President Joe Biden’s path to reelection just got a little harder.
As a result of Census Bureau population figures released Monday, if every state voted the same way in 2024 that they did in 2020, Biden would win three fewer Electoral College votes than he did in November, while the Republican nominee would win three more.
The shift is only a marginal one — it would only affect the closest of elections.
But that doesn’t mean the new state numbers — which are used to apportion the number of congressional districts each state gets, and thus the number of electoral votes — won’t alter the landscape in 2024 and 2028.
Here are five reasons why:
The gap between the popular vote and the Electoral College is widening.
Biden beat then-President Donald Trump by 74 Electoral College votes. A net gain of six votes for Trump wouldn’t have mattered.
But in a close race — like the one in 2000, where just five electoral votes separated George W. Bush and Al Gore — the re-balancing of the Electoral College could tip the scales.
And by improving the math for Republicans even slightly, the latest reapportionment did something even more significant for the GOP: For a party that is struggling to compete with Democrats for the popular vote, the latest population count preserved — even enhanced — the Electoral College edge that keeps the Republican Party competitive in presidential elections at all.
“It’s certainly an incremental change in the Republicans’ favor,” Tom Bonier, CEO of the Democratic data firm TargetSmart, wrote in an email. “Not quite as significant as projected, but to the extent that the Electoral College has a built in advantage in the Republicans’ favor, that advantage is now slightly larger.”
That’s significant for a party whose presidential candidates have won the national popular vote only once since 1988.
Jeff Roe, the prominent Republican strategist who guided Sen. Ted Cruz’s 2016 presidential campaign, put it this way: “After two consecutive presidential elections decided by 65,000 and 77,000 respectively, this is a very big deal.”
The GOP wins this round, but with a caveat.
Long before the 2024 campaign begins — and even without knowing who the nominees will be — the decennial shift in the Electoral College math is already tilting the landscape in the GOP’s favor.
But the kind of red states that gained electoral votes may prove meaningful. Sean Walsh, a Republican strategist who worked in the Reagan and George H.W. Bush White Houses and on several presidential campaigns, noted that Republican gains came in GOP-leaning states, “but not our dominant states” — the rural, heavily conservative states that reapportionment largely left untouched.
In other words, reapportionment benefited the Republican Party, but largely in more moderate states where Democrats are making gains or are within striking distance — not in the deep red states where its conservative base is most reliable. That means these current gains might be transitory.
For both Republicans and Democrats, Walsh said, the lesson coming out of reapportionment is that “if I were running nationally, I would be wanting to play more to the middle and not to the extremes in either party.”
“North Carolina is much more moderate than you would think, Texas is becoming more moderate, Florida is not as conservative as many people think, and Montana has an interesting libertarian streak,” he said. “All in all, for a general election, I think the moderately conservative candidate will benefit.”
The paths to 270 may change.
The clearest impact of reapportionment is that the influence of the Rust Belt in presidential politics will continue to wane in 2024 and 2028, while the Sun Belt remains ascendant. Large, Republican-leaning states that gained electoral votes, like Texas and Florida, will become slightly more important than they already are, while the big Democratic states like — New York and California — will become slightly less so.
Of the states Biden won in 2020, California, New York, Illinois, Michigan and Pennsylvania will each lose a vote, while Oregon and Colorado will both gain one. Of the states Trump won in 2020, only West Virginia and Ohio lost an Electoral College vote. But Florida, North Carolina and Montana each gained one. And Texas picked up two.
In reapportionment, Bonier said, “the trend of faster population growth in the Sun Belt continues, thereby increasing the electoral relevance of these states. Democrats will certainly look to contest Texas and Florida going forward to deny Republicans a large block of electoral college votes. “
For Democrats, it could have been much worse. Had Texas gained three Electoral College votes and Florida gained two, as expected, the swing in electoral votes from Democratic-won blue states to Republican-won red states would have been 10, not six, said the redistricting expert Paul Mitchell of Political Data, Inc.
“And, of course, there are other scenarios which would have put it at a 12-point Republican swing,” Mitchell said in an email. “So, the six electoral votes? No way of knowing if that will matter. And, if the map changes (like if FL or TX end up going Blue at some point in the decade) then what are we even talking about??”
The new numbers could backfire on Republicans in the end.
On its face, the result of reapportionment for Democrats, said Michael Ceraso, a Democratic strategist who worked for Sen. Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign in 2016 and for Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg last election, is that “the Electoral College becomes harder to obtain.”
But that’s right now.
Ten years ago, then-President Barack Obama also saw a reapportionment-related net loss of six electoral votes from his winning 2008 map. Texas gained four seats that year — two more than it’s gaining now. But reapportionment did not significantly alter the course of Obama’s 2012 reelection campaign. He won in 2012 by 126 Electoral College votes.
Moreover, the beneficiary of Electoral College vote gains and losses can change over the course of several years.
The 2010 reapportionment added votes to Arizona and Georgia, which appeared likely to benefit Republicans at the time. A decade later, it was Democrats celebrating, after Biden flipped both states last year. The same demographic changes that are helping to add population — and Electoral College votes — to the Sun Belt states may ultimately help Democrats win not just in Georgia and Arizona, but in Florida and Texas over the long haul.
Nebraska and Maine could be scrambled.
It’s hard to imagine that reapportionment will dramatically upend the 2024 campaign. No state gained so many votes as to be christened a new prize. No state lost so many as to become irrelevant.
But in a tight race, even a single electoral vote could matter — and both parties devoted at least some resources in recent years to securing single votes in Nebraska and Maine, the only two states in the nation that award Electoral College votes by congressional district.
The redrawing of congressional district lines that occurs as a result of reapportionment could alter the boundaries of those two congressional districts, changing the shape of the presidential terrain there. Republicans in Nebraska could make the state’s Omaha-based 2nd District safer for Republican Rep. Don Bacon, for instance, hurting a Democrat’s chances of carrying the district again in 2024.
But it could also just make Nebraska and Maine less important if the districts are no longer so contested as to justify an investment from a presidential campaign.
And, thanks to the newly released data, there’s no need to scratch out a win in the Omaha suburbs or in Maine if winning Texas or Florida will make up for a loss in either one of those places.
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