America is little more than nineteen months away from arguably the most important presidential election in its history, but if you live in Missouri and Illinois, there's an unpleasant truth you ought to understand:
Your vote for president doesn't matter in the 2020 general election.
The overlooked reality of American politics is that there's nothing national about our national election. Instead, it's a compilation of 51 elections (50 states plus D.C.), and the cake seems baked in as many as 35 of them, including Missouri and Illinois.
In the 2016 president election, Donald Trump won Missouri by nineteen points and lost Illinois by sixteen. Translated, Missouri was one of the sixteen most Trumpish states in the union. Illinois was one of the nine most sensible. The situation hasn't shifted: According to Morning Consult polling, Trump still has positive favorability ratings in Missouri (50-45) and negative ones in Illinois (58-38).
The only scenario in which either Missouri votes against Trump or Illinois votes for him in 2020 is if the nation has an electoral jail-break, as in 1984, when Senator Walter Mondale carried only his own state of Minnesota and D.C. Or 1972, when Senator George McGovern carried only Massachusetts and D.C. against Trump facsimile Richard Nixon. In cases like that, no individual state matters.
That doesn't mean you should tune out the election. Missouri and Illinois Democrats choose their presidential nominees at a key, early point in the process — March 10 and 17, respectively — and in Missouri's case in particular, it's likely that the candidate who emerges here from the crowded field might prove the best-suited to win the states that will prove decisive.
But here's what is overlooked by experts and everyday voters alike: Even in a year like 2016 when the nation was essentially divided down the middle between two candidates in the popular vote, that closeness belied the fact that more than two-thirds of the states produced landslide elections. Like Missouri and Illinois.
In 2016, no fewer than 35 states were decided by double-digit margins — 22 for Trump and 13 for Hillary Clinton. They cannot be expected to flip this time. Those states give the Democrats a slight electoral-vote starting edge — 182-170 — in the race to the 270 needed to win the presidency.
The 2020 outcome rests on the remaining fifteen battleground states and their 186 electoral votes. Drilling down further, 75 of those electoral votes reside in just four states that Trump won by one percent or less: Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin and Florida.
If the Democrats can hold the 232 electoral votes won by Clinton in 2016, they take back the presidency by winning any three of those four states. Or by winning Florida and just one of the other three. Lacking that, Democrats might have a path to victory within the other eleven battleground states, but in any event, they must retain a narrow focus.
I'm not sure Democrats get this. It often seems they're trying to win California and New York by 40 points, rather than the 29- and 22-point margins of 2016. All the discussion is national. Almost all of it is framed in an ideological tug-of-war for the heart of the party conjuring up Will Rogers' famous quote from nearly a century ago: "I am not a member of an organized party — I am a Democrat."
Memo to Democrats: This one ain't about ideology. It's about prevailing in some fickle Rust Belt and Sun Belt states that don't look or think or behave anything like Massachusetts.
The lesson of Obama — and also, in fairness, Trump — is that persona is more important than policy, and that ideology and political résumés matter far less to the American public than they did in previous generations. This is especially true in battleground states, the ones whose vote totals — not their progressivism — will determine the national outcome.
It's too early to predict who will emerge from the Democrats' comically oversized field of candidates. The last time Democrats had such a free-for-all was twelve years ago. How many people, in March 2007, would have eschewed such party superstars as Senator Hillary Clinton, Senator John Edwards or Governor Bill Richardson for a largely unknown black senator named Barack Obama?
That said, it's not too early to engage the debate, especially since it has already started. And therein lies a couple of Missouri angles that should make relevant to the process even as we're electorally challenged.
They spring from one Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-New York), who has emerged as the most forceful and consequential leader of the Democratic Party at the ripe old age of 29. Even though Ocasio-Cortez couldn't live much further from Cape Girardeau, her interactions with Missouri should be instructive.
Last summer, not long after shocking the world with her epic primary unseating of Representative Joe Crowley (D-New York), a presumably unbeatable liberal stalwart congressman of two decades, Ocasio-Cortez whirled into St. Louis to replicate her success by campaigning for a promising young progressive named Cori Bush. Bush's bold primary challenge to Representative William Lacy Clay (D-St. Louis) — elected the same years as Crowley — seemed to echo the one Ocasio-Cortez rode to fame.
I was impressed, so much so that I predicted on TV that in this new world of social media, Bush would give Clay the challenge of his political life in a close election. I was correct, but only if one regards Clay's ultimate 61-31 victory margin in the Democratic primary as "close."
In Missouri's first congressional district, Ocasio-Cortez's astonishing charisma didn't translate to victory for a similarly progressive candidate against a similarly entrenched establishment liberal icon. But it got the attention of Claire McCaskill, who garnered the title of "former senator" a few months after Clay held off Bush, largely because of Trump's dominance in Missourah.
McCaskill drew much attention for terming Ocasio-Cortez "a bright, shiny new object" in a post-election CNN interview. (Less controversially, she also noted that Republican senators privately said that Trump is "nuts.") But she made an important point:
"I hope she also realizes that the parts of the country that are rejecting the Democratic Party, like a whole lot of white working-class voters, need to hear about how their work is going to be respected, and the dignity of their jobs, and how we can really stick to issues that we can actually accomplish something on," McCaskill said.
That's true not just in Missouri, where the cake is baked, but also in Rust Belt states like Michigan, where a worthwhile plan like the Green New Deal can become toxic if Republicans successfully distort it as anti-automobile.
It doesn't necessarily follow that Democrats can only win with a centrist. It remains to be seen whether a progressive such Senator Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont), for whom I voted in 2016 — or anyone else in the field — can make the connection to which McCaskill was referring.
But as we learned in Missouri, there's a big difference between being impressed by Ocasio-Cortez and being swayed by her political views, especially in the battleground states. To those who would discount that, or who value ideological purity over political reality, à la Ralph Nader in 2000, I'd argue that understanding more of the people who live in places like Missouri matters.
Even if our votes don't.
Ray Hartmann founded the Riverfront Times in 1977 and recently returned to these pages as a columnist. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter at @rayhartmann