Three years after a presidential election that came down to 77,000 votes in three Midwestern battlegrounds, Democrats and Republicans are eyeing a much larger battlefield ahead of the 2020 contests, one that stretches from the picturesque coastline of rural Maine to the high desert of Arizona.
Interviews with two dozen strategists, political scientists and observers show the 10 counties that will determine the outcome of the 2020 presidential election.
The critical tipping points are as diverse as the American electorate. Some are suburban neighborhoods where both Trump and former President Obama won. Others are longtime Republican strongholds that show signs of slipping. Still others have voted Democratic since the New Deal, only to be broken by Trump’s historic campaign.
Here are the 10 counties that will determine whether Trump gets a second term:
Erie County, Pa.
Settled by Yankee migrants from New England, this Pennsylvania manufacturing hub has long resembled Massachusetts or New York more than parts of Pennsylvania founded by Quakers. But in 2016, after years of population exodus, Erie County flipped, and Trump became the first Republican to win here since Ronald Reagan in 1984.
Sauk County, Wis.
The historical home of the Ringling Brothers circus has become a political circus itself, as once-genteel Wisconsin politics has descended into acrimonious partisanship.
The tension is evident in Sauk County, west of Madison, where small towns interrupt miles of farmland and where an influx of commuters to the growing capital have set up a clash between the red rurals and the blue sprawl.
Muskegon County, Mich.
The first western outposts established on Lake Michigan were set up by French traders as the War of 1812 raged. Muskegon takes its name from the Ottawa Indian word for marshy river or swamp.
Maricopa County, Ariz.
As partisan politics increasingly break down along urban and rural lines, Arizona Republicans are becoming more nervous. Arizona is the most urbanized state in the Republican column, and its most urban county, Maricopa, shows signs of inching left.
In 2016, Trump beat Clinton in Maricopa County by just 3 percentage points, a slightly lower margin than his statewide edge. Only one Republican in recent history has won a statewide election without winning Maricopa County.
Tarrant County, Texas
Rapid population growth in Texas’s largest cities is masking another troubling trend for the state’s dominant Republican Party: Their margins of victory are declining even in historically red regions.
Tarrant County, home of Fort Worth, is one of those regions. Republicans there peaked in 2004, when Bush scored 62 percent of the vote, or 349,000 votes. Twelve years later, Trump won just 52 percent of the vote, or 346,000 votes. Two years after that, then-Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D) won Tarrant County by 4,000 votes over Sen. Ted Cruz (R).
Trump won the county by 2.9 percentage points. He won North Carolina by 3.6 points.
Peach County, Ga.
About a hundred miles south of Atlanta lies one of the country’s clearest examples of a combined racial and geographic divide. In the middle of rural Georgia, Peach County’s residents are about half white and 45 percent African American. About half live in its cities, and half live in rural areas.
Washington County, Minn.
Minnesota represents one of a small number of states that voted for Clinton in 2016 that presents Trump with a chance to expand his map in 2020. If he wants to win here, he must carry Washington County, along the border with Wisconsin.
The first white settlers arrived along the banks of the St. Croix River to log its rich forests. In 1838, early residents in Stillwater, the county seat, formally petitioned Congress to create a new state called Minnesota. Today, its residents are more likely to commute to the booming Twin Cities. A fifth of its residents have moved in since 2000, blending its rural roots with exurban sprawl.
Hillsborough County, N.H.
Another opportunity for the Trump campaign to pick up electoral votes comes in New Hampshire, a state Clinton won by fewer than 3,000 votes. Trump could close that gap by winning a bigger margin in Hillsborough County, the largest in the state, where he led Clinton by fewer than 500 votes.
Lincoln County, Maine
Lincoln County reflects many of today’s most fraught political dividing lines all in one, and all well-balanced. For two centuries it has been a working-class hub, home of shipbuilding industries and the lobster fisheries that give Maine its distinctive contribution to American cuisine.
Those rival factions fought to a near draw in 2016. Clinton won Lincoln County, 47.6 percent to 45.2 percent — nearly identical to her 2-point win in the popular vote. If Trump keeps his blue-collar base, or if ancestral Republicans break against him and cost him the White House, Lincoln County will be the microcosm through which to view the 2020 outcome.