Kyle C. Kopko and Christopher J. Devine


After the “Big Tuesday” primary election in the United States, it increasingly appears that President Donald Trump will face former Vice President Joe Biden in the November election.  So, what will it take to win the White House?  In short: votes.  But not just any votes will do.  The winning candidate needs the right mix of votes in key states to win a majority in the Electoral College


For those who do not regularly follow American politics, Article II, Section 1 of the US Constitution establishes the Electoral College, and it was significantly altered via the Twelfth Amendment in 1804.  Electoral College votes are allocated by state (and the District of Columbia).  A state’s Electoral College votes equal the number of US Senators and Representatives from that state.  For example, New York has two US Senators and 27 US Representatives, resulting in 29 Electoral College votes.  There are 538 total votes in the Electoral College, which means a candidate must secure 270 or more votes to be elected president.


In 2016, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton won the most votes of any presidential candidate that year (in fact, she won 2,868,691 more votes than Donald Trump).  However, Trump won 304 Electoral College votes by securing a plurality of the popular vote in key states that traditionally voted Democratic – like Michigan and Wisconsin – while also picking up several important battleground states – like Florida, Ohio, and Pennsylvania. 


We can expect some states in the Electoral College to reliably support a Democratic or Republican candidate.  For example, California will almost certainly support the 2020 Democratic nominee, while a state like Alabama will almost certainly support President Trump.  In reality, US presidential elections are decided by a dozen or so battleground states that could reasonably support either the Democratic or Republican nominee; these states are truly up for grabs.


Which key states does Trump need to win in the Electoral College?  This year, he certainly has some breathing room relative to his 2016 performance.  Trump could afford to lose Michigan and Wisconsin, and he would still win the election with 278 Electoral College votes.  But, that assumes that Trump carries Florida, Ohio, and Pennsylvania once again.  Winning all three states is no small feat for any presidential candidate.  And, certainly, Democratic strategists are aware of this.


Because the presidential election hinges on a select few states, campaign strategy tends to adopt a state-level focus.  In the coming weeks and months, there will be insistent discussion among political pundits on what specific steps candidates must adopt to win states like Florida, Pennsylvania, and Ohio. 


Hillary Clinton was criticized for not regularly visiting Michigan, or Wisconsin at all, during the 2016 election.  The argument goes like this:  had Clinton significantly campaigned in Rust Belt states, she would have improved her electoral performance.  So, the 2020 candidates simply need to spend a lot of time in some battleground states and they’ll increase their chances of winning them, right? 


Unfortunately, it’s not that simple.  Our research on campaign visits shows that while presidential campaigns are strategic in their campaign visits – that is, they target specific populations of voters based upon the perceived strengths of the presidential and vice presidential candidates, respectively – it is not necessarily the case that more campaign visits results in an increased chance of winning that state’s Electoral College votes.  For example, one of our studies concludes that more frequent campaign visits by Hillary Clinton would have only improved her performance in Pennsylvania.  Holding more rallies and shaking hands with voters will not guarantee you victory in a competitive state.


Another strategy that pundits usually discuss is the selection of a running mate to secure a bloc of voters – particularly those in a key battleground state.  However, our research shows that running mates rarely deliver a home state advantage.  After all, voters primarily view their role as casting a vote for a presidential candidate.  But, presidential candidates, on the other hand, often do garner a home state advantage. 


That doesn’t help Joe Biden much because his home state of Delaware already reliably votes for the Democratic candidate in the Electoral College.  The question is whether Biden sells his Pennsylvania connections in a convincing manner to voters there, since Pennsylvania is his childhood home.  And Donald Trump recently changed his primary residence to Florida.  Whether voters in Florida embrace Trump as “one of our own” and provide him with a home state advantage is an open question.


While these strategic considerations are interesting topics for political speculation, the election will likely hinge on traditional electoral influences:  the state of the economy, voter turnout, and whether voters believe it is time for a political change.  But like all presidential elections in recent years, these considerations will be only be relevant in a select few battleground states thanks to the Electoral College.      


Dr. Kyle C. Kopko is an Associate Professor of Political Science and Associate Dean at Elizabethtown College, Pennsylvania, USA, and a member of the Political Studies Association. He tweets at @KyleKopkoDr. Christopher J. Devine is an Assistant Professor of Political Science at the University of Dayton, Ohio, USA. He tweets at @ProfDevine. Image credit: CC by White House/Flickr.