That’s something of a surprise, because Trump has focused his message and agenda so precisely on the priorities and resentments of the older, rural and non-college Whites who dominate the electorate in Rust Belt states, while the Sun Belt states are adding many more of the younger non-White voters who increasingly compose the Democrats’ base.
Through the 2020s, many Democrats believe that the party will need to make greater inroads in both congressional and presidential contests across the diversifying Sun Belt — including not only this year’s targets but also emerging opportunities led by Texas and Georgia — to offset the likelihood that Republicans will compete more effectively throughout the preponderantly White Rust Belt.
But if Biden can regain enough ground in the Rust Belt in November to win the White House, he’ll buy time for Democrats to allow increasing racial diversity and a steady influx of college-educated White professionals to strengthen their hand in Sun Belt states that have leaned reliably Republican for decades.
As on many fronts, Biden’s electoral strategy may not define the Democrats’ long-term direction, but he may revive just enough of the party’s past to sustain it until that future comes more clearly into focus. “You don’t want to be in a position of having to make the Sun Belt work [this year],” says Ruy Teixeira, a veteran Democratic electoral analyst who’s a senior fellow at the left-leaning Center for American Progress. “You want to be in a position of having a lot more degrees of freedom than that. That’s the beauty of Biden in this election.”
The electoral battlefield this year offers almost perfect symmetry between the Sun Belt and the Rust Belt. The six states noted above, which both sides consider the most competitive, split evenly between the regions. So does the next tier of possibly competitive states.
Though facing longer odds than in the first group, Democrats see opportunity in four more states Trump carried last time: Iowa and Ohio across the Rust Belt, and Georgia and Texas in the Sun Belt. Meanwhile, the two states carried by Hillary Clinton that Trump is most hoping to pry loose — again at longer odds — also divide between the Rust Belt (Minnesota) and Sun Belt (Nevada).
A geographic shift
The equal number of contested states in each region is in one sense unexpected. Over the past generation, Democrats have consistently run better in both presidential and congressional contests in the Rust Belt than the Sun Belt. Of the potentially competitive Rust Belt states this year, Democrats carried four of them in all six elections from 1992 to 2012 (Michigan, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Minnesota), Iowa five times and Ohio four. By comparison, they won Texas not at all, Georgia, Arizona and North Carolina only once and Florida three times; only in Nevada (four wins) did they prevail most of the time.
But the 2016 election — shaped by Trump’s polarizing message and persona — rattled this alignment. Behind big gains among Whites without college degrees, he surged forward in the Rust Belt, routing Clinton in Ohio and Iowa, narrowly capturing Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin and significantly reducing the margin in Minnesota, which Clinton held by less than 2 percentage points. Trump benefited from big gains in small-town and rural places, and his strength in those communities remains formidable to this day. Even now, “there is a huge urban-rural divide” across the Midwest, notes Craig Robinson, the former political director of the Iowa Republican Party.
The picture in the Sun Belt was more complex. Clinton solidified earlier Democratic gains in well-educated and diverse Virginia and Colorado, moving them from swing states toward a deeper shade of blue (to the point where neither side considers them seriously in play this year). And she significantly improved on President Barack Obama’s 2012 showing in Arizona, Georgia and Texas, three other states also being reshaped by increasing racial diversity and an influx of college-educated suburbanites, though she ultimately fell short in each. But with Trump’s strength among his core groups of older, non-college and rural Whites as the battering ram, Clinton lost ground relative to Obama in Florida, North Carolina and Nevada, winning only the latter.
Those results — combined with Trump’s strategy of targeting so much of his agenda and rhetoric at blue-collar and rural Whites on issues such as immigration and trade — seemed to…