These Counties Delivered the 2020 Election to the Democrats
A look at the carousels that turned the election Blue
As counties continue to certify the results of the 2020 election, a clear picture of how president-elect Joe Biden beat President Donald Trump is emerging.
Each election, Ballotpedia tracks “pivot counties” — ones that switch between political parties. For Trump to retain the White House, he needed to build his portfolio of pivot counties. On the other side, Biden needed to create as many “carousel pivot counties” — ones that rotated from blue to red and then back to blue again — as possible.
As of this writing, Biden flipped 20 counties across the country while Trump retained 174 of Ballotpedia’s 206 pivot counties. For context, there are about 3,112 counties in the country. Many counties have not certified their election results, and 133 of them had not reported vote totals.
Even from such a small sample size, strong throughlines appears. Biden won over many of the working-class voters that Trump appealed to in 2016. The economic conditions of several carousel counties had either worsened or stagnated under Trump. And, most importantly, that moderate Democratic messaging is exactly what some working-class voters need to hear. This is almost certain to ignite the growing rift within the party.
Republicans, on the other hand, should see some of these results as a warning sign. For example, Biden flipped Kent County, Delaware by 8 points, a former GOP stronghold. Meanwhile, Trump saw his support explode in important states like Iowa, Michigan, and Pennsylvania.
Pueblo County, Colorado
100 miles south of Denver is Pueblo County, a former industrial and mining center for Colorado. It’s a community in flux.] City feuds with local utility providers and the rising cost of living are pushing many long-time residents out. Local businesses, including newspapers and magazines, are also struggling to survive.
For a while, Coloradoans thought the county was solid blue. Obama carried it by an average of 14 points in 2008 and 2012. However, Trump eked out a half-point margin of victory in 2016. Biden carried the county in 2020 by 1.8 points.
Overall, Biden carried Colorado by a wide margin. However, his victory in Pueblo is evidence that the state is shading a deeper blue and moving away from its purple past.
Kent County, Delaware
Kent is a blue-collar county with an average home value of just over $200,000 and 15% of residents are college-educated, according to the US Census Bureau. Some of the area’s largest employers include Purdue Farms, Walmart, and the Dover Air Force Base.
Known as Delaware’s middle county, Kent was once a Republican stronghold. Before Obama turned it blue in 2008, George W. Bush won the county in both the 2000 and 2004 elections. Obama held the county by 10 points in his first election and saw support dip by five points during his second.
By the time the 2016 election season began, local journalists began noting a shift in the political climate. During the Primaries, Trump won delegates at a 3-to-1 clip over John Kasich. When the presidential election rolled around, Trump swung Kent County by eight points.
Delawareans don’t see this as a surprise either. Delaware’s southern county, Sussex, has become an increasingly reliable Republican county. Between 2008 and 2016, support for GOP candidates grew at a four-fold pace. Support for Democrats in Kent and New Castle Counties have been unreliable as well.
Even though he is considered Delaware’s adopted son, Biden won Kent County by only 3,500 votes. This total represents a 9-point swing, Biden’s largest out of the 20 carousel counties.
Kent will certainly be a county to watch if Democrats want to win the White House again in 2024.
Pinellas County, Florida
Trump may have been born in New York, but he’s a Floridian now. That’s where Mar-a-Lago is, and it’s where he tends to find ardent support.
And Pinellas County, which is home to St. Petersburg and the state’s 6th District Court, is a microcosm of Florida’s voting bloc. It encompasses white-sand beaches, large urban communities, and middle-class suburbs. Florida Politics describes Pinellas County as purple. Trump carried it by one point over Hillary Clinton in 2016, and Mitt Romney won the county of Obama in 2012.
Even though Biden was able to eke out a 0.22 point win in the county, Democrats should not be celebrating this win. In October, Biden held a 9 point lead in the polls, which was down from his previous 13-point high over the summer.
And this performance came on the back of Mike Bloomberg’s $100-million dollar ad boost campaign for the Democrats.
Trump’s late-inning surge was driven by White and Hispanic voters, according to local vote data. These are two demographics that Democrats have trouble appealing to overall.
Saginaw County, Michigan
Saginaw is a diverse, suburban community just outside of Flint. It is also a deep blue county. 12 of the city’s 21 elected officials are Democrats and eight others serve nonpartisan roles.
At least, Democrats thought that way after Obama’s second term ended. A report by Politico lays out how Hillary Clinton lost Saginaw, and Michigan as a whole, to Trump in 2016.
The report says Clinton’s top campaign officials didn’t allow the members of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) — one of the Left’s most ardent campaign funders — to travel to Michigan while Hillary was losing Iowa. The strategy was to leave the SEIU in Michigan to fool Trump into thinking she wanted to compete there.
It didn’t work. Trump beat Hillary to Michigan and wooed its middle-class voters away from the Left. He took Saginaw County by just over one point in 2016.
Saginaw was not insignificant to Biden’s campaign either. Dr. Jill Biden campaigned in Saginaw two weeks before the election, stopping to speak with the United Auto Workers (UAW)Local 699. UAW donates heavily to Democrats, spending over $30,000 on Biden in 2020, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
Dr. Biden’s stop may have been the tipping point for Biden, as his campaign took home a 0.27-point margin of victory in Saginaw, even as Trump increased his support among Latinx and Black voters from 2016.
Four Counties in Minnesota
Blue Earth, Clay, Nicollette, and Winona Counties were critical to Biden’s victory in Minnesota.
Winona is a border county in southeast Minnesota. It neighbors Wisconsin in the east and is just a few miles outside of Rochester, the state’s third-largest city. Blue Earth and Nicollette Counties share the city of Mankato with Le Seuer County, while Clay County sits on the state’s western border with North Dakota.
These counties are relatively poor, holding just over 50,000 residents that earn an average annual income of less than $40,000. They’ve seen relatively little population growth since the 1870s, according to the county’s demography records, and Winona recently had to borrow $10 million to fund a new jail.
Obama won Winona by 19 points in 2008 and then by 12 points during the next election. He carried Blue Earth and Nicollette by double-digits during his first term which fell to single-digits by his second. He also saw a sharp decline in Clay County. Trump took each county by an average of three points in 2016.
In turn, Biden carried Blue Earth and Clay Counties by four points each. He also won Nicollete County by three points and Winona County by 0.39 points.
According to the Winona Post, the county’s local newspaper, one resident said, “The nightmare is over. I feel the way I did when Nixon resigned.”
Blaine County, Montana
By far the smallest county on this list with only 6,800 residents to speak of, Blaine County stretches from Montana’s northern border with Saskatchewan to the Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument just outside of Rattlesnake. Blaine is also home to the Fort Belknap Reservation, home to the Assiniboine (Nakoda) and Gros Ventre (Aaniiih) Tribes.
Trump carried Blaine by just 2.5 points in 2016 after Obama won by over 20 points during the previous two elections. Biden successfully recaptured the County by a 4 point margin, meaning he made serious inroads with Native American and rural voters during the 2020 campaign.
In August 2019, Biden made an early campaign stop in Blaine, speaking to approximately 90 of the county’s wealthiest donors about Trump’s divisiveness after a weekend of mass shootings in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio.
“Eight years of this man will fundamentally change the nature of who we are as a nation,” the Idaho Mountain Express quotes Biden as saying at the event. “We’re acting like this is somehow just a momentary aberration. He’s changing the nature of we are. … This is serious, serious, serious business. Everyone knows who Donald Trump is. Even his supporters know who he is. They have no illusions about him. We’ve got to let him know who the hell we are.”
But, this stop wasn’t all pomp. Blaine became an instrumental fundraising county, as Biden pulled in over four times as much cash as The Donald. Even though Trump won the county, Blaine is more purple than it seems. Democrats took home several District seats and county posts, while Biden led the presidential vote tallies.
Hillsborough and Sullivan Counties, New Hampshire
High voter turnout is just one of the reasons Biden won in 2020. Nowhere was this more evident than in New Hampshire.
In Hillsborough County, 22,755 more people voted for Biden for president in 2020 than voted for Clinton in 2016 in Hillsborough County — an increase of nearly 23 percent, according to Patch. This is hardly surprising given that urban cities like Manchester, Amherst, and Nashua are in Hillsborough.
Before Clinton, Democrats were not very popular in Hillsborough. Obama in 2008 won by under 4 points and barely carried the county again in 2012. Trump won in 2016 by a quarter-of-a-percent before Biden took Hillsborough by a convincing 7-point margin in November.
However, Biden’s success in Sullivan County, the state’s second-least populous, is something to cheer about. Sullivan’s county commission is primarily Republican, with 7 out of 13 elected officials wearing Red. It is also a relatively poor community, with an average median income of just over $30,000. Over 11% of its residents live in poverty.
These are the voters the GOP traditionally pines for. Poor, white, low-educated. They’re emblematic of traditional American values: hard work, fidelity, and humility. That’s why the County swung so hard for Trump in 2016. Obama carried Sulivan by over 15 points during his two terms before Trump won it by 3 points.
Gloucester County, New Jersey
Biden dominated New Jersey, winning all but five of the state’s 21 counties, owing primarily to the efforts of the South Jersey Democrats. The 121-member voting bloc makes up approximately 21% of the entire Democratic vote in New Jersey, according to the New Jersey Globe.
And his performance in Gloucester County delivered him most of his state endorsements and helped carry him to an overall victory.
Gloucester is a county in slow decline. Its median income has dropped over $3,000 since 2018 and its median home value is declining as well, according to Data USA. The county’s largest employers are Amazon, Rowan University, and Inspira Health Network.
The decline is primarily due to the county’s service-heavy economy, one that has taken a beating during the pandemic. Recently PBF Energy’s Paulsboro Refinery shuttered for good and sent its 250 employees packing.
According to Trading Economics, an economic analysis aggregator, Gloucester County saw a net increase in poverty between 2012 and 2015. This helps explain why Trump’s message resonated with a county that Obama carried by over 13 points in 2008 and 2012.
So, for Biden to swing the county in his favor in 2020, he had to promote a message of economic fortitude. If the stock market is any indicator, low tide is approaching fast in the risk pool.
Montgomery County, Ohio
Ohio is typically a battleground state. No Republican has ever won the White House without winning Ohio. In this respect, Trump is no different. He was able to swing Montgomery County in his favor by five points in 2016, eking out a .73 point margin of victory.
In 2020, Trump increased his support and carried nearly the entire state. “President Trump showed that 2016 was no fluke, and his strength in Ohio is real,” Christopher Devine, assistant professor of political science at the University of Dayton, told the Butler County Journal-News. “We can see this even at the county level, where at this point Trump seems to have flipped two northeastern Ohio counties won by Clinton in 2016. Montgomery County may be the only Ohio county to flip from red to blue.”
Montgomery, like most counties Trump swung in 2016, is a blue-collar county that has experienced a slight decline in recent years. According to recent census data, the population declined by nearly 1% since 2010, and the majority of workers in the county are not college-educated. The median home value is $96,100, a value Zillow expects to grow by 3% next year.
Like a stereotypical Democrat, Biden won counties with major cities like Dayton. However, Montgomery County held a key to his presidential victory. Biden spent a lot of time in Dayton campaigning and fundraising. He even made sure his “Soul of the Nation” bus tour stopped in the town.
And for all of these efforts, Biden left Montgomery with a 5,000 vote margin, according to the county elections board.
Erie and Northampton Counties, Pennsylvania
Everyone knew the 2020 election was going to involve some controversy in Pennsylvania. They always do. The Commonwealth’s 20 electoral votes and historical significance to the county as a whole make it impossible for politicians to ignore.
Erie and Northampton Counties are no different. They’re bellwether counties — ones that vote in toe with the national popular vote. This helps explain why Trump was able to flip them in 2016 despite Obama holding strong margins in 2008 and 2012.
Another reason for the flip was Trump’s support for manufacturing jobs and coal mining. The PA Department of Community & Economic Development says manufacturing is the state’s blood, and its “industry strength is increasingly focused on advanced additive, high-tech, and digital strategies to meet the demands of modern businesses and consumers.”
Trump’s message of “getting Pennsylvania back to work” also resonated with voters and the pandemic enters its second phase. The president spent considerable hours in the Commonwealth both during his term in office and his re-election campaign, too. Pennsylvania was where Trump liked to announce new economic policies, flanked by the blue-collar workers that sent him to the White House.
But, even though Trump had a seemingly solid voter bloc in Erie and Northampton Counties, Biden’s middle-of-the-road approach compared to Trump’s penchant for extremism is what won over voters, according to local pollsters.
Chris Borick, professor of political science and director of the Muhlenberg College Institute of Public Opinion, told The Morning Call that playing Biden was the smartest move Democrats could make in 2020.
“He was their path to knocking off Trump, and, boy, if he does that, he becomes a lot more lovable,” he said.
Borick also said the results in Erie and Northampton should worry Democrats, who seem poised to take a sharp turn to the Left. He said Democrats need to find ways to appeal to voters in the middle, many of whom would choose another candidate like Trump again if their other option is too progressive.
Biden took both of the counties by a combined 1.5-point margin. In 2016, Trump carried both counties by a combined 6-point margin.
Kent County, Rhode Island
Part of Trump’s effectiveness in reaching Rhode Island voters was his appeal to protecting American jobs. Rhode Island’s unemployment rate reached an 11.9% peak during the 2007 recession, according to the St. Louis branch of the Federal Reserve. Meanwhile, the state’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) continuously rose as did the state minimum wage, pointing to an increasingly corporate economy. The fastest-growing industries in Rhode Island are biomedicine, cyber, and data analytics.
Biden was able to fashion an 8-point swing in Kent County, his third-largest swing among carousel counties. He did this by appealing to county voters’ support of the Affordable Care Act. Kent is also one of Rhode Island’s populous suburban counties, a demographic that poling shows heavily leans in the Democrats’ favor.
However, its working-class voter base supported Trump in 2016 because of his plan for a wall on the Mexico border and a ban on some Middle Eastern immigrants, according to a Brown University Poll. Trump’s message swung the county by 18 points, one of the largest swings during the 2016 election.
Ziebach County, South Dakota
Ziebach County’s economy experienced significant growth under Obama. Per capita income reached a peak of $25,672 in 2014; homeownership rates hit 51% before Trump’s inauguration; the unemployment rate bottomed out at 3.2%. These are just a few reasons why Obama carried the county by 27 points in his first election and 16 points during his second.
Trump managed to swing the county by 17 points by appealing to its large bloc of the industry and manufacturing employees. Both industries have seen greater-than-20% growth in Ziebach over the past two decades. However, after taking office, Ziebach’s GDP began to plummet from its high of $94 million in 2014. Poverty levels that had risen under Obama remained high, and the unemployment rate saw a net increase of 1.5%.
Against this backdrop, Biden had to offer voters a path toward bringing economic prosperity back to Ziebach. Biden’s message of support for small businesses appealed to voters who are watching Ziebach’s economy shift away from mining and manufacturing toward scientific, administrative, and health care industries.
Clallam County, Washington
Sitting on Washington’s Olympic Coast, Clallam County offers its rural residents few job opportunities outside of its timber, service, and prison industries. Service industries make up 88% of all nonfarm employment, according to the state labor office.
Obama was not very popular in the county when he was first elected in 2008, winning the county by just 3.3 points. During the 2012 election, Obama carried the county by a 0.8-point margin. Under his administration, unemployment increased alongside the GDP of all industries increased, pointing to an economy that increasingly relied on corporate production.
Trump’s “America First” message appealed to the state’s blue-collar workers who were seeing their job opportunities diminish. He swung the county by 3 points in 2016.
In 2020, Biden swung the county by a 5-point margin, primarily driven by the county’s 83% voter turnout rate. However, Republicans had a strong showing in the county as well, setting up its battleground in 2024.
*Side note: A recent report named Clallam County the best at picking presidential candidates, selecting every winning president since Ronald Reagan in 1980.
Door and Sauk Counties, Wisconsin
Door and Sauk Counties saw steep declines in GDP under George W. Bush’s administration before Obama took office in 2008. This partly explains why Obama carried both counties by 17 and 23 points, respectively, during his first term.
However, Door’s economy did not recover as quickly as Sauk’s, leading to a significant departure of Democratic voters in 2016. Door County’s real GDP was approximately 25% below its peak and saw little to no annual growth during Obama’s second term. Consequentially, support for Obama dropped by 11 points in Door County compared to just 6 points in Sauk.
Even though Trump was able to mount a seismic shift in voter preference in these counties in 2016, his inability to retain Door and Sauk can be primarily attributed to his handling of COVID-19. Door County relies heavily on tourism to fund its local government. Last year, tourism brought in $366 million, according to the county government.
Meanwhile, Sauk’s economy relies heavily on the manufacturing of plastics, metal fabrication, and food processing. The county is experiencing its highest ever recorded daily volume of cases, according to the local health department. This is causing several businesses to slow their production.
While Biden’s overall support was minimal, his promise to eliminate COVID-19 resonated with voters in these counties. He won Sauk by just over 1000 votes and carried Door by 300.