Election News

The Road to 270: Arkansas

The Road to 270 is a weekly column leading up to the presidential election. Each installment is dedicated to understanding one state’s political landscape and how that might influence which party will win its electoral votes in 2020. We’ll do these roughly in order of expected competitiveness, moving toward the most intensely contested battlegrounds as election day nears. 

The Road to 270 will be published every Monday. The column is written by Seth Moskowitz, a 270toWin elections and politics contributor. Contact Seth at s.k.moskowitz@gmail.com or on Twitter @skmoskowitz.


From statehood through 1964, Arkansas was one of the most reliably Democratic states in presidential elections. Since then, however, it has only voted Democratic three times. Two of these three were for native son Bill Clinton, in 1992 and 1996. The other Democrat to carry the state was fellow southerner Jimmy carter in 1976. The state’s flip from Democratic to Republican stems from a political legacy of slavery and regional factionalism.


Arkansas was first explored by the Spanish in 1551. French explorers arrived 130 years later, which led to missionaries and traders settling in the region in the 18th Century. France claimed the territory from the mid 1600s through 1772 as a part of Louisiana, or New France. Spain then controlled the territory for 29 years until they returned it to France in 1800. In 1803, territory including what is modern-day Arkansas would be acquired by the United States as part of the Louisiana Purchase.

Before Arkansas would become a state, it would go through several territorial iterations. First the Louisiana Territory from 1805-1812, then the Missouri Territory from 1812-1819, then the Arkansas Territory in 1819. The Arkansas Territory comprised most of today’s Arkansas and Oklahoma, but the Oklahoma portion was cut off in 1824, defining the boundaries of modern-day Arkansas. Finally, in 1836, Arkansas was added to the United States as the 25th state.

Statehood and Slavery

Arkansas entered the Union as a slave state. Like most of the south, Arkansas was dependent on agriculture and the associated economics of forced labor, bringing it tightly into the pro-slavery Democratic Party. The state cast its electoral votes accordingly from its first election in 1836 through 1860. In 1860, however, the Democratic Party split between pro-slavery Southern Democrats and the northern Democrats. Arkansas, along with most of the South, voted for the pro-slavery Southern Democratic nominee while northern Democrats supported Stephen Douglas. The division allowed the abolitionist Republican Abraham Lincoln to win the Electoral College with just 40% of the popular vote.

Arkansas did not secede from the Union immediately following the election. It wasn’t until April, 1861, when President Lincoln tried to enlist Arkansans to suppress a rebellion in South Carolina, that Arkansas seceded. Arkansas became the first state admitted back into the union on June 22, 1968 after it passed a new Constitution that temporarily disenfranchised former confederates and ratified the 13th and 14th Amendments. The new document would ostensibly lead to universal male suffrage and equality before the law, but racial and economic discrimination remained.

In 1868, largely due to the voting restrictions placed on former confederates, Arkansas voted for Republican Ulysses Grant. This was the only election out of the state’s first 31 in which it would cast valid electoral votes for the Republican. While Grant would again win the popular vote in Arkansas in 1872, the state’s votes were not counted due to voting irregularities.

From 1876 through 1964, Arkansas voted Democratic. Voter suppression helped Democrats in the post-reconstruction years.  This first took the form of the Klu Klux Klan and voter intimidation. Later, in 1891 and 1892, it was a poll tax that disenfranchised poor blacks and whites. Between the 1888 and 1892 elections, turnout fell in Arkansas from 157,000 to 148,000 with the Republican vote total dropping by 13,000 while the Democratic total grew by 2,000.   

A Turn to Republicans

Like the rest of the South, Arkansas stuck with Democrats. It often did so by enormous margins. Franklin Roosevelt carried the state by 73%, 64%, and 58%, and 40% margins in his 1932, 1936, 1940, and 1944 elections. It wasn’t until 1956 that Republicans would come within single digits. Democrats still managed to carry the state through 1964, even with these smaller margins and more competition.

The Democratic streak finally broke in 1968. George Wallace, the former and future Democrat from Alabama, broke with his party and ran as the American Independent Party’s pro-segregationist candidate.  Wallace won the plurality of the vote (39%) in Arkansas, and with it, the state’s Electoral College votes.

From 1968 through 2016, Arkansas would only vote Democratic in three more presidential elections. In 1976 it would overwhelmingly support fellow southerner Jimmy Carter. In 1992 and 1996, another Democrat would again leverage his southern charm to win the presidency. This time, however, that candidate was the state's very own governor. Bill Clinton carried his home state in both 1992 and 1996, beating George H.W. bush by 18% in 1992 and Bob Dole by 17% in 1996.

Even though Arkansas voted overwhelmingly for Clinton — it was the only state to give Clinton a majority in 19921 1Independent candidate Ross Perot received about 19% of the national vote that year. Aside from Arkansas, each of the 50 states was won by a plurality. — these elections marked the end of the road for Democratic presidential candidates in the state.

Recent Republican Domination

In 2000, Republican George W. Bush beat Democrat Al Gore by 5%. This margin would expand in every subsequent presidential election. Since 2000, Arkansas has trudged rightward in every presidential election without regard to the national environment. The biggest rightward jump was between 2004 and 2008, when John McCain doubled George Bush’s margin of victory from 10% to 20%. In those same years, the national popular vote shifted nine points in Democrats' favor. The same is true of 2012 and 2016 — even as the national environment became more Democratic, the Republican nominees expanded their margins in Arkansas. Finally, in 2016, Donald Trump beat Hillary Clinton 61% to 34%, a 27% margin.

Until recently, Democrats regularly won downballot elections here. From 2003 through 2010, Democrats held both Senate seats and three of four House seats. The party also held the governorship from 2007 through 2014. Arkansans were willing to split their ballots and vote for Democrats even as they voted Republican for president.

This ticket-splitting trend stopped abruptly. In the 2010 Republican wave, two Democratic House incumbents retired and Republicans won their seats. Republicans also flipped one of the Senate seats that year. Two years later, Republicans flipped the fourth and final House seat. Finally, in 2014, Republicans took control of the entire Arkansas Congressional delegation by winning the second Senate seat.

Current Political Landscape

It’s not surprising that Arkansas has become decisively Republican. The state’s demographic makeup neatly aligns with that of the party at this point in time.  The state is whiter, more rural, and less college educated than the country as a whole. The party’s key demographic base — non-college educated whites — make up 60% of the population. Economically suffering, rural regions of the country — of which Arkansas has many — were particularly receptive to Donald Trump’s “Make America Great Again” brand of populism.  

While Democrats were once able to compete throughout the entire state, their support is now isolated to Little Rock and some counties on the eastern border. Back in 1996, Bill Clinton won all but 9 counties in the state, including the states rural, less dense regions. Twenty years later, Hillary Clinton only won eight counties while Donald Trump carried 77. Trump improved upon Mitt Romney’s margins in nearly the entire state, but he did so by the greatest margins in the northeastern corner of the state.

Clinton meanwhile, outperformed Barack Obama in four urban and suburban counties. Pulaski and Faulkner Counties, which include Little Rock and its northern suburbs, shifted leftwards. So too did Benton and Washington Counties in the northwestern corner of the state. Donald Trump still outran Clinton in Benton, beating her by 40%. Washington County, home to Fayetteville, went to Trump by 10%, closer than Romney’s 16% margin. Overall, Arkansas has followed the national trend of rural regions shifting rightward and urban ones moving left.

Other southern states like Georgia, North Carolina, and Texas have deep blue urban centers that offset Republican-leaning rural regions. As these cities and their suburbs have grown and become more Democratic, the states have shifted towards battleground status. Arkansas has a similar landscape with its rural, white, Republican regions and the more diverse, dense, and Democratic Little Rock. Unlike these other southern states, however, Little Rock is not large enough to balance the state’s rural population. Unless Little Rock becomes a demographic and political powerhouse on the scale of Atlanta or Charlotte, or until the current party coalitions break down, Arkansas will remain with the GOP. With such a shift all but impossible before November, Arkansas is safely Republican.

Next Week:  TBA

Reports in this series:

DNC Alters Qualifying Criteria for Nevada Debate; Changes Open Door for Bloomberg

The Democratic National Committee announced significant changes to the qualifying requirements for the party's February 19 debate in Las Vegas. Gone is the fundraising requirement, which opens the door to participation by Mike Bloomberg. The former NYC mayor is self-funding his campaign, and is not accepting contributions from individual donors.

There are three different ways to qualify for the Nevada debate, which comes three days before that state's caucuses:

  • A minimum of 10% support in four national or remaining early state polls from accredited pollsters.  Early state polls include those from Nevada and South Carolina (Feb. 29 primary).
  • A minimum of 12% support from some combination of two Nevada or South Carolina polls.
  • Earn at least one pledged delegate in Iowa (Feb. 3 caucus) or New Hampshire (Feb. 11 primary).

To qualify, polls must be from DNC-accredited pollsters and released between January 15 and February 18. The only candidates that have qualified thus far are Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. Bloomberg is not participating in contests prior to Super Tuesday (March 3). His avenue to the stage in Nevada is predicated on meeting the 10%/4 poll criteria. He has one such poll thus far.

The next debate will take place February 7 in Manchester, New Hampshire. Seven candidates have qualified for that. That debate will be broadcast on ABC, in partnership with its local affiliate WMUR-TV and Apple News.



John Delaney Ends Bid for Democratic Nomination

John Delaney said Friday that he is ending his presidential campaign. The former Maryland congressman was the first Democrat to join the 2020 field, announcing his candidacy back in July, 2017.  Now, 2 1/2 years later, he is exiting just three days before the first votes are cast.  

In his withdrawal announcement, Delaney expressed concern that by staying in the race, he would harm the prospect of other moderate candidates in the Iowa caucuses:

"This decision is informed by internal analyses indicating John’s support is not sufficient to meet the 15% viability in a material number of caucus precincts, but sufficient enough to cause other moderate candidates to not to make the viability threshold, especially in rural areas where John has campaigned harder than anyone. He strongly believes the Democratic Party should advance candidates with progressive values on the big issues of our time, but who are committed to governing with pragmatic, fact-based, bipartisan solutions."

11 Democrats remain in the field as the voters begin to have their say in the nominating process, leading off with the Iowa caucuses on Monday


Cook Political Report Moves Senate Special Election in Georgia to Leans Republican

The Cook Political Report has updated its rating for the U.S. Senate special election in Georgia.  It moves from Likely to Leans Republican following the entry of credible challengers to Sen. Kelly Loeffler from both parties, further complicated by the unusual structure of this election.

Read the full Cook analysis here.

Rep. Doug Collins (GA-9) joined the race on Wednesday, and will challenge Loeffler from the right. On Thursday, Democrats landed one of their top recruits, as Rev. Raphael Warnock announced his bid.  He joins other prominent Democrats in the race, including Matt Lieberman, son of former Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman, and Ed Tarver, a US attorney under Barack Obama. 

Under Georgia special election law, there are no party primaries. All the above candidates, and any other entrants, will appear on a single ballot on Election Day, November 3. If no candidate gets a majority of the vote, a top-two runoff will be held January 5, 2021.

Georgia House Bill 757, currently under consideration, would change the law to require a primary election. Generally, it has the support of Republicans aligned with Collins and many Democrats.  It is opposed by Gov. Kemp, who appointed Loeffler to the vacancy created by the retirement of Sen. Johnny Isakson at the end of 2019.  Regardless of whether this bill becomes law, it is unlikely to affect this year's race.

Cook Political Interactive Map

The current Cook forecast for the 2020 Senate elections is below.  Click or tap for an interactive version to create and share your own projection.

Rep. Doug Collins Enters Georgia Senate Race; Move Likely to Split GOP Vote

GOP Rep. Doug Collins (GA-9) said Wednesday he will run for U.S. Senate in 2020.  He made the announcement during an appearance on Fox & Friends, confirming news reports of recent days.  Collins will compete in the special election to complete the final two years of the seat previously held by Sen. Johnny Isakson, who retired at the end of 2019. The incumbent, Sen. Kelly Loeffler was appointed last month by Gov. Brian Kemp to fill the seat until the special election. That decision went against the wishes of President Trump, who had been strongly advocating for Collins.

The move may complicate the GOP path to holding the Senate seat.  Current Georgia law provides that all candidates - from all parties - in a special election appear on a single ballot on Election Day.  If no candidate reaches 50%, the top two move on to a runoff, which will be held on January 5, 2021. Collins entry increases the likelihood of a runoff, as it will split the GOP vote which would have almost entirely gone toward Loeffler.

Allies of Collins in the Georgia State House are attempting to modify the law and hold a more traditional party primary. The supporters believe the very conservative Collins would win a contest against Loeffler, and enjoy full GOP support in November.

If the law is changed, the contest would take place on May 19, when the state holds its general primary election for offices other than president1 1Georgia's presidential primary is March 24.  Among those May primaries are those for Georgia's other U.S. Senate seat, which is up for its regular six-year term in November. That seat is currently held by Republican Sen. David Purdue, who will be seeking a 2nd term.

Collins entry was poorly received by the National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC), which is strongly backing Loeffler. In a statement, they said that the move risks both Senate seats as well as Georgia's 16 electoral votes in the presidential election. 

The decision opens up the seat in Georgia's 9th congressional district. It is a deep red district that the GOP will have no trouble holding. Trump won by 59 points over Hillary Clinton here in 2016; with Collins winning a 4th term by a similar amount in 2018.

36 current members of the U.S. House are now retiring or seeking other offices.  

The Road to 270: South Dakota

The Road to 270 is a weekly column leading up to the presidential election. Each installment is dedicated to understanding one state’s political landscape and how that might influence which party will win its electoral votes in 2020. We’ll do these roughly in order of expected competitiveness, moving toward the most intensely contested battlegrounds as election day nears. 

The Road to 270 will be published every Monday. The column is written by Seth Moskowitz, a 270toWin elections and politics contributor. Contact Seth at s.k.moskowitz@gmail.com or on Twitter @skmoskowitz.

South Dakota

South Dakota has produced some of the most influential Democrats of the last half century. Tom Daschle served as the Senate Majority Leader from 2001 to 2003. The 1972 Democratic presidential nominee, George McGovern, was a former South Dakota Senator.

The state, however, has voted Republican in nearly every presidential election in its history. Democrats have only won here four times, most recently in 1964. However, the state’s populist character has allowed downballot Democrats to win favor with rural communities even as it repeatedly voted Republican for president. This populism traces back to 1892, the first presidential election in which South Dakota participated. First, though, we’ll look at the state’s pre-statehood era.  

Before Statehood

South Dakota and North Dakota share much of the same history. The following is from our article on North Dakota:

“Congress originally organized the Dakota Territory in 1861. It was primarily composed of land acquired from France in the 1803 Louisiana Purchase. During the early and mid 1800s, the U.S. traded with, repressed, and eventually drove out Native Americans in the territory. 

Both North and South Dakota entered the United States on November 2, 1889, becoming the 39th and 40th states, respectively. Regional differences, as well as disputes over a future capital, pushed the formation of two independent states.”

While North Dakota was mostly settled for its farmland, South Dakota had gold. The metal was discovered in the Black Hills in 1874 and settlers flocked. Between 1870 and 1880, the region’s population grew over 800%, from under 12,000 to over 98,000. 

The population continued to grow as railroad expanded through the region allowing easier travel and transport of goods. Construction on the railroad began in 1872 and spread quickly. The population would continue to grow through the 1920s as miners came for gold and homesteaders settled on open farmland. Population peaked in the 1930 Census with nearly 700,000 people.

As with much of the country's westward expansion, South Dakota's early growth often came at the expense of indigenous people. A particularly infamous example, the Wounded Knee Massacre, took place little more than a year after statehood. It marked the climax of federal efforts to repress Indian tribes of the Great Plains.

Early Politics of South Dakota

From its first election in 1892, South Dakota has leaned Republican. Most South Dakota settlers had come from the Midwest or New England. These northerners were natural Republican constituencies, a relic of the Civil War.

The state also had a populist streak. This was due in part to its agrarian character. In 1892, the Populist and Republican parties rallied around Free Silver, a policy to increase the money supply and help indebted farmers. Democrats wanted to stick to the Gold Standard.  The Populist and Republican candidates received a combined 87% of South Dakota’s vote. Again in 1896, South Dakota voted for the populist Free Silver candidate, although this year the parties had flipped. The Free Silver candidate was Democrat William Jennings Bryan. He edged out Republican William McKinley by less than 1%.  

Outside of these election in which the currency question was paramount, South Dakota has been reliably Republican in presidential elections. It would only vote for three more Democrats after 1896.

In 1912, South Dakota was the only state without the Republican Party’s official candidate, William Taft, on the ballot. Progressives controlled the state party and decided not to offer a slate of electors for Taft. They instead decided to put up electors for Theodore Roosevelt who had recently split with the Republican Party and was running as a third-party candidate. South Dakota was the only state in which Roosevelt received a majority of the popular vote.  

After 1912, South Dakota voted Republican until 1932. From 1920 through 2016, North Dakota and South Dakota would vote the same way in every presidential election.

New Deal Through the 1970’s

Like other agriculture-heavy states, South Dakota suffered during the Great Depression. A farming crisis in the 1920s had already weakened the state’s economy and the ensuing depression exacerbated the problems. In 1932, South Dakota voted for Franklin Roosevelt and his New Deal which promised government assistance. South Dakota ranked 7th among the states for per capita spending by New Deal programs.

In 1940, Midwestern native Wendell Willkie was able to win back rural, small town areas in the Northern U.S. Through these victories, he was able to bring South Dakota back to its Republican roots even as he lost the election to Roosevelt. From that year on, with the exception of 1964, South Dakota would vote Republican in every presidential contest.”

While South Dakota did vote Republican consistently, it was not always by large margins. In 1972, 1976, 1988, 1992, and 1996, Republicans only won South Dakota by single digits. The state’s voters also frequently split their ballots and elected downballot Democrats. In 1962, South Dakota elected George McGovern to the Senate — a seat he held through 1981. The state also elected Democratic Senators James Abourezk, Tom Daschle, and Tim Johnson who held office from 1973 to 1979, 1987 to 2005, and 1997 to 2015. Democrats had similar downballot success in the House.

Even so, South Dakota was still red on the presidential level. The state even voted against its own senator, George McGovern, in 1972. Like North Dakota, South Dakota’s agrarian populism allowed Democrats who promised to help struggling rural communities win down-ballot even as Republicans dominated presidential politics.  

Recent History

In the 1980s, South Dakota began to change. Drawn by low corporate taxes and less regulation, companies began to build branches in Sioux Falls. The city’s first big catch was Citibank in 1981. A financial sector sprung up in the city as other banks including Capital One and Wells Fargo made the same move. Soon other industries with ties to the financial sector — including pharmaceutical and cybersecurity — developed. Amy Sullivan and the National Journal write that the “presence of Citibank in Sioux Falls has played a significant role in transforming a once sleepy agriculture-dependent town into a growing regional powerhouse with a number of thriving industries outside the financial sector.”

In 1980, Sioux Falls had just over 80,000 residents. Now it has reached nearly 200,000.  This influx accounts for much of the state’s overall growth. The state’s total population has grown from just under 700,000 to around 900,000 in the same 40-year period. As in other states, people are leaving South Dakota’s rural regions to live in the more densely populated urban areas.

Even with the banking boom, agriculture, mining, and manufacturing are still major employers in the state. Perhaps its unsurprising that a state composed of blue collar, rural communities and a city dependent on low regulation and taxes has shifted decisively towards Republicans.

Recent Presidential Elections

The 2000 election was a tipping point for South Dakota. While the Republican margin in 1996 was just 3%, in 2000, Republican George Bush defeated Al Gore by 22%. Al Gore’s brand of liberalism and environmentalism was not popular in much of the Mountain West, including South Dakota.

From 2000 on, South Dakota was far more Republican than the nation overall. Even in 2008, as Barack Obama won the national popular vote by 7%, McCain carried South Dakota by 8%. In 2012, Mitt Romney expanded that margin to 18%. In 2016 Donald Trump won the state by 30%, the largest margin in the state since 1952.

While Obama had won 16 counties in 2008 and 10 counties in 2012, Clinton won just 5 in 2016. Trump improved upon Romney’s margins in every county in the state. The president’s cultural conservatism and economic populism appealed to South Dakotans.

Until recently, Republican victories at the top of the ticket have not prevented Democratic success downballot. As recently as 2008, a Democrat won the state’s only House seat. As politics has become more nationalized and partisan, this ticket splitting has stopped. No Democrat has won a statewide election since that 2008 House race.

This November, South Dakota will elect a president, senator, and representative. Anything other than a Republican trifecta would be a major surprise. Outside of a complete party collapse, South Dakota is safely Republican.

However, before we get to the general election, we go through the nomination process. This kicks off, as it has since 1972, with the Iowa caucuses next Monday. South Dakota and Nebraska, which both share a border with Iowa, go much later in the calendar. While the geographic difference is small, the gulf in attention from presidential aspirants is huge.

Next Week:  Arkansas

Reports in this series:

Andrew Yang Qualifies for February 7 Democratic Debate

A 5% or higher result in two national polls released Sunday has qualified Andrew Yang for the next Democratic debate.  It will be held February 7, in Manchester, New Hampshire, four days before that state's primary. 

Yang had missed the cut for the party's most recent debate, held January 14. He will join the six candidates who were on the stage that night: Joe Biden, Pete Buttigieg, Any Klobuchar, Bernie Sanders, Tom Steyer, and Elizabeth Warren.  The deadline for others to qualify is February 6.  

Yang received 7% in an ABC News/Washington Post survey and 5% in a poll released by Fox News.  This gives him 4 qualifying national polls of 5% or more. The 7% mark is the highest level of support he has received thus far in any national poll accredited for the debates by the Democratic National Committee.

Related:  All the latest Democratic Primary and Caucus Polls

Poll: Sanders Takes Lead in Iowa Caucuses

Sen. Bernie Sanders has taken the lead among likely Democratic caucusgoers in Iowa, per a poll released Saturday by The New York Times and Siena College. Sanders saw 25% support, a gain of 6 points from the last Time/Siena poll conducted in late October.  That gain appears to have come at the expense of another progressive, Sen. Elizabeth Warren. The only other notable change in the race was a doubling of support - to 8% - received by Sen. Amy Klobuchar. 

Sanders also led the CNN/Des Moines Register Poll released January 10. This poll, conducted by Selzer & Company, is generally considered the 'gold standard' of Iowa polling. Former Vice-President Joe Biden has led a couple other polls in the interim, with the net being that the two are basically tied in the overall Iowa polling average.  Note that the final pre-caucus poll from Selzer & Company will be released next Saturday, February 1, at 9:00 PM ET. The reveal will be broadcast live on CNN.

General Election

The Times/Siena poll also surveyed Iowa registered voters for the November election. President Trump was ahead in each tested match-up. He leads former South Bend mayor Pete Buttigieg (by 1%), Biden (2%), Klobuchar and Warren (5%), Sanders (6%) and former NYC mayor Mike Bloomberg (8%). The Buttigieg and Biden results are within the margin of error.

Current Polling Averages: National and Four Early States

Here's a summary of the current national polling averages, as well as those in the four states that will hold their primary or caucus in February.

Joe Biden has a small lead over Bernie Sanders nationally, both are well out in front of the rest of the 12 person field. However, the picture becomes much less clear when looking at the states that kick off the 2020 election calendar. This is important for a couple reasons. First, delegates are won at the state level, not nationally. More importantly, because the primaries/caucuses occur over an extended period, each contest will be affected by the results in the ones that precede it.

In Iowa, which holds its caucuses a week from Monday, the polling shows four candidates bunched at the top.  New Hampshire is shaping up the same way, although worth recalling that Sanders defeated Hillary Clinton by 22 points here in 2016. In limited polling, Biden and Sanders are leading the field in Nevada, with Biden well out in front in South Carolina. However, it is worth noting that Pete Buttigieg and Amy Klobuchar are polling well ahead of their national average in Iowa and New Hampshire. If the results play out this way, those two candidates could see more support develop in the latter two states. 

Tom Steyer has been spending heavily in Nevada and South Carolina. He has moved into double-digits in both states, helping qualify him for the February 7 debate stage. However, he's unlikely to be in the top 4 in Iowa or New Hampshire, so some of that support could erode before the other two contests.

Mike Bloomberg is a wild card in all of this. He is now tied with Buttigieg for fourth nationally. However, he is skipping1 the early states to focus on Super Tuesday (March 3) and beyond. It is possible that his numbers will drop - at least temporarily - once the voting begins and he is not part of the story.  The former NYC mayor could be in a better position if no one emerges as an obvious frontrunner before Super Tuesday.

1There is no formal ballot access in Iowa, so it is possible that Bloomberg could "crash the party" and see support in the caucuses. We're told his name is listed on the Iowa Democratic Party's results reporting form.

The Road to 270: Vermont

The Road to 270 is a weekly column leading up to the presidential election. Each installment is dedicated to understanding one state’s political landscape and how that might influence which party will win its electoral votes in 2020. We’ll do these roughly in order of expected competitiveness, moving toward the most intensely contested battlegrounds as election day nears. 

The Road to 270 will be published every Monday. The column is written by Seth Moskowitz, a 270toWin elections and politics contributor. Contact Seth at s.k.moskowitz@gmail.com or on Twitter @skmoskowitz.


Vermont, now heavily Democratic, was once fertile Republican territory. The first presidential nominee of that newly formed party received 78% of the vote here in 1856. The state would vote with the GOP for the next 26 elections. That single party streak is the longest in American history. Between 1856 and 1988, the state only voted once for a Democratic nominee.

Vermont has often been an anomaly. Its state legislature was the first to legalize same-sex marriage and recreational marijuana use. It was one of just two states to resist Franklin Roosevelt’s 1936 landslide. This nonconformist tradition traces back nearly four centuries, before Vermont was called Vermont.

Settlement to Statehood

Though Vermont is now a part of New England, it was the French who originally settled here. The French explorer, Samuel de Champlain, was the first European to reach the territory and he claimed it as a part of New France. It was over a half century later, in 1666, that the first permanent settlement would actually be built.

French control continued until the territory was relinquished following the French and Indian War. The Treaty of Paris in 1763 ended French rule and handed the colony over to the British.

At the time, the land was called the New Hampshire Grants and claimed by New Hampshire. In 1764, New York claimed parts of the territory, threatening the New Hampshire land owners. A militia called the Green Mountain Boys organized to defend against the newcomers. After successfully fighting off the New Yorkers, representatives of the New Hampshire Grants declared the land an independent republic in 1777. They named it New Connecticut.

Later that year, New Connecticut renamed itself Vermont. From the beginning, Vermont was ahead of its time. Its original constitution abolished slavery and instituted universal male suffrage.

After Vermont settled residual New York land claims and ratified the U.S. Constitution, it was admitted to the Union on March 4, 1791. It was the first state created outside of the original 13 colonies and was admitted as a pair to Kentucky in order to continue the balance of political power between north and south.

Three periods in the state’s political history were especially formative. First is the development of the Republican Party; second is that party's dominance from 1856 through 1988; third is the late 20th century shift to staunchly Democratic. We’ll first look at these three eras and then get to Vermont’s contemporary political landscape.

The Development of the GOP

Vermont’s political identity as a loyal Republican state traces back to the Anti-Masonic Party. The party opposed the Masons, a secret fraternal society that was seen as subversive and antidemocratic. The Anti-Masonic Party was the United States’ first major third party and found the most success in Vermont. In the 1832 presidential election, Vermont cast its seven electoral votes for the Anti-Masonic Party candidate, the only state to do so. The party quickly broke down as the Masons began to lose influence and fear of the group faded.

After the Anti-Masonic Party’s decline, many of its members joined the Whig Party. The Whig Party’s primary concern was shifting federal power from the Executive Branch (the president) to the Legislative Branch (Congress).  The defining issue for Vermonters, however, was slavery. They had been opposed to the practice going back to the 18th Century. The Whigs, while not explicitly an anti-slavery party, better reflected the abolitionist position of the population than the Democratic Party of that era. The state was pushed further into the Whig camp due to ethnic polarization; Protestant farmers, of which Vermont had many, broadly favored the Whigs. From 1836 to 1852, Vermont voted for the Whig Party in each presidential election. 1

1These five elections represent the entire history of the party in presidential elections. Two Whigs were elected, William Henry Harrison (1840) and Zachary Taylor (1848). Both died in office.

The Whig Party fractured before the 1856 election over the question of slavery. In its place came the Republican Party. The new party, formed primarily as a vehicle to oppose slavery, attracted abolitionist Whigs and took hold in Vermont for over a century. Unlike some coastal states, Vermont did not have significant trade ties to the South. This made it even less friendly to the Southern economy and its reliance on slavery. In 1860, Republican Abraham Lincoln beat Democrat Stephen Douglas 76% to 19% here, his best showing of any state in the nation.

A Century of Republican Dominance

Vermont would continue to vote Republican for the next century. The 1912 election, perhaps better than any other, illustrates the state’s unwavering Republican loyalty. That year the Republican Party was split between its official nominee, William Taft, and a popular former Republican, Theodore Roosevelt, who ran as a third-party candidate. The divide handed Democrat Woodrow Wilson a 435-88 Electoral College victory even as he only carried 42% of the vote to Roosevelt and Taft’s combined 51%. The Republican Party’s official nominee, Taft, only won the plurality in two states, one of which was Vermont.

Jump ahead to 1932 and Vermont again votes Republican in a Democratic landslide. Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal coalition, which brought together labor unions, city political machines, minorities, urban intellectuals and farmers, ushered in a new era of Democratic Party dominance. Roosevelt carried every state except six, one of which was Vermont. Results in 1936 were even more stark than in 1932. That year, Roosevelt won 61% of the popular vote and carried every state except two — Vermont and Maine.

Roosevelt won over city machines, labor, minorities, and white southern farmers, groups that were not heavily represented in Vermont. The state was largely made up of conservative white protestants working as farmers, factory workers, and miners, groups that didn’t fit well into FDR’s coalition.

Change Begins

In the 1960s, Vermont began to change. Urbanites from New York and Massachusetts began looking for a quieter life or vacation homes and Vermont was the destination. Next door, New Hampshire also became a home for these city escapees. The two states, however, took different paths of environmental regulation and taxation. Vermont put an emphasis on preserving its pristine environment. In doing so it attracted environmentalists, progressives, and younger, liberal professionals. Meanwhile, New Hampshire, with its low taxes and “Live Free or Die” motto pulled in conservative-minded newcomers.

Vermont’s vacation economy grew as people built summer homes and ski resorts. Similarly, IBM built a production and design facility outside Burlington in 1957. The facility’s success drew in other technology companies, eventually creating a small technology hub in the city.

As more newcomers moved to Vermont, a divide in the populace developed. Old Vermont comprised the traditional, rural, fiscally conservative, less educated, and ancestrally Republican old Vermonters. The new Vermont was younger, more educated and liberal.

The first crack in the state’s century old Republican dominance came in 1964. Vermont, in voting for Democrat Lyndon Johnson did not cast its electoral votes for the Republican nominee for the first time since 1856. However, that was short-lived. The state snapped back to its Republican trend in 1968 and voted for the party through George H.W. Bush’s victory in 1988.

In 1992, the new Democratic coalition overtook the old Republican guard. Since Democrat Bill Clinton’s victory that year, Democrats have carried Vermont in every presidential election.

Recent Presidential Politics

Democrats have carried Vermont by double digits in every presidential election since 1992. In 2008, Barack Obama routed John McCain by 37%, far outpacing any recent Democratic nominee. Four years later, Obama again dominated the state, beating Mitt Romney by 36%. In 2016, Hillary Clinton beat Donald Trump in Vermont with a 26% margin. This was a decisive victory, but less commanding than Obama’s 2008 and 2012 victories.

The trend in Vermont was the same as the nation overall, with Trump improving in rural regions and Clinton in urban ones. Trump performed much better in the “Northeast Kingdom”, the three counties in the northeast corner of the state. Trump managed to flip one of these, Essex County, making him the first Republican to carry any county in Vermont since 2004. Essex County is the least dense county in the state, making it the most inclined to lean Republican.

Trump received a slightly smaller percentage of the vote than Romney in 2012. The tighter margins are mostly due to Clinton bleeding support to Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders. While Obama won 67% of the vote in 2012, Clinton only carried 57%. Seven percent of the total vote count were write-in votes, almost all of which went to Sanders.

Clinton only performed better than Obama in Chittenden County. The county is home to the state’s biggest and most dense city, Burlington. The city is more diverse than the rest of the state, in part due to being a major resettlement city for refugees and is home to a growing technology sector.

A Counterintuitive State

Gallup Polling recently labeled Vermont the 3rd most liberal and the least religious state in the nation. The state has a Democratic-Socialist Senator, Bernie Sanders, who flattened Hillary Clinton in the 2016 primary by 86% to 14%.

Vermont also broke progressive ground in legalizing same sex marriage and recreational marijuana use. The state has strict environmental regulations and passed its own Clean Air Act. As of 2014, Burlington reported that 100% of its energy comes from renewable sources. The state even has a land trust that buys farmland in order to slow the collapse of local, family owned farms.

These progressive achievements seem contradictory to recent Republicans successes in Vermont. The state had a Republican governor from 2003-2009, years when Democrats easily won the state in presidential elections. The current governor, Republican Phil Scott, won his race in 2016 as Clinton carried the state by 26%. Scott won re-election2 in 2018 by 15%.

2 Vermont and New Hampshire are the only states with a two-year term for governor.

The GOP success is largely due to the type of Republicans that run in the state. Vermont Republicans are notoriously moderate. Governor Phil Scott brands himself as a fiscal conservative and social moderate. He’s a pro-choice Republican who supports same-sex marriage and backed the impeachment inquiry into President Trump.

Vermont’s idiosyncratic political landscape is also partly responsible for Republican success in a deep blue state. The state does not have party registration and holds open primaries, which can weaken voter loyalty and party ties. The state is also small in size and population. With only 620,000 people and 9,200 square miles, retail campaigning is easier and candidates can personally interact with a critical mass of voters.

As the country becomes increasingly polarized by demographics, Vermont could continue the rightward drift that was evident in 2016. The state’s white, aging, and rural characteristics could make it a long-term target for Republicans. Even with this trend, though, Vermont is safe for Democrats in November. The Democratic nominee is all but certain to win the state and will likely do so by a wide margin.

Next Week:  South Dakota

Reports in this series: