October 2020

Written by:

Samir Dwesar

Samir Dwesar

Account Director

Reaching 270: Dispatches from the battleground states


The pandemic sadly meant no trip to the US to help campaign in what has proven to be one of the most exciting and unpredictable elections in our lifetime. But that didn’t stop me from speaking to voters from across key battleground states to get a feel for what’s happening on the ground, what’s driving their voting decisions and whether they think Trump or Biden will win.

What’s a “battleground” state?

The nature of America’s electoral college system means that a candidate must secure a majority (270) of the electoral college’s 538 votes in order to win the presidency. Battleground states are those which don’t have a clear Republican or Democratic lean in an election and whose electoral college votes are critical to a candidate’s path to 270. With the majority of states requiring electors to award their votes based on who won the state’s popular vote, this leaves candidates fighting for every vote in these states – which is why they are often referred to as “battlegrounds.”

Five US elections have produced presidents that were electoral college winners but not popular vote winners. Two of these elections were as recent as 2000 and 2016, which produced the two most recent Republican presidents: George W. Bush and Donald Trump.

I spoke to voters in the battlegrounds of Michigan, Pennsylvania, Ohio, North Carolina and Georgia. Trump won all of these states in 2016, but the polls put all of these states in play to flip to Democratic support. Let’s travel through them:

Michigan (16 electoral votes)
Until 2016, Michigan was one of the “Blue Wall” states won by Democrats in every presidential election since 1992. Michigan was the closest contest in 2016, with Trump defeating Hillary Clinton by a margin of 0.23% (or just 10,723 votes). Several polls suggest Biden is ahead – a view echoed by Sara, a democratic voter who lives near Detroit. As to why she thinks Biden will win Michigan, Sara pointed to the fact that Trump has been bleeding support among white suburban women that turned out for him in 2016. She also said Biden’s association with President Obama will help bring minority voters to the polls in communities like Detroit and Flint, which saw an enthusiasm gap for Clinton in 2016 that led to decreased support and turnout.

Pennsylvania (20 electoral votes)
A Blue Wall state that went for Trump by fewer than 45,000 votes in 2016, many expect Pennsylvania to be the “tipping point” state this election cycle. Biden was born in Scranton, Pennsylvania and often speaks of his connection and affinity with the state, but is it translating into votes? Democratic voter Ellie from Pittsburgh says polls are pointing to a Biden win, but she sees a mixed bag of support on the ground. She is deeply concerned about the possibility of lawsuits and votes not being counted.

Voter suppression and confusion over states’ differing mail-in ballot rules have been major issues across the country. Most election laws – such as how an election is conducted, who is eligible to vote and how mail-in voting works – are determined by state government. Dozens of election-related cases have already been sent to state and federal courts and challenges to vote counting and the validity of ballots are expected to be sent to the courts after Election Day, which could delay results.

Ohio (18 electoral votes)
No Republican candidate has ever won the presidency without winning Ohio. Trump won the state by an impressive 8.13% in 2016, but recent polls have suggested the race is neck and neck. James, a 63-year-old city official from Northeast Ohio and registered Republican, early voted for a third party candidate in 2016 and did the same this year. Dissatisfied by Trump and Biden, James questioned whether these two are really the best America can do, pointing to Trump’s personality and handling of Covid-19 as well as Biden’s age and support for larger government and higher taxes. In his Republican-leaning area, James said the yard signs are about 50/50, but said many are not putting out signs or are even lying about their voting attentions.

As someone who voted against both candidates, James was clear about his hopes for a Trump or Biden presidency. He said if Trump wins, he hopes Trump becomes more human and restores America as a model example for the world. James says Biden will have a lot of work to do and hopes to see bipartisan efforts to bring the country together again after four years of division.

Karen, a lifelong Ohio Republican feels that both parties have changed over the years but says her decision to support Republican candidates this year is purely policy-driven and not about personalities. The economy is Karen’s top driver and like many of the Democrats I’ve spoken to, she laments the division and viciousness that exists both locally and nationally. And like James, she said many people aren’t talking about their political views to mitigate risking relationships. She hopes either a Trump or Biden presidency will show an ability and willingness to work for a common good and compromise, and fears civil unrest and policies that are too extreme in either direction.

But will Ohio flip blue? Karen doesn’t trust the polls but said, whilst the state has a history of voting Republican, it might be different this time. For James, his gut tells him Trump will win the state of Ohio, but Biden will win over the country.

North Carolina (15 electoral votes)
Carter and Ava are millennials living in Durham, North Carolina – a state which backed President Obama in 2008, but flipped back to the Republicans in 2012 and went to Trump in 2016.

Carter is a registered Independent but he is firmly behind Biden. He said he was sickened by how shamelessly Trump espouses divisive rhetoric and expressed hope that the Biden-Harris ticket will restore some dignity to the White House.

Carter cites healthcare as a key factor for his vote. He wants to see a public healthcare option, particularly being a grad student, he worries he may struggle to find a job in this uncertain economy. He said climate change is another reason why Carter feels strongly against Trump and noted that America needs a leader who is willing to use the power of science to guide policies and decisions at keeping our planet habitable.

Ava echoed Carter’s views but admitted she isn’t thrilled about Biden, waiting for the day when the President isn’t an older white male. But she was clear that America’s polarised two-party system and the issues she cares about – human rights, racial justice, reproductive rights and gun control – mean she has no choice but to vote for the Democratic nominee.

Both Carter and Ava said they rarely see Trump signs in their community, the largest metropolitan area of the state. But a 15-20 minute drive takes them through Trump country. They feel it’s too tough to gauge who will emerge victorious in their home state, but express confidence in a Biden win. Like Ellie in Pennsylvania, Ava is deeply worried about voter suppression, particularly in black communities.

Business owner Stephen, 35, lives in a rural area of North Carolina that strongly supported Trump in 2016. He is backing Trump this year and, just like Karen in Ohio, the economy is his major driver. A self-proclaimed fiscal conservative, Stephen supports the Republican Party’s stance on capitalism, smaller government and deregulation. But despite his support for Trump, he still fears continued economic downturn driven by Covid-19 and a rise in cases.

For Stephen, what he’s seeing on the ground points to a racial divide. He sees far more Trump signs in his rural area, but noted that many African-American businesses close to him have Biden signs. He has also encountered many voters who remain undecided and has spoken to some who have switched their support from Trump to Biden. Like many, his 2016 prediction casts a shadow but he still feels that Biden will win the presidency.

Georgia (16 electoral votes)
Typically considered a firmly Republican state, the fact that Georgia is even in play for Biden should be worrisome for Trump. The last Democrat to carry Georgia was Bill Clinton in 1992. But changing demographics and a considerable African-American population are driving a tight race.

James, Nadia and Renee are all 30-somethings living in Atlanta, but aren’t all on the same page politically.

James decided to cast an early vote for Trump. Despite some misgivings about his handling of the pandemic, James said Trump achieved a strong US economy before the pandemic, the lowest unemployment rate on record and placed three conservative justices on the Supreme Court. In his words, “he puts America first, which should be the first priority of anyone elected President” and once we have a vaccine, “President Trump is the right man to get our economy back on track.” James thinks the election will be close, but ultimately Trump will win Georgia and a second term. But like some of our Democrats, he thinks the election outcome could be litigated well past Election Day and ultimately end up at the Supreme Court.

Born in Brazil and raised in South Florida, Renee said the main reason driving her vote for Biden was being able to vote against Trump. She didn’t care who the Democratic nominee was – she said her vote is against “an awful human being and a detriment to our nation.” On the issues she hopes a Biden presidency will address, Renee lists campaign finance reform, climate change, criminal justice reform, changes to the Supreme Court, statehood for Washington DC and Puerto Rico, and gerrymandering.

Biden-backing Nadia fears a second Trump will bring the overturning of Roe v Wade (a landmark Supreme Court ruling on abortion rights), a slower economic recovery and an even more divided country. On why she’s voting for Biden, Nadia says: ”to help shape an America I can feel confident in, not one that leaves me in a constant state of concern for our future.”

Nadia and Renee recognise that their age, demographic and location position them to see more Biden/Harris signs, but note that sentiment shifts to Trump when travelling outside of Atlanta. Both think Biden will win regardless of the outcome in Georgia, but remain cautious after polls had Clinton winning in 2016. “I don’t want to get my hopes up like I did in 2016, only to spend the next four years devastated,” Nadia said.

What can we learn from these voters and why should you care?

Support for Trump seems to be driven by the economy rather than his personality, whereas support for Biden was driven by a variety of issues. While these voters represent a broad spectrum of views and values, they all share caution and uncertainty over who they think will win their state and ultimately take the presidency. They also point to increasing divisiveness in the US and concern over what the next four years will look like.

The upcoming US elections will be one of the most consequential elections to take place in any country in decades, with the outcome having significant repercussions around the world. Who will be the next US president will impact the UK on a range of key issues such as foreign policy, climate change and a US/UK trade deal.

To find out what the first 100 days of a Biden presidency or a second term for Trump could look like, join us on Tuesday 10 November at 4pm to hear from US strategists representing both parties.