May 6, 2024 - Politics & Policy
Column / Behind the Curtain

Behind the Curtain: 6% of six states

A map shows the swing states that may decide the 2024 presidential election. Nevada, Arizona, Wisconsin, Michigan, Pennsylvania, North Carolina and Georgia are highlighted in purple.
Data: Cook Political Report. Map: Axios Visuals

The titanic Biden-Trump election likely will be decided by roughly 6% of voters in just six states, top strategists in both parties tell us.

  • Each side will spend billions to reach those voters over the next six months.

Why it matters: Roughly 244 million Americans will be eligible to vote. But 99.5% of us won't be deciders: We won't vote. Or we always vote the same way. Or we live in states virtually certain to be red or blue.

Zoom in: Both campaigns are obsessed with six states — Arizona, Georgia, Michigan, Nevada, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.

  • Those were the battlegrounds disputed by Donald Trump after the 2020 election. And they're the '24 toss-ups, as rated by The Cook Political Report with Amy Walter.
  • A seventh state, North Carolina, is included in some swing-state polls. It's rated "Lean R" by Cook. The other 43 states are either "solid" or "likely" for one of the parties.

Reality check: In our private conversations, Democrats are a lot more worried about November than Republicans are. Democrats say the race is winnable. Republicans think they're winning. The swing-state map is a big reason why.

  • An April poll of swing states by Bloomberg and Morning Consult found President Biden two points ahead in Michigan, with Trump ahead or statistically tied in every other swing state.
  • Trump was ahead by a sizable 6 points across the seven states polled. (The margin of error was 1 point. The poll didn't include independent candidate Robert F. Kennedy Jr.)

Between the lines: The Trump campaign is talking to that 6% of persuadable voters when it hammers immigration, crime and inflation.

  • Biden is aiming at the 6% when he emphasizes abortion, democracy and stability — and says in response to Trump's vows for a second term: "Do you want to go back to any of that? I don't think so."

By the numbers: Biden's winning margin in the six swing states in 2020 totaled just over 300,000 votes out of 158 million cast for president nationwide.

  • The Washington Post found that the winner would have changed by flipping just over 81,000 votes in four states (Arizona, Nevada, Wisconsin and Georgia).

Zoom out: We perked up our ears when we heard a Biden insider use the "6% of six states" formulation as a proxy for how narrow a group of voters are considered truly in play — swing voters in swing states.

  • Republicans are making a similar calculation. A Trump insider told us that persuadable voters are below 10% in every battleground: "I think it's probably 6% in Wisconsin but 8% in Michigan, and lower in Arizona."

The big picture: Doug Sosnik, a senior adviser to President Clinton and widely followed election oracle, tells us the map is so narrow largely because states are tightly clustered by educational level, turning them predictably red or blue.

  • "Education now transcends race as the best predictor of voting," he told us. "People are increasingly choosing to live around others who share their values and beliefs, which has led to a homogenization of how communities vote."

Sosnik says Trump — who won in 2016 by carrying Midwest battlegrounds with large percentages of voters without a college degree — was a massive beneficiary of this great sort.

  • "Trump got in front of this line that had been forming for 15 years," Sosnik told us. "This realignment around education, with Republicans picking up working-class voters, first surfaced in the 1992 election: Pat Buchanan challenged President George H.W. Bush for the Republican nomination, and Ross Perot's third-party candidacy got nearly 20 million votes."

What we're watching: At the Republican National Committee's spring meeting in Palm Beach, Fla., over the weekend, Trump's campaign showed donors a deck arguing that Minnesota and Virginia — both of which Biden won handily in 2020 — belong on the list of states in play.

  • A top Democratic strategist dismissed that as spin. "MN is to them what FL is to us," the strategist texted. "Attractive but unwinnable."

The bottom line: Trump needs to pick off one of the Midwestern Blue Wall states he lost in 2020 (Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania).

  • Under current electoral-vote rules in Nebraska and Maine, if Biden holds the Blue Wall, he wins, Axios' Alex Thompson notes.
  • Many strategists in both parties believe Pennsylvania and its 19 electoral votes could wind up being the decisive state.

Go deeper: Sosnik memo from 2023 on education as the new fault line in U.S. politics.

  • Coming soon from Axios: A multipart tour of the unique political, economic and social conditions in each battleground state, powered by Axios Local reporters.
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