There are 3,141 counties in the United States, but only a tiny fraction of them are poised to have a significant impact on the presidential election outcome Tuesday.
That’s because the race will be decided on a relatively small map: Just 12 states are expected to play a decisive role.
Arizona is one of those states, which is why the Phoenix media market is drowning in presidential TV ads.
Pennsylvania is another, explaining why Scranton — only the sixth largest city in the state — receives such obsessive attention from Joe Biden and President Donald Trump but Los Angeles, the second-largest city in the United States, gets almost none.
Whether because of population size, voting habits or election history, here’s POLITICO’s guide to the 21 battlegrounds that will decide the election:
1. Maricopa County, Ariz.
Maricopa County, which includes the Phoenix metropolitan area, has voted Republican in every election since 1948. This might be the year that streak ends.
Home to more than 60 percent of Arizona voters, Trump only narrowly won here in 2016. This year, his prospects have faded amid Latino population growth and the rising tide of moderate, white, college-educated suburbanites. Both campaigns recognize the county winner will likely capture the state. That’s why the Phoenix media market saw more than $63 million in ad spending in the presidential race between Labor Day and late October, more than any other media market in the nation.
2. Omaha, Neb., metro area
Trump will win Nebraska by a comfortable margin. But that doesn’t mean he’ll win all 5 of the state’s electoral votes.The state is one of just two in the nation — the other is Maine — that awards Electoral College votes by congressional district and Trump is in danger of losing one of them. Biden has led in polling in the 2nd District, which consists of Omaha and its suburbs, making it emblematic of Trump’s weakness in metropolitan America.
The Trump campaign recognizes its peril here, hence the president’s appearance at a rally at Omaha’s Eppley Airfield in the final week of the campaign (it helped that the Omaha media market bleeds into western Iowa). If Biden picks off the electoral vote attached to the 2nd District, it will mark just the second time in over a half-century that Nebraska gave one of its electoral votes to a Democratic presidential nominee. The other? Biden’s former boss Barack Obama in 2008.
3. Dubuque County, Iowa
Iowa had more counties flip to Trump after voting twice for Obama — so-called pivot counties — than anywhere else in the nation. Dubuque County, in northeast Iowa, was the most populous among them. Until voting for Trump, Dubuque had backed every Democratic nominee dating back to John F. Kennedy; as recently as 2008, Obama won by 21 percentage points.
But in 2016, Trump flipped the script in the most heavily Roman Catholic part of the state. Democratic turnout was down in the working-class city of Dubuque. And Republican turnout was up in the more suburban and rural parts of the surrounding county where Trump ran up the score. To win Iowa again, he’ll need a similarly robust performance in northeast Iowa, which is why he campaigned in Dubuque two days before Election Day.
4. Erie County, Pa.
While Trump was the first Republican to carry Erie County since Ronald Reagan, this traditionally Democratic and industrial part of northwest Pennsylvania snapped back toward the Democratic gubernatorial and Senate nominees by double digits two years later in 2018.
It’s as good a bellwether as any to gauge Trump’s standing in the state since his 48 percent here in 2016 matched his statewide performance exactly. The city of Erie itself — which is closer to Toronto than Philadelphia — remains heavily Democratic, so the pressure will be on the president to reproduce or grow his margins in the suburbs and more conservative rural parts of the county.
5. Philadelphia and its suburbs
Biden doesn’t have a prayer of winning back Pennsylvania without big margins out of the state’s biggest city and its suburbs.
That proved to be a problem for Democrats in 2016. While Hillary Clinton dominated in Philadelphia, winning 82 percent of the vote, she only took a 475,000-vote edge out of the city, compared Obama’s 492,000 vote advantage in 2012. Every vote mattered in a state contest in which Trump won by roughly 45,000 votes.
But Biden’s success this year isn’t riding on Philadelphia alone. He also needs big margins out of the four surrounding suburban counties — Bucks, Chester, Delaware and Montgomery — to counter Trump’s rural and small-town support. At one time, they served as the cornerstone of the state’s Republican Party but each of them voted for Clinton in 2016. This year, Trump’s polling in these populous suburbs is grim.
6. Northeastern Pennsylvania
To overcome the expected big Democratic margins out of Philadelphia and its populous suburbs, Trump will need high turnout and big margins in working-class places like Luzerne and Lackawanna counties. Traditionally Democratic population hubs of northeastern Pennsylvania, these two counties have drawn outsized attention because of Trump’s appeal to their socially conservative voters.
Luzerne broke hard for Trump in 2016 after twice voting for Obama. Lackawanna, home to Biden’s birthplace of Scranton, remained in the Democratic camp but saw Clinton’s winning margin dramatically diminished from Obama’s 2012 performance. Both nominees this year have given the two counties lots of attention — Lackawanna County alone saw roughly a half-dozen visits between Biden and Trump. The region has even been at the center of a messaging war, with Biden framing the campaign as a battle between “Scranton Versus Park Avenue.” For his part, Trump frequently accuses the former vice president, whose family moved to Delaware when Biden was a child, of abandoning Scranton.
7. Miami-Dade County, Fla.
Florida is a messy, politically complicated place, but its electoral math is fairly straightforward: For Democrats to win statewide, they must pile up big margins in Miami-Dade County to help offset losses elsewhere.
It’s the reason Trump’s gains in the state’s most populous county, particularly among Cuban-Americans, have unnerved many local Democrats. While the president has no hope of winning the solid blue stronghold, he can do a lot of damage to Biden simply by peeling off a few percentage points in this county. The Biden campaign recognizes that and significantly outspent Trump in the five weeks after Labor Day. Local Democrats also amped up efforts to connect with Cuban-Americans, non-Cuban Hispanic voters and those of Haitian and Black West Indian descent in a county where more than half of the residents were born outside the mainland U.S.
8. Orange County, Fla.
At the other end of the I-4 corridor from Tampa, Democrats are counting on a big performance from Orlando’s Orange County. In 2000 and 2004, the county was decided by small margins — John Kerry edged out George W. Bush by just two-tenths of a percentage point. But since then, the county’s explosive growth — among whites and those with Puerto Rican roots — turned it into a Democratic behemoth. Clinton won there by 25 percentage points.
Turning out the county’s Democratic base of Puerto Ricans, young voters, African Americans, and progressive whites has been a challenge in the past. But Democrats believe recent elections offer evidence that the county, which is home to more than 1.4 million residents, is capable of producing massive Democratic margins, bigger even than the 135,000 margin it gave Clinton in 2016.
9. Lee County, Fla.
In 2016, Trump crushed Clinton by 20 points in Lee County, running ahead of Mitt Romney’s 2012 pace by nearly 40,000 more votes.This fast-growing county, home to Fort Myers and Cape Coral, is filled with Midwestern retirees like some of its neighboring Gulf Coast counties. But it’s a better demographic fit for Trump because it has fewer college-educated voters than the state average.
The Trump campaign remained on the air here after Labor Day in part because piling up the vote in the Fort Myers-Naples media market is an essential for Republican statewide candidates. If Trump isn’t close to 60 percent or over, he’s got a problem.
10. Metro Atlanta
Atlanta’s once-Republican suburbs ditched Trump in 2016 and haven’t looked back. For four decades, suburban giants Gwinnett and Cobb counties voted in tandem, almost always delivering solid Republican margins. But both left the fold in 2016 to give Clinton narrow victories.
In 2018, the two rapidly diversifying counties repeated the feat, giving comfortable margins to Democratic gubernatorial nominee Stacey Adams. This year, polling data suggests not much has changed. If Trump can’t hold down Biden’s margins in these places and in nearby DeKalb and Atlanta’s Fulton County, the president will need a massive rural turnout to stay in the hunt in Georgia.
11. Tarrant County, Texas
Joe Biden failed to personally campaign in Texas. But the state is close enough this year that he sent the next best thing, his running mate Sen. Kamala Harris, in the final week of the campaign. Among the places she stumped was Fort Worth’s Tarrant County, a one-time GOP stronghold that suddenly seems within reach for Democrats.
Tarrant, the third-most populous county in the state, has voted Republican in all but one election since 1952. But GOP margins have been on the decline here and Tarrant now counts as the last major urban county in Texas to remain Republican. George W. Bush won the county by 25 points in 2004, Mitt Romney won it by 16 in 2012 and Trump won it by just 9 points in 2016 — a precursor to Beto O’Rourke’s squeaker of a win over Sen. Ted Cruz in Tarrant County in 2018.
Donald Trump isn’t helping here, but it’s population growth and an increasingly diverse population that’s driving the change. One of the fastest-growing counties in the nation, Tarrant has added more than 300,000 residents since 2010; many are California transplants.
12. Collin County, Texas
This is one of the many white-collar, Sun Belt locales where the suburban backlash against Donald Trump is rippling up and down the ballot.
Home to Dallas’ northern suburbs, Collin County was once a Republican fortress — Texan Lyndon B. Johnson was the last Democrat to carry the county in a presidential election. As recently as two elections ago, it voted for Mitt Romney by more than 30 percentage points.
But amid a backdrop of blistering population growth and a diversifying electorate, the GOP hold on Collin County is shakier than ever. If Trump loses here, he’s likely losing suburbs across the state — and from Atlanta all the way west to Phoenix.
13. Mecklenberg and Wake counties, N.C.
Joe Biden will carry North Carolina’s two most populous counties, Mecklenberg and Wake. But the margins will matter, and so will the level of voter turnout. As recently as 2004, both were competitive in presidential politics. Three elections later, they are Democratic strongholds.
Mecklenberg County, home to Charlotte, produced a 62-33 percent win for Hillary Clinton. Affluent and highly educated Wake County in the state’s Research Triangle delivered a 57-37 percent win. Yet it still wasn’t enough to carry her to victory in 2016, in large part because of Donald Trump’s rural and suburban strength. Biden will need a high-turnout in these two fast-growing counties, both teeming with suburban voters and independents to prevent Trump from carrying the state a second time.
14. Clark County, Nev.
Nevada has voted Democratic for the past three presidential elections. In 2018, the state was struck by a blue wave that flipped a Senate seat and elected a Democratic governor for the first time in roughly a quarter-century. But Donald Trump, who lost the state narrowly in 2016, just won’t quit on the idea of winning here.
His campaign poured several million dollars into ads in the state over the summer, and continued spending millions in the Las Vegas media market long past Labor Day. He’s made several campaign visits to the state, including one in Carson City in mid-October.
But Clark County, the state’s population hub and home to Las Vegas, is positioned to crush his hopes of winning the state. Hillary Clinton ran behind Barack Obama’s pace here but her 82,000 vote margin was more than enough to put Clinton over the top statewide. And this year, Trump will have an additional hurdle: Nevada has been hard-hit by the pandemic.
15. Kent County, Mich.
Donald Trump chose to finish his 2020 campaign with an election eve event in Grand Rapids, the site of the last rally of his 2016 campaign. That appearance four years ago proved to be an excellent use of his time: The next day he improbably won Michigan by less than 11,000 votes, making him the first Republican nominee to win the state since 1988.
Once reliably Republican, Kent County did its part back then: Trump won the county by roughly 9,500 votes. Yet his victory here was somewhat unconvincing — a 48-45 percent win — and there are signs the president hasn’t shored up his position since then.
One problem is that the county, the population center of Western Michigan, is becoming bluer. Its suburbs have chafed at Trump’s style and rhetoric. In 2018, Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, a frequent target of Trump’s criticism, won here by four percentage points. Given the Democratic margins expected from Detroit and it’s suburbs, Trump simply can’t afford to lose a place like Kent County.
16. Southeast Michigan
Donald Trump’s narrow 2016 victory in Michigan is frequently attributed to a drop in voter turnout in Detroit, where Hillary Clinton won about 47,000 fewer votes in the city than Barack Obama in 2012. But that overlooks the critical role played by Macomb County, the working class suburb that flipped hard for Trump after twice voting for Barack Obama.
The famed home of Reagan Democrats — and the third most populous county in the state — is essential to Trump’s chances of winning a second time, and he underscored that with a visit to Macomb in the final week before Election Day. But the president must contend with highly energized turnout efforts in Detroit, where Democrats are determined not to make the same mistakes as in 2016, and he’ll need to hold down his losses in nearby suburban Oakland County.
One of the highest income counties in the nation and a longtime GOP Midwestern stronghold, Oakland County has drifted steadily leftward since the 1990s. It gave Clinton a 53-41 percent victory — a 54,000-vote victory margin — in 2016.
17. Dane County, Wisc.
The state’s second most populous county after Milwaukee County, Madison’s Dane County is reliably liberal and highly motivated this year. As of last week, the county already recorded 72 percent of the total number of votes cast in the county in 2016.
Home to the University of Wisconsin and the state capital, Dane regularly delivers huge Democratic margins — along with Milwaukee County, it helps balance out the conservative vote delivered by the suburban Republican counties outside Milwaukee.
This year, a big Democratic turnout from Dane County will be critical for another reason — Donald Trump’s anticipated strength again in rural Wisconsin, where he won 63 percent in 2016.
18. Wisconsin’s WOW counties
Trump’s 2016 underperformance in the Republican-rich, so-called WOW counties outside Milwaukee (Waukesha, Ozaukee and Washington) was obscured by his romp through rural Wisconsin.
He might not have the same luck this time in a state that’s been ravaged by Covid-19, particularly in northern and western Wisconsin. But at least there’s promise for Trump in the early voting numbers in Washington, Ozaukee and Waukesha counties, which have already logged more than 60 percent of their 2016 vote.
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.
All three counties voted for Donald Trump in 2016; Winnebago flipped to him after twice voting for Barack Obama. But the Biden campaign sees these working class voters — in Green Bay, Appleton, Oshkosh and other nearby places — as winnable, and poured at least $3.7 million in ad spending into the Green Bay-Appleton media market over the past two months to prove it.
20. Minnesota’s Iron Range
Donald Trump needs an even bigger turnout in greater Minnesota than he had in 2016 to counter the huge Democratic margins in the Twin Cities metropolitan area. He’s concentrated on northeastern Minnesota’s Iron Range, a historically Democratic, blue-collar mining region that is culturally conservative and has been trending Republican in recent years.
The president traveled to northern Minnesota several times this fall, dispatched family members to Duluth and even featured an Iron Range mayor speaking on his behalf at the Republican National Convention. He’s worked hard to squeeze more votes out of the region. The question is whether there’s enough votes here and in the rest of rural Minnesota to overtake Biden’s margins out of the Twin Cities.
21. Olmsted County, Minn.
The president swept every county in southern Minnesota in 2016, with one exception: Olmsted County. Hillary Clinton won there in a squeaker, 45.3 percent to Trump’s 44.5 percent
That made Olmsted, home to Rochester and the Mayo Clinic, one of the few counties in the Upper Mississippi River Valley region that didn’t flip to Trump after voting for Obama.
Rochester, the third most populous city in the state and the population hub of southeastern Minnesota, has remained high on the president’s radar since then. Trump traveled to the county last week for a rally. “I didn’t forget you Rochester,” he said. “We’re going to win Minnesota.” If so, he’ll need to run up the score outside the Twin Cities — and hope Olmsted County is no longer a holdout.
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