beto O’Rourke) squashed the limited momentum Democrats had built there in the 2018 and 2020 elections. Republicans once again beat Democrats for all of Texas’ statewide offices, continuing a shutout that stretches back to the 1990s.
These offsetting and hardening partisan strengths could, once again, provide the power to decide the White House winner to a few hundred thousand voters in a very few closely balanced states. That’s a windfall for the owners of television stations who will be deluged with television advertising in states such as Nevada, Wisconsin, Georgia and Arizona. But it’s also another reason for the prodigious stress in our fraught modern politics. Each side in an intensely polarized nation of 330 million recognizes that the overall direction of national policy now pivots on the choices of a miniscule number of people living in the tiny patches of contested political ground – white-collar suburbs of Atlanta and Phoenix, working-class Latino neighborhoods in and around Las Vegas and the mid-sized communities of the so-called BOW counties in Wisconsin.
The partitioning of the nation into distinct and intractable partisan camps is one of the defining features of modern US politics. The Democratic and Republican presidential nominees have each carried 20 states in every election since at least 2008. That means 80% of the states have voted the same way in at least the past four presidential elections – a level of consistency unmatched through the 20th century. Even during Franklin D. Roosevelt’s four consecutive presidential victories from 1932 through 1944, only about two-thirds of the states voted the same way each time.
The 20 states that Democrats have carried in each presidential election since at least 2008 will award 232 Electoral College votes in 2024; the 20 states Republicans have carried in at least the past four elections will award 155.
But that tally offers a misleading picture of the parties’ real standing. Of the 10 states that have flipped between the parties in at least one presidential race since 2008, four have not voted for a Democratic presidential nominee since Obama and have clearly tilted red in the Trump era. Those four states – Ohio, Florida, Iowa and Indiana – add another 64 Electoral College votes to the GOP tally and…