On election eve, POLITICO looked at a series of key battlegrounds across the electoral map, 21 places that were poised to have a significant impact on the presidential race outcome.
Whether because of population size, voting habits or election history, these were the hotspots that figured to play a disproportionate role in electing the president and they did — though not always in ways that were expected by Donald Trump or Joe Biden.
What’s clear in these places is that Trump created a tremendous amount of energy in rural America, often enough to overcome large margins against him in the more urbanized parts of many states. He also ran ahead of his 2016 performance in many cities — not nearly enough to be competitive with Biden, but notable given the low expectations for Trump among voters of color.
The architecture of Biden’s victory was more prosaic. He made modest advances over Hillary Clinton’s performance almost everywhere, including in rural America. And he capitalized on widespread dissatisfaction — or revulsion — with Trump in suburbs from coast to coast.
Here are the 21 battlegrounds revisited, with a look at the role they played in electing Biden to the White House.
1. Maricopa County, Ariz.
Prior to Election Day, the question in Arizona was whether this would be the year Maricopa County would break its 72-year streak of voting Republican. It was.
Home to the Phoenix metropolitan area and more than 60 percent of Arizona voters, it’s nearly impossible to win statewide without winning here. In 2016, Trump won Maricopa narrowly. This time around, he is losing 50-48 percent, with 98 percent of estimated votes reported.
There was more ad spending in the Phoenix media market after Labor Day than anywhere else in the nation, but that’s not what sank Trump. Biden ran 7 points ahead of Hillary Clinton’s 2016 pace in the county. More important, in a state that’s seen significant Latino population growth, Biden’s Latino turnout efforts were in full gear here — something that could not be said everywhere. In Maricopa County, according to the UCLA Latino Politics and Policy Initiative, Biden picked up over 75% of the vote in precincts with high Latino density.
2. Omaha, Neb., metro area
Nebraska is one of just two states — the other is Maine — that awards Electoral College votes by congressional district. And one of those districts, the Omaha-based 2nd, is a lot more favorably inclined toward Democrats than the rest of the state.
Biden seized the opportunity by rolling up his score in Democratic Omaha and taking advantage of Trump’s weakness in its largely Republican suburbs. His victory marked just the second time in over a half-century that Nebraska gave one of its electoral votes to a Democratic presidential nominee. The other Democrat to pull off the feat? Barack Obama in 2008.
3. Dubuque County, Iowa
Thirty-one counties in Iowa flipped to Trump in 2016 after voting twice for Obama, more than anywhere else in the nation. Every one of them stuck with the president for his reelection this year, helping to deliver the state to Trump a second time.
Dubuque County, in northeast Iowa, was the most populous among those so-called pivot counties. Here, in the most heavily Roman Catholic part of the state, Trump even expanded his score, running three percentage points ahead of his 2016 performance. Biden ran two points better than Clinton but still fell short, a reminder that there was relatively little erosion in support for Trump in the places he flipped in 2016.
4. Philadelphia and its suburbs
With the world watching the mail-in votes being counted in front of the cameras in Pennsylvania, Biden got the margins he needed out of the state’s biggest city and its suburbs.
Biden swept the four counties surrounding Philadelphia — Bucks, Chester, Delaware and Montgomery — and carried a large lead out of the state’s largest city. He appears to have fallen short of Hillary Clinton’s 2016 margin in Philadelphia, however, at least in part because of Trump’s improved performance within the city.
If you had told Democrats before Election Day that Biden would underperform Clinton by thousands of votes in Philadelphia, panic would have ensued. But in the end, it didn’t matter. Biden outpaced Clinton in each of the populous suburban counties while Trump ran about one point behind his own 2016 results. In affluent and highly educated Chester County, Biden ran nearly 6 points better than the 2016 Democratic nominee. Biden also ran slightly better than Clinton in many rural counties, which made his margin out of Philadelphia less critical.
5. Northeastern Pennsylvania
Trump needed high turnout and bigger margins in working-class places like Luzerne and Lackawanna counties, traditional Democratic population hubs of northeastern Pennsylvania that drew outsized attention from both Trump and Biden.
While both counties saw higher turnout than in 2016, Trump’s performance was static: He won essentially the same share in Luzerne and Lackawanna as four years ago. Biden, however, made incremental gains over Clinton in both counties — the same kind of small-ball he played all over the state.
Lackawanna, home to Biden’s birthplace of Scranton, gave the former vice president 54 percent, compared to 50 percent for Clinton. Biden ran three points better than Clinton in Luzerne. Still, there were limits to the effectiveness of Biden’s “Scranton Versus Park Avenue” message here — in Lackawanna County, Biden was nowhere near Obama’s 62 percent clip in 2012.
6. Erie County, Pa.
In 2016, Trump was the first Republican to carry Erie County since Ronald Reagan. Four years later, Biden appears to have pulled Erie into the Democratic fold. With 98 percent of estimated votes reported, Biden leads Trump 49.7-48.6 percent.
The first signs of discontent here surfaced in 2018, when this traditionally Democratic and industrial part of northwest Pennsylvania snapped back toward the Democratic gubernatorial and Senate nominees.
Just as in 2016, the county functioned as something of a bellwether this year. Trump’s 48 percent here in 2016 matched his statewide performance. In 2020, the results mirrored the statewide results, with Biden at 49.7 percent and Trump at 49.1 percent.
7. Miami-Dade County, Fla.
Biden had one important job: Run up the score in Miami-Dade County, where Democrats typically need to pile up a big margin to offset their losses elsewhere in the state. He failed to do that, and it cost him Florida’s 29 electoral votes.
In the run-up to Election Day, the former vice president’s weakness in the state’s most populous county was no secret. Even so, the results were still shocking. In 2016, Clinton won here in a 63-34 percent blowout. Biden managed to win by an anemic 53-46 percent.
The Trump administration’s longstanding focus on Miami’s Cuban-American community, and his campaign’s anti-socialist and law and order messaging paid dividends that reached beyond the top of the ticket — two Democratic members of Congress here also fell to defeat.
8. Orange County, Fla.
Explosive growth — among whites and those with Puerto Rican roots — have turned Orlando’s Orange County into a Democratic giant.
Turnout can be uneven, but this year, the central Florida county’s Democratic base delivered. Amid a record-breaking 75 percent turnout, Biden won 65,000 votes more than Clinton, and ran ahead of Trump by a margin of 150,000 votes. The problem? Trump also saw a surge of support relative to 2016, and ran three points ahead of his 2016 pace in Orange County. It wasn’t nearly enough for Trump to win the county, but it helped limit the damage.
9. Lee County, Fla.
To win Florida, Trump needed healthy margins in the Fort Myers-Naples media market on the state’s Gulf Coast — it’s essential for Republican statewide candidates. He got those margins in fast-growing Lee County, where he won 42,000 more votes than he did in 2016. With 60 percent of the vote or higher in Lee and nearby Charlotte and Collier counties, Trump kept on pace to win Florida for a second time.
10. Metro Atlanta
The nation got to watch Trump’s Georgia slow bleed on live television as the metro Atlanta region votes trickled in and gradually gave Biden the lead in the days after Election Day. The contest remains so close that it’s going to a recount.
In a state that hasn’t voted for a Democratic nominee since 1996, Cobb, DeKalb, Gwinnett and Atlanta’s Fulton County combined to deliver a harsh verdict on the GOP president. Together, they provided Biden with 271,000 more votes than they gave Clinton in 2016, offsetting Trump’s rural performance. In Cobb and Gwinnett, both one-time GOP strongholds, Biden ran 8 percentage points better than Clinton.
11. Tarrant County, Texas
The Democratic dream of a blue Texas did not come to pass, but Biden’s still on the verge of pulling off an eye-opening feat. With 98 percent of estimated votes reported, he leads Trump 49.3 to 49.1 percent in Fort Worth’s Tarrant County.
The third-most populous county in the state, Tarrant last voted for a Democratic presidential nominee in 1964. But GOP margins have been on the decline in the suburbs here as a result of population growth and an increasingly diverse population, paving the way for Biden’s breakthrough.
The problem for Biden Tuesday, however, was that despite wins in places like Tarrant County and in the state’s biggest cities, it still wasn’t enough to overcome the huge rural vote in a state with 254 counties.
12. Collin County, Texas
Suburban resistance to Trump was a defining feature of the election in white-collar, Sun Belt locales like this one. Together with rapid population growth and a diversifying electorate, this appeared to be the year when Democrats might finally break the GOP’s hold on Collin County.
That turned out to be wishful thinking. Here in Dallas’ northern suburbs, Biden fell short, losing 51-47 percent. His performance, however, was a dramatic improvement over 2016 — he ran 9 percentage points better than Clinton.
13. Mecklenburg and Wake counties, N.C.
Biden crushed Trump in North Carolina’s two most populous counties, Charlotte’s Mecklenburg County and affluent and highly educated Wake County in the state’s Research Triangle. Together, they gave him a 364,000-vote advantage over Trump.
It was just the kind of enhanced performance that Democrats needed from the two fast-growing counties, yet it appears it still wasn’t enough. With 98 percent of estimated votes reported, Trump leads Biden statewide 50.0-48.6 percent.
That advantage was built in rural North Carolina, where Trump produced consistent margins in the 75 counties he won. Statewide, Trump won 58 percent of the rural vote, according to exit polls.
14. Clark County, Nev.
Biden’s Nevada victory was built in Clark County, the state’s Democratic stronghold, and it was sealed there Saturday as the county’s mail-in ballots continued to bolster Biden’s position.
Home to Las Vegas, Clark County occupied the national stage in the days before and after the election due to a variety of Republican lawsuits surrounding the counting and processing of mail-in ballots. Not long after Pennsylvania was called for Biden Saturday, Nevada was also projected to go to the former vice president, in part because there weren’t enough remaining votes in rural counties — where Trump ran strongest — to overcome the mail-in ballots still to be counted in Clark County, where Biden dominated the mail-in vote.
There was some question about the effectiveness of the vaunted Democratic ground game this year — it got off to a late start due to the coronavirus. But the Biden campaign, assisted by the powerful Culinary Union, managed to deliver in the end. With 92 percent of estimated votes reported in Clark County, Biden led Trump 54-44 percent.
15. Kent County, Mich.
In a last-ditch effort to keep Michigan in the fold, Trump traveled to Grand Rapids on election eve. The visit made sense: he traveled there for his last rally of the 2016 campaign, and he ended up winning Kent County back then 48-45 percent.
This time around, Trump’s efforts fell short in the population hub of Republican west Michigan. Biden flipped the once reliably Republican county, in part because its suburbs have chafed at Trump’s style and rhetoric. Trump also ran behind his 2016 pace in populous neighboring Ottawa County.
Overall, the president managed to boost his raw vote in most parts of the state, including west Michigan. But those gains were blunted somewhat by Biden, who ran ahead of Clinton’s performance most everywhere.
16. Southeast Michigan
Against a backdrop of record-breaking statewide voter turnout, Biden blew out the doors in vote-rich metro Detroit, ensuring Trump had no path to winning Michigan a second time.
Biden won 68,000 more votes than Clinton in Detroit’s Wayne County, and 95,000 more in suburban Oakland County, where turnout hit 75 percent. Biden even made gains in Macomb County, the working-class suburb that broke hard for Trump after voting for Obama. While Trump managed to carry Macomb a second time, Biden ran three percentage points better and 50,000 votes ahead of Clinton.
Trump’s narrow 2016 victory in Michigan is frequently attributed to a drop in voter turnout in Detroit, where Clinton won about 47,000 fewer votes in the city than Obama in 2012. This time, Biden curiously won even less votes in the city than Clinton. But it made little difference relative to the margins he produced in Wayne and Oakland counties, the two most populous in the state.
17. Dane County, Wis.
Dane County, home to the University of Wisconsin and the state capital, is reliably blue. But this year, it was especially motivated to vote Democratic. Turnout in the state’s second-most populous county was a stunning 89 percent, and it voted overwhelmingly against Trump, 76-23 percent.
Combined with Milwaukee County, which also delivered a landslide for Biden, the two counties produced a 364,000-vote margin that even Trump’s considerable strength in rural Wisconsin couldn’t overcome.
Dane’s big numbers were emblematic of Biden’s performance in college counties across the country. Like Dane, many of them saw Biden run 4 to 6 percentage points ahead of Clinton, while Trump’s share remained flat in those places.
18. Wisconsin’s WOW counties
Wisconsin’s two Democratic strongholds, Dane and Milwaukee counties, delivered massive margins for Biden. But the so-called WOW counties (Waukesha, Ozaukee and Washington) outside the city of Milwaukee failed to step up for Trump.
After underperforming in all three Republican suburban counties in 2016, Trump repeated the feat again on Tuesday, especially in Waukesha and Ozaukee counties where his percentages were well behind Mitt Romney’s pace in 2012.
In an election where Biden ran four percentage points higher than Clinton in the suburbs and nine percent higher in urban areas, according to Wisconsin exit polls, even Trump’s rural strength couldn’t make up the difference.
19. Wisconsin’s BOW counties
The two presidential campaigns and outside groups plowed more than $20 million into post-Labor Day TV ads to reach northern Wisconsin and the state’s BOW counties (Brown, Outagamie and Winnebago), three population hubs in and around Green Bay.
The Biden campaign saw these working-class voters — in Green Bay, Appleton, Oshkosh and other nearby places — as within reach, but all three counties voted for Trump for a second time. Still, it wasn’t a total loss for Biden: He won more votes in each of the counties than Clinton, cutting his deficit in this region by roughly 7,200 votes, relative to 2016.
In a state that appears to have been decided by roughly 21,000 votes, that’s not nothing.
20. Minnesota’s Iron Range
Trump achieved his goal of dominating rural Minnesota this year. The problem was that he ended up getting swamped by Democratic margins in the Twin Cities metropolitan area that were even bigger than 2016.
The president concentrated on northeastern Minnesota’s Iron Range in particular, a historically Democratic, blue-collar mining region that has been trending Republican in recent years. There, he ran into a problem familiar to him in many states: While Trump was able to ratchet up his numbers in rural counties, Biden, even in defeat, regularly ran several percentage points better than Clinton.
And in the Iron Range’s population center, Duluth’s St. Louis County — Vice President Mike Pence’s first visit after the GOP national convention and a place Trump himself visited in the final weeks of the campaign — Biden won handily, running 5 percentage points ahead of Clinton’s 2016 score.
21. Olmsted County, Minn.
Southern Minnesota wasn’t nearly as hospitable to Trump this year as in 2016. Four years ago, the president swept almost every county in southern Minnesota, a reflection of his strength in the Upper Mississippi River Valley region.
The lone holdout was Olmsted County, home to Rochester and the Mayo Clinic. Clinton won there in a 2016 squeaker, 45.3 percent to Trump’s 44.5 percent. That put Rochester, the third most populous city in the state and the population hub of southeastern Minnesota, high on the president’s radar, leading to a campaign visit from Trump one week before the election. The last-minute attention didn’t work: Olmsted broke hard toward Biden, providing him with a 10-point win.
Three other counties in southern Minnesota did the same — each of them a so-called pivot county that voted twice for Obama before flipping to Trump in 2016
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