In March of 2019 I asked a simple question: President Donald Trump won the swing states of Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin by a combined 77,000 votes. What counties in those states would have changed that if they had not swung his way?
The standard was simple. Find the counties that voted for Barack Obama in 2012 and flipped to Trump in 2016. Get the differences in those county votes between those two elections, and find a few that add up to the amount Trump won the state by. Trump won by 10,704 votes in Michigan, 44,292 in Pennsylvania and 22,748 in Wisconsin.
We pared it down to just seven counties total—three in Pennsylvania, one in Michigan, and three in Wisconsin.
Think about it this way: There are 3,142 counties in the United States. President Trump could lose reelection if 3,135 counties voted as they did in 2016, but 7 counties do not.
That was 18 months ago, before Joe Biden, before COVID, before George Floyd.
So here are how those seven counties are faring a few weeks a before the election.
Northampton County, PA—Trump beat Clinton by 5,000 votes after Obama beat Romney by 6,000.
Northampton is in the northeast part of the state, and has been transitioning from the manufacturing economy to transportation and service. In Pennsylvania’s 7th Congressional District, which includes Northampton County, Biden is ahead of Trump 51 percent to 44 percent in one recent poll.
In that poll—which was taken before the the debate and Trump’s COVID infection—voters said the economy was the top issue, followed by the pandemic, health care, and law and order.
Luzerne County, PA—Trump beat Clinton by 26,000 votes; Obama beat Romney by 6,000.
Luzerne got a lot of attention recently when it was discovered that a temporary election worker had mistakenly thrown out nine overseas mail-in ballots.
In 2016, Trump beat Clinton by nearly 20 points. Is he holding on to that margin? Benjamin Toll, a political scientist at Wilkes University, said recently that “There’s not a lot of evidence that Donald Trump is losing popularity in Luzerne County. He’s likely to still win here. Whether it will translate to him winning Pennsylvania is a different story.”
Erie County, PA—Trump beat Clinton by 2,000 votes; Obama beat Romney by 20,000 votes.
One spot where Biden is doing much better than Trump is among older voters and Erie County skews older. About 19 percent of residents are over 65; the median age is two years above the national average.
In Pennsylvania, according to an AARP poll, Biden is winning with voters over 65 by 11 points. In a June survey taken in Erie County, 54 percent of the respondents said Trump was “ineffective” in addressing the local “economic recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic.”
Macomb County, MI—Trump beat Clinton by 48,000 votes; Obama beat Romney by 16,000 votes
In a state where Trump only won by about 11,000 votes, the voter flip in Macomb County was huge in 2016.
There have been signs—namely, reduced ad spending—that the Trump campaign has all but given up on holding Michigan. But on the other hand, they did send Donald Trump Jr. to Macomb County in mid-September to join up with Kid Rock for a concert/boat rally combo. As Donald Jr. told the crowd “Close by, liberal heads must be exploding.”
But what’s really exploding are the number of absentee ballot applications for this election in the county: 215,000 this year compared with 121,000 in 2016). Not good for Trump.
Racine County, WI—Trump beat Clinton by 4,000 votes; Romney beat Obama by 3,600 votes.
Along with Kenosha County to the south, Racine has been on the front lines of the law and order issues/protests. Trump has scored poorly in a recent statewide poll in how he has handled the protests (37 percent approve, 54 percent disapprove), but it is difficult to figure out which side Racine County is on. The key question is whether voters there are tired of Trump stoking the fires, or think he is acting appropriately.
And Charles Franklin, a political scientist who runs the Marquette Law School poll, thinks the protests issues are taking a back seat as we get closer to the election: “His handling of COVID-19 does appear to be having a bigger effect on people’s vote than either the economy or his handling of the protests.”
Chippewa County, WI—Trump beat Clinton by 6,000 votes; Romney beat Obama by 150 votes.
Taiwanese flat screen TV and LCD panel manufacturer FoxConn was supposed to invest $10 billion in plants and research facilities here. The project was touted bigly by Trump. But little has actually come to fruition and the endgame—if and when there is one—will likely be much smaller than it was sold as.
Add to that the economic uncertainty stemming from having four big state university campuses (Eau Claire, Stout, River Falls, and La Crosse) nearby, all of whom are having to adjust to the COVID-19 pandemic.
And then there’s the recent Wisconsin spike in COVID-19 cases, which is hitting the county hard as well.
Brown County, WI—Trump beat Clinton by 14,000 votes; Romney beat Obama by 2,300 votes.
COVID-19 has hit this county very hard, with hospitals filling up and Green Bay becoming one of the top 20 U.S. metro areas with the highest number of positive cases per 100,000 people.
University of Wisconsin economist Noah Williams says that the state’s economic recovery seems to have slowed, if not reversed, because of the outbreak. “Clearly it’s going to depend on how long it takes to get this spike under control and get things back to normal,” Williams said. “But I think there’s already signs that it’s already slowing the recovery and delaying things and certainly has ability or the capacity to do so even more.”
In sum: Of the critical seven counties, none of them look better for Trump than they were in 2016. And most of them look a good deal worse.