Republicans have their sights set on the Midwest for 2016. Three GOP Midwestern governors have been rumored as presidential candidates, and Republicans have recently won big on the state level across the region. They hold six of the Midwest's governors' seats and 10 of its 14 legislative chambers. It's also hard to see Republicans being competitive in the electoral college in 2016 without more wins in the Midwest, unless one buys that the GOP can seriously improve its Latino vote share in the Southwest and Florida after continuing to demagogue Latinos as a group.
But 2016 isn't 2014, when the GOP performed so well in the Midwest. Democrats' prospects for winning the Midwest look strong in the 2016 Presidential election. Hillary Clinton leads in the states where public polling exists, beating even natives like John Kasich (Ohio) and Scott Walker (Wisconsin). Democrats also have a structural advantage in the Midwest in a presidential election that shows no signs of abating.
Unless noted otherwise, all numbers below are based on election results and exit polls. There's no one definition of the Midwest, but I've defined it here as Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio and Wisconsin. Groups discussed across states (e.g. whites in the Midwest) have been weighted by the number of votes each group cast in each state, using vote totals and exit polls.
Democrats' inherent advantage in the Midwest
The Midwest has two obvious swing-state targets for Republicans (Ohio, Iowa); Bush won Ohio twice and Iowa once. It's likely those states will be competitive again. But outside of those two places, Democrats have a good hold on their historically-strong Midwest states. There's no fundamental shift going on that would suggest other Midwestern states are in play, and the conventional wisdom that the old, white Midwest is ripe to abandon Democrats is wrong for multiple reasons.
- The Midwest is not trending away from Democrats for President. If Democrats were in trouble here, surely there would have been signs of this in Obama's performance. However, in the Midwest, Obama outperformed his national result in both of his elections.
Democrats have run 1-2 points ahead of their national vote in the region the past three cycles, with no apparent trend towards either party. Obama also cleaned up in the Electoral College in the Midwest, winning by a combined 176 - 11 (his only loss was Indiana in 2012). Obama even handily won Wisconsin in 2012 (53 percent Obama / 46 percent Romney) with Wisconsin native Paul Ryan on the GOP ticket.
- Democrats hold their own with whites in the Midwest. Obama struggled with whites nationally because Southern whites went so hard against him. He ran close to Republicans among Midwestern whites, as Democrats have done historically. Obama won Midwestern whites in 2008 (51 percent Obama / 49 percent McCain), and he got a much larger share of Midwest white votes in 2012 (46 percent) than he did of the national white vote share (39 percent).
Obama also bested John Kerry's performance with Midwestern whites in both of his elections (45 percent Kerry / 55 percent Bush), so there's no evidence of a broad white trend towards Republicans here. The three whitest Midwestern states in 2012, as per the exit polls? Three Obama wins: Iowa (93 percent white), Minnesota (87 percent), and Wisconsin (86 percent).
- There's a growing white gender gap that Clinton is well-poised to exploit. One Midwestern trend: white women are becoming more Democratic while white men shift more Republican.
Given Hillary Clinton's historic candidacy, it's not hard to see this trend persisting or even expanding. That's a good problem for Democrats to have, given that white female voters outnumber their white male counterparts.
- Democrats have a partisan advantage in the Midwest. Across the Midwest, Democrats in 2012 had a +8 advantage in partisan self-identification (39 percent Democrat / 31 percent Republican / 30 percent Independent). Democrats had a lead in Party ID in five states (IL +17 Dem, MI +10, MN +8, OH +7, WI+5), they were tied in Iowa, and Republicans led only in Indiana (IN +5 GOP).
- The Midwest isn't as white as you might think. Democratic-leaning voters of color are growing as a vote share here, just as they are across America.
The 6-point decline in white vote share from 2004 to 2012 is one point higher than the more than the 5-point national decline in white vote share over that same time (from 77 percent in 2004 to 72 percent in 2012). Republicans continue to alienate non-white voters at their peril in the Midwest, just like in America writ large.
As a thought experiment, if Barack Obama got the exact same vote share in the Midwest with whites, Latinos, and African-Americans as John Kerry did (46 percent white / 88 percent African-American / 70 percent Latino), he would have won 52 percent of the two-party vote compared to Kerry's 50 percent. To win the Midwest, Republicans are going to have to either win many more votes among non-white voters or run up margins among whites they haven't seen since the Reagan landslides.
Midwestern 2016 outlook
In other words, all of Obama's improvement over Kerry in the Midwest was driven by gains among those under 45 years old. And many of Obama's gains were among voters in their 30s and 40s, not just big wins among the touchscreen generation.
To win, Hillary Clinton either needs to:
- Retain the Obama coalition of voters in their 20s, 30s, or 40s
- Expand beyond Obama and Kerry's results with older voters
If she can do both -- not out of the question -- she'll win big in the Midwest.
Right now, Clinton's Midwestern vote share looks more like Obama's than Kerry's in the swingiest states. The limited fresh state-level polling in the Midwest bodes well for Clinton. Numbers in each state are based off of simple averages of every poll released in 2015 (data available here).
- Iowa (the most polled Midwestern state). Clinton leads by 3 points over her closest challengers (44-41 v. Huckabee, 44-41 v. Paul) and by 8 points over her most distant (47-39 v. Carson). She also beats Scott Walker by 8 points (47-39) despite Walker being governor of bordering Wisconsin. 2012 result: Obama +6
- Ohio. Clinton leads all comers by a minimum of 9 points (47-38 v. Rubio, 47-38 v. Paul), with the exception of Ohio governor John Kasich, who she leads by 1 point (44-43). 2012 result: Obama +3
- Wisconsin. Again, Clinton holds large leads here. Her closest rivals are down 7 points to her (47-40 v. Huckabee, 49-42 v. Paul), and she beats Wisconsin governor Scott Walker by 10 points (52-42). 2012 result: Obama +7
There has been no public polling in Illinois or Indiana on 2016 matchups, and the stale (2014) polling in Minnesota and Michigan shows Clinton double-digit leads over all her potential Republican opponents.
This advantage isn't solely name ID, which Clinton of course has the benefit of. She's beating two sitting governors in their own states -- Scott Walker in Wisconsin and John Kasich in Ohio. Clinton's lead in the Midwest is built off her strength as well as the weaknesses of the Republican field. Walker should be particularly concerning for Republicans who thinks he puts the Midwest in play: right now Midwestern native Hillary Clinton trounces him in all three of the region's states he could win in the GOP's realistic good-news scenario.
So far, Clinton looks a lot more likely to repeat Obama's 80 electoral votes out of the Midwest than Kerry's 58. Based on past results and the polling currently available, Clinton has 56 electoral votes well in her corner. She also has the advantage in the two swing states (Iowa and Ohio) where Republicans have their best shot.
These numbers aren't set in stone -- if Republicans win the national vote in an as-yet-unforeseen landslide, they'll naturally pick up states in the Midwest. If Clinton wins big nationally, Indiana's in play for her. But in the most realistic partisan environment, Clinton holds a clear advantage in the region in the electoral college:
- Likely Clinton: 56. Illinois (20), Michigan (16), Wisconsin (10), Minnesota (10)
- Lean Clinton: 24. Ohio (18), Iowa (6)
- Likely GOP: 11. Indiana (11)
Brian Stryker is a partner at Anzalone Liszt Grove Research who heads their Midwest office in Chicago, IL. His partner John Anzalone is part of the polling team for Hillary Clinton's campaign for President, and ALG polled for Barack Obama's 2008 and 2012 Presidential campaigns.