From 1980 to 2016, 19 counties voted for the winner of the presidential election each time. Most impressive was Valencia County, New Mexico, which voted for the winner in every presidential election from 1952 to 2016.
But in 2020 18 of these 19 “Bellwether CountiesVoted for former President Donald Trump. Only one – Clallam County, Washington – voted for President Joe Biden.
The Trump era made us think a lot about politics and elections in America, including counties, which are useful barometers of the national political environment. And, like so many electoral trends, demographics play a major role in explaining why these former boroughs finally fell short in 2020.
These former counties are much whiter and less studied than the rest of the country. For example, Washington County, Maine – the middle Bellwether County in terms of its proportion that is not Hispanic White – 89 percent do not know Hispanic, which is much higher than the total U.S. population who identify as such (60 percent) . It’s also not as well educated: only 22 percent of adults 25 and older have a bachelor’s degree or higher, which is significantly lower than the 32 percent who have a college degree nationwide.
White voters without a college degree used to vote more like all the countryThis explains why these counties maintained their Bellwether status for a long time. From 1980 to 2012, these Bellwether districts consistently voted within a few points of the national referendum. They were particularly representative in 2012, when the average Bellwether County was only 0.8 points more democratic than the nation from 1980 to 2016. That all changed in 2016, however, when Trump made huge profits with white voters without a college degree. As such, margins in Bellwether Counties got much more Republican, although the country got just a little more Republican, as you can see in the table below.
It was arguably 2016 – rather than 2020 – when the first counties showed signs of falling by the wayside as they swung dramatically to the right in those elections. From 1980 to 2012, a total of 35 counties voted for the winner of each presidential election. Nineteen of those counties continued their streak in 2016 by voting for Trump, but the remaining 16 counties ended their losing streak by voting for Hillary Clinton. In other words, only 54 percent of Bellwether counties from 1980 to 2012 retained their status in 2016. In particular, the 16 counties that lost their Bellwether status in 2016 are racially more diverse (median of 46 percent compared to non-Hispanic whites 89 percent) and better educated (median of 27 percent of adults aged 25 and over with a bachelor’s degree or higher, compared with 22 percent) than the 19 districts that have retained their Bellwether status.
That Trump did so well in the remaining 19 Bellwether countries in 2020 should therefore come as no surprise. Trump remained very strong with white non-college voters in 2020, which helped him win Iowa and Ohio with comfortable profit margins, and stay competitive in Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania. Overall, Trump won 18 of the 19 former Bellwether counties and won that county’s average in 2020 with 13.7 points. And as in 2016, these counties essentially voted for the nation’s law. In fact, they got even more Republican – the average Bellwether County from 1980 to 2016 voted 18.2 points to the right of the nation. Ultimately, of course, Trump’s strong performance in those countries didn’t matter as Biden made profits in the more educated suburbs of Milwaukee, Grand Rapids and Philadelphia.
But it is not just demographic trends that lead to the loss of status. Increasing political polarization is another reason why fewer counties have repeatedly referred to the president’s findings in recent years. According to David Wasserman of The Cook Political Report, only 303 counties with single-digit profit margins were ruled in 2016, compared to 1,096 counties that matched this description in 1992. The fact that there are fewer swing counties means there are fewer potential Bellwether counties.
In the end, only Clallam County retained its streak that year. However, his status is by no means guaranteed in future elections. As we saw in the last two presidential elections, headlines can suddenly end thanks to ever-evolving political and demographic trends in America. In the future, it is entirely possible that there will not be a single county that consistently displays the results of a national election.