We all know about the Electoral College and its inherent importance on winning the majority of a state's vote (yes, except Maine and Nebraska) rather than winning a national majority. A quick civics crash course tells you that the Electoral College takes America's population and subdivides it into 538 'votes', divvied up according to a state's share of the national population, with the idea of giving all states, rural and urban, a relatively proportional and equal voice in determining the federal leader.
It's always fascinated me that the fate of America and, perhaps, the free world can be broken down into a handful of counties in these swing states. What's also fascinating, however, is that 2016 took more than a handful of counties that traditionally lean a certain direction and flipped them. Basically, traditional swing counties took on somewhat less importance, while others threw the election upside down in their place.
Only one of the counties on this list numerically put Donald Trump over the top in a given state (Macomb County, Michigan). But it's what these counties stood for and where they were located that sealed that the Electoral College and, thus, the presidency was Trump's.
Let me explain.
1) Brown County, Wisconsin:
It's on the so-called frozen turf of Green Bay that the smallest bit of football-loving real estate spelled out the largest of political implications for America in 2016.
Of all of Donald Trump's surprising state wins, it's maybe Wisconsin's 10 electoral votes that sent the biggest shockwaves across the country. It was so assumed to be a part of Hillary Clinton's seemingly 'blue wall' of reliably democratic states that she didn't even bother to campaign in the Badger State during the entire election cycle. Anchored by reliably blue Madison and Milwaukee in the south, even the northern, rural portion of the state has traditionally split its vote fairly evenly, with larger population centers like Green Bay usually leaning only slightly red in recent presidential cycles.
But like much of the Midwest, 2016 will forever be remembered in American political circles because of places like Brown County, Wisconsin. Home to Green Bay, world famous, of course, for the Packers and the dairy-producing turf its legendary football team represents, this is by far the most populated county in the central and northern portion of the state.
That said, Brown County has only voted for a Democratic candidate once in the last four presidential cycles (Obama, 2008). But what happened here in 2016 represented the central and northern part of the state of Wisconsin as a whole.
Mitt Romney edged out Obama in Brown County by a grand total of 2,300 votes in 2012, or a smidge under 1.8 percentage points. In 2016, however, Donald Trump expanded Romney's victory in the county by nearly 12,000 votes, or nearly 11%, using Brown County to counter out the heavily Democratic south, plagued by low Democratic turnout, and squeak by with a 27,000 vote (1.0%) statewide victory. Bordering Calumet, Oconto, Manitowoc and Outagamie Counties also featured huge, double-digit four-year shifts from 2012, gravitating towards Trump's populist message.
Small-to-medium working class cities in the Midwest swung the election for Trump, perhaps none more decisively so than Green Bay and Brown County.
2) Macomb County, Michigan:
This list will mostly feature small cities in relatively rural areas. Macomb County, in the heart of Detroit's predominately white northern suburbs, is the glaring exception. The third-most populated county in Michigan, Macomb is bordered by Wayne County, home to Detroit. It's typically fairly bellwether, voting decisively for Obama in 2008 and 2012 but narrowly going to George W. Bush in 2004. It's also home to the famous coalition of so-called Reagan Democrats, a group of mostly white, working-class voters that defected from their party to vote for Ronald Reagan in the 1980s.
Much like Wisconsin, Michigan was deemed a relatively reliable part of Clinton's so-called blue Midwest wall, featuring a last-second flurry of Clinton visits that proved to be (barely) too little, too late to hold onto the state's 16 pivotal electoral votes. Clinton lost the state by less than 12,000 votes out of the nearly five million ballots cast here.
While the rural portion of the state saw large swings in Trump's favor, perhaps none were more pronounced - or impactful - as what happened in Macomb. Trump won here by more than 48,000 votes, or more than four times the total statewide margin. Safe to say, this stunning result put Michigan squarely into Trump's win column.
Perhaps most impressively, it was Trump that did what Republicans had long sought to do and thought they might be able to do four years prior: turn Michigan red. Michigan native Romney (he grew up in neighboring Oakland County) couldn't turn Macomb or Michigan red in 2012, losing the county by 17,000 votes and the state by 9.5%, a landslide in modern polarized American politics, particularly in a swing-ish state.
Trump, however, won Macomb handily, winning the county by nearly 12 points and using the county's population-rich prize as his springboard to narrowly upsetting Clinton in Michigan.
3) Luzerne County, Pennsylvania:
Even if you're not from the Northeast you've probably heard of Scranton, the pop culture home of The Office's fictitious Dunder Mifflin Paper Company (there's also a fantastic fake Dunder Mifflin Company website here, fellow Office fans!). The Electric City is famous for its steel mills, and now in 2016, it'll be remember for its dramatic shift towards Donald Trump and its huge impact on the 2016 presidential election.
Luzerne voted for Trump by nearly 20 percentage points on November 8th, besting Clinton by more than 26,000 votes overall. But that's not necessarily the shocking part. This isn't Republican-heavy Johnstown or Altoona in the state's notoriously red, rural portion of the state, where margins of that sort are the norm for Republican candidates. Luzerne is a county that, albeit by typically small-ish, single-digit margins, had voted Democratic in every presidential election since 1988, a nearly perfect reflection of the state itself.
But 2016 not only switched Luzerne's party allegiance, it blew it out of the water. Luzerne's 26,000 Trump-leaning advantage not only signified a simple blue-to-red switch, it was the sixth-largest raw vote margin for Trump in the entire state. Trump won Pennsylvania by a tick over 68,000 votes, and he was able to garner almost half that margin in Luzerne alone, an incredible feat in a blue-leaning county, though one Trump made a long, hard push in.
Erie County, nestled in the northwest corner of the Keystone State, gets a strong mention with a 21,000 vote flip after handing Obama a 58-41 percentage win four years ago.
4) Pasco County, Florida:
It's no secret that the key to winning Florida starts and ends with the famed Interstate-4 corridor, where heavily Democratic south Florida intersects the ruby red northern half of America's largest swing state. The 2016 election was no exception, but this election cycle saw a drastic shift in a particular corner of the Tampa-Orlando-Daytona Beach corridor notorious for making or breaking a candidate's election hopes.
Clinton appeared to pour her biggest efforts into the Orlando area's rapidly growing Latino population, while Trump concentrated on the Tampa-St. Petersburg-Clearwater corridor bordering the Gulf of Mexico.
Trump and Vice President-elect Mike Pence made no less than five visits to the Tampa area in the campaign's final weeks, and the strategy paid off particularly well just north of the city here in neighboring Pasco County. Pasco is home to nearly half a million residents, largely recent retirees, and a county that's been somewhat of a bellwether in past cycles, though with a small but clear Republican lean. Mitt Romney took the county by a little over six percentage points in 2012, a sizable margin but not enough to counter neighboring blue-leaning Pinellas (St. Petersburg and Clearwater) and Hillsborough (Tampa), when Obama won Florida in 2012 by less than a percentage point.
In 2016, Pasco showed one of the biggest raw vote and percentage increases of any county in the country in Trump's favor, moving red by an astonishing 40,000 votes, or about 15 percent. This was part of the Tampa-area trend towards Trump, as Pinellas County moved redder by more than 30,000 votes from a slight Obama lean in 2012 to a small, 5,000-ish Trump lean in 2016.
Here's another way to look at Pasco's impact on the election: Trump won Florida by less than 120,000 votes overall (about 1.3%), and about a third of that advantage came from Pasco alone. Throw in Pinellas, and more than half of Trump's statewide advantage came from these two bellwether, I-4 counties alone.
5) Clinton County, Iowa:
Perhaps the most stunning reversal coast-to-coast lies here, just north of the Quad Cities in the heart of rural America. For seven straight elections dating back to Ronald Reagan's 1984 blowout of Walter Mondale, Clinton County had gone reliably blue, and importantly so. In 2000, Al Gore won Iowa by barely 4,000 votes (a paper-thin 0.3% statewide), and Clinton County's nearly 3,000 vote margin in favor of the former Vice President accounted for a huge chunk of that tiny majority.
But 2016 saw a totally different and nearly unbelievable switch in party loyalty here. Trump topped Clinton by a small-ish 1,200 votes out of the approximately 23,000 county-wide ballots cast, or by about five percentage points. No, that's not all that significant of a majority, but if you take 2012's 3,000-vote, 13-percentage point margin for Obama here, and Obama's 60-38 point stomping (roughly 6,000 vote) in 2008, and you get a pretty shocking, eye-catching turnaround that happened in just eight years.
In short, 32.6% Clinton County-ites flipped blue to red in eight years, far accelerating Iowa's statewide 19.5% simultaneous shift in that timeframe. With nearly a third of the county switching sides in under a decade, its rural margins and switches like this helped Trump win the White House.
It's worth noting that Iowa's six electorate votes ultimately didn't make a huge difference - Trump would've still won the Electoral College had he lost the Hawkeye State - but this sort of drastic rural 'flip' was part of Clinton's widely-publicized Midwest collapse. And no state better exemplified the Midwest shift better than Iowa's double-digit red shift in 2016.
There are dozens and hundreds of counties that decided this election with drastic swings from Ohio's Mahoning Valley to the Florida panhandle to the coal-producing Pocono Mountains of Pennsylvania, but these five counties showed particularly large trends in relatively compact spaces and populations, overall showing massive rural and exburban, and in some instances, even suburban voting shifts that exceeded even the most optimistic of Trump forecasts.
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