Democratic hopes of ousting Donald Trump in 2020 might just hinge on building a wall. No, not a border wall between Mexico and the United States, but rather an electoral wall that will block Trump—or any other Republican—from winning the White House in two years.
You will recall that grim night—Tuesday, November 8, 2016. As the presidential election results came in, a storyline emerged about Hillary Clinton’s crumbling “Blue Wall”: Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin had fallen, thus, electing Trump president.
To win back the White House, Democrats must focus on building two walls. One is the “New American Majority Wall,” which includes Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, and Virginia. The other is the “Heartland Wall,” which comprises Michigan, Minnesota, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin. If Democrats successfully erect these walls, there is no path for Trump to win the 270 electoral votes he needs to be re-elected.
The Democratic nominee—whoever it may be—begins with 182 bankable electoral votes: California, Connecticut, Delaware, the District of Columbia, Hawaii, Illinois, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, Oregon, Rhode Island, Vermont, and Washington.
The next grouping of states includes Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, and Virginia, or the “New American Majority Wall.” They make up 33 electoral votes and have become more Democratic in recent presidential elections. Obama won all four states in 2008 and 2012, as did Clinton in 2016. All of these states have growing populations of Latinos, Asians and Pacific Islanders, younger voters, and women. According to Catalist exit poll data, the Latino/AAPI/Native American share of the vote increased by a combined 12 percent from 2008 to 2016 in these states, taken together. Clinton defeated Trump in all four states as well, but by slimmer margins than Obama (in 2012) in all but Virginia. She won Nevada by just 27,202 votes and New Mexico by 65,567.
Democrats build the New American Majority Wall with a major program aimed at registering, engaging, and turning out voters of color in these states—starting now. By doing that work, Democrats move their nominee to 215 electoral votes on the path to 270.
Next comes the “Heartland Wall,” which includes Michigan, Minnesota, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin. In the seven presidential elections since 1992, Democratic presidential candidates have carried Minnesota. In six of those seven elections, they also won Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin (the one exception for each being Clinton’s loss to Trump in 2016). Why is Minnesota in this grouping if Democrats have won it seven straight times? Simply because in 2016, Trump came within 44,765 votes of capturing it—this, after Obama carried the state by nearly 300,000 votes in 2008 and by roughly 226,000 votes in 2012. With some work, the Democratic nominee should win Minnesota, but it should not be taken for granted.
Win these four states, on top of the bankable states and the “New American Majority” states, and you’ve won the White House with 271 electoral votes.
While we don’t need to re-litigate why Hillary Clinton lost Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin in 2016, Democrats do need to learn from the mistakes that were made. For Clinton, there was a clear path to victory that required her focusing on Colorado, Michigan, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and Wisconsin. Those states, along with her base states, would have gotten her to 272 electoral votes. But instead of focusing on the states they had to win, the Clinton campaign focused on states they wanted to win.
One need only look at two factors—media spending and candidate travel—to understand the misplaced priorities. Clinton didn’t need to win Florida, North Carolina, or Ohio; yet, according to CMAG, which monitors media spending, her campaign and allied super PACs spent nearly $140 million on broadcast advertising in those states between the Democratic National Convention in July and Election Day. By contrast, the campaign and its allies spent just $6 million over the same period in Michigan and Wisconsin—two states they desperately needed to carry. That means they spent 23 times more on advertising in states that weren’t necessary to win than they did in must-win states.
Clinton lost Wisconsin by just 22,748 votes, and it has been well documented that she didn’t visit the state once during the general election. (She ended up with 38,000 fewer votes in Milwaukee than Obama received in 2012.) Clinton held an election eve rally in front of Philadelphia City Hall, but after August, she never set foot in the parts of the city where she had to boost turnout—North Philly and West Philly—to signal to voters of color that she needed their votes. She never visited a union hall in the Monongahela Valley or in the Lehigh Valley in Pennsylvania, or a UAW hall or auto plant in Michigan. When President Obama visited the state to stump for Clinton on the eve of the election, the campaign sent him to Ann Arbor instead of Detroit.
Perhaps what gets overlooked the most when accounting for Clinton’s loss in these states is the importance of union voters. According to the exit polls across the Heartland Wall states, Clinton’s performance among union-household voters was the lowest recorded by a Democratic presidential candidate in decades. In those states, labor unions represent between 18 percent and 25 percent of the electorate, and there are hundreds of thousands more working-class voters who are former union members or from union families and who still relate to unions. Turning out the union vote and making the issues that impact workers central to the campaign has to be part of the equation if you want to win these states.
Still, let’s be clear: with the proper campaign focus, these four states are eminently winnable in 2020. Since 2016, Democrats up and down the ballot have proven that when you have an energized base and candidates who are willing to engage their electorate, amazing things can happen.
In the 2018 election, Democratic U.S. House candidates won over a million more votes than Republicans in the four Heartland states, and Democrats swept the governors’ races in each of them by scoring 1.5 million more votes than the Republicans did. There were 27 Obama-Trump counties in these four states that came back to support the Democratic candidate for governor in 2018.
Let us also not forget the Democrats’ secret weapon to carry them over the finish line: women—especially black women. Exit polling showedwomen supported Democrats in 2018 by nearly 20 points; in particular, black women voted Democratic by a whopping 92 percent to 7 percent margin. According to Catalist, performance among Democratic candidates for governor in 2018 increased among women voters over their level of support for Clinton in 2016 by substantial margins. In Michigan women voting for the Democrat increased from 53 percent to 59 percent; in Minnesota, 52 percent to 60 percent; and in Pennsylvania, 55 percent to 64 percent.
There are potentially many more states that the Democratic nominee must contest, like Arizona, Florida, Georgia, and North Carolina. Other states, such as Maine and New Hampshire, lean Democratic but will require some work to carry. But, to hit the 270 mark, Democrats and their allies must focus like a laser beam on the four states that make up the New American Majority Wall and the four that make up the Heartland Wall. If they lock those states down, Trump cannot win.
So, right now, what should Democrats and their progressive allies do in these eight states?
1) The Democratic National Committee needs to increase funding and build its infrastructure in them. The DNC and progressives must invest in local, grassroots organizations that have or can build the capacity to register, engage, and turn out voters of color. Where there are no such organizations, they should invest in building them or providing them with resources from national organizations to jump-start voter-contact campaigns earlier than ever before.
2) Democratic and progressive donors, environmental groups, organizations that mobilize voters of color, unions, women’s organizations, and organizations that mobilize young voters need to focus on these states when making their plans and funding decisions. And remember: women voters (and candidates) led the resistance and the 2018 turnaround. They must be central to these groups’ planning.
3) Encourage the new voter-engagement organizations like Indivisible, Swing Left, Flippable, Knock Every Door, Sister District, and more, as well as the thousands of local volunteer organizations that sprang up over the past two years, to kick into high gear early in these states. They should do whatever they can to continue engaging the suburban and exurban voters who fled Trump in 2018. Keep stirring the pot.
4) Democrats lost too many union votes in 2016—but won several of them back in 2018. There should be a joint union program across the Heartland states that begins now, informing and engaging union members and the extended communities they touch with ongoing information.
5) Frame an issue agenda that connects with voters; simply focusing on Trump will not do. Running on a populist agenda that prioritizes higher wages, increased union membership, retirement security, climate change, and quality, affordable health care for all will energize voters and activists.
The path to 270 electoral votes in 2020 is clear. Democrats and their progressive allies must start building the infrastructure that will lock down these eight critical states and prevent Trump from winning re-election. Build the electoral wall now.