Arguably, it was 2016 — and not 2020 — when bellwether counties first showed signs of falling by the wayside, given their dramatic swing to the right in that election. A total of 35 counties voted for the winner of each presidential election from 1980 through 2012. Nineteen of these counties continued their streak in 2016 by voting for Trump, but the remaining 16 counties ended their bellwether streak by voting for Hillary Clinton. In other words, only 54 percent of bellwether counties from 1980 to 2012 kept their status in 2016. And notably, the 16 counties that lost their bellwether status in 2016 are more racially diverse (median of 46 percent non-Hispanic white, compared to 89 percent) and more highly educated (median of 27 percent of adults 25 or older with a bachelor’s degree or higher, compared to 22 percent) than the 19 counties that maintained their bellwether status.
That Trump did so well in the remaining 19 bellwether counties in 2020 should come as no surprise, then. Trump remained very strong with white voters without a college degree in 2020, helping him win Iowa and Ohio by comfortable margins and remain competitive in Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania. In total, Trump won 18 of the 19 former bellwether counties, winning the average such county by 13.7 points in 2020. And as was true in 2016, those counties voted substantially to the right of the nation. In fact, they became even more Republican — the average bellwether county from 1980 to 2016 voted 18.2 points to the right of the nation. Ultimately, of course, Trump’s strong performance in these counties didn’t matter because of Biden’s gains in the more highly educated suburbs of Milwaukee, Grand Rapids and Philadelphia.