A handful of swing states decide US presidential elections. The 2024 contest could come down to just four.
The University of Virginia’s Center for Politics published its first forecast of the 2024 electoral college contest today, and only a handful rate as “toss-ups” where either side could win: Georgia, Wisconsin, Arizona, and Nevada. Whoever wins those states will likely win the presidency.
A lot could change, obviously, given that there are still 16 months until the 2024 elections. UVA’s first forecast for the 2020 elections pegged three states as toss-ups: Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Arizona. But there were no toss-ups in the center’s final forecast one day before the election. The group called every state right except North Carolina, which it predicted would go for Democrat Joe Biden. Instead, Republican Donald Trump won it by 1.4 percentage points.
Still, the UVA forecast is a reminder that for all the endless ads, the political brawling, and the hundreds of billions of dollars in campaign spending, US presidential contests come down to a strikingly small number of voters. Biden won a decisive electoral count victory in 2020, beating Trump 306 to 232. But he won three states — Georgia, Wisconsin, and Arizona — by less than one percentage point, and those states accounted for 37 electoral votes. Had those states gone to Trump instead, the 2020 election would have been a nightmarish 269-269 tie. Less than 1% of voters in three states swung the 2020 election to Biden.
Many analysts think the 2024 matchup will be a replay of 2020, except that Joe Biden will be the incumbent and Donald Trump the challenger. But the UVA forecast isn’t based on Biden vs. Trump polling, and it’s not even clear Trump will be the Republican nominee. Instead, the model hinges on a variety of factors, including voting trends, the state of the economy, and the incumbent’s approval rating.
The economy will likely be a top issue for voters in 2024, as it usually is in national elections. Biden’s approval rating is weak at the moment because inflation has ravaged consumer budgets for the last year and a half. The trend is going Biden’s way, though. The year-over-year inflation rate has fallen from a peak of 9% a year ago to 4% now. Economists think it will gradually drift lower. Average incomes have been falling behind inflation for most of Biden’s presidency but recently started growing on an inflation-adjusted basis for the first time since April 2021.
Statistically, the economy keeps exceeding expectations, giving Biden some successes to claim. Economists keep predicting a major slowdown in hiring, which keeps not happening. A supposed recession is always six months away. A factory boom is underway, which Biden insists he deserves credit for, whether that’s true or not. The missing piece is consumer confidence, which is depressed because of inflation.
What matters most for Biden’s reelection prospects is the economy not in 2023 but in the middle of 2024. Solid GDP growth three to six months before an election is bullish for an incumbent seeking reelection. For Biden, weak GDP growth might be good enough if inflation finally abates and unemployment stays low.
Of the four toss-up states in the UVA forecast, three — Georgia, Wisconsin, and Arizona — have an unemployment rate below the national average. That’s good news for Biden, since the status quo points toward prosperity. Nevada typically has a higher unemployment rate than average. The state has voted for the Democratic candidate in the last four presidential elections, but by declining margins. It could flip to Republicans at some point.
Some traditional swing states have shifted to one side or the other. Ohio and Florida used to be considered bellwethers, but they lean Republican now. Pennsylvania went for Trump in 2016 and Biden in 2020, as swingy as it gets. But UVA thinks the state now leans blue, in part because Democrats won big there in 2022, flipping a Senate seat and holding the governorship in a tight race. The new governor, Josh Shapiro, remains popular, another tick in Biden’s column.
Biden has begun campaigning in earnest, touring the country to tout “Bidenomics” and convince voters that things are better than they give him credit for. If the economy stays out of recession, the message might start to sink in a year from now, when it will most matter.