Swing states decided the 2020 election. These UMD students call them home.
Nathan Sears, a junior mathematics major, is from Ohio, a state that, before the recent election, had been won by every incoming president since 1960. (Gabby Baniqued/The Diamondback)
At first, the results came in avalanches. Vermont, Kentucky, West Virginia, Virginia, Maryland — by 9 p.m. on Nov. 3, half of the states had been called for either former Vice President Joe Biden or President Donald Trump. But as Election Day became election week, the nation’s eyes turned to a handful of states strewn across the U.S.
Like in previous elections, the 2020 presidential race hinged upon how key battleground states showed up. From gerrymandering and voter suppression to diverse populations and special interests, each state has distinctive characteristics that make it swing from one election to the next.
This year, the Republican Party lost its hold on Georgia and Arizona, while maintaining its grip on Ohio and Texas. Virginia held onto the blue wave, raising questions about whether it should still be considered a swing state, and Wisconsin flipped Democratic. And just before noon on Nov. 7, Pennsylvania was called for Biden, marking him as the 46th president of the United States.
For some students at the University of Maryland, these states aren’t just reliable sources of election-based anxiety: They’re home. And though casting a ballot was more of a hassle than usual this year, it felt all the more meaningful, knowing the role their state played in deciding the country’s next leader.
Here’s what these students experienced leading up to and following the 2020 election.
After going for former President Barack Obama in 2008, Virginia ran with its 13 electoral votes and hasn’t looked back since. For some young people, a blue Virginia is all they know.
Shruti Ray, for instance, was just nine years old when Obama won his first presidential election.
“I have only gained political sentience since him,” said Ray, a computer science major at this university from Reston, Virginia.
This election cycle, she felt confident Northern Virginia would carry the state for Biden. And indeed, the former vice president won about 54 percent of Virginia’s vote, compared to Trump’s 44.2 percent.
But though Ray describes Northern Virginia as an “exceedingly liberal” bubble, she says she was surprised to see several Trump signs in the area this year, sprinkled into a sea of Black Lives Matter, Biden-Harris and LGBTQ pride signs.
With Northern Virginia’s steady growth in population, Ray doesn’t think the state will swing again. Part of her also wonders how Virginia politics will be influenced by big technology companies, such as Amazon, moving to the state.
“I wonder if that will make Virginia either like a swing state again or if it’ll make Virginia even more blue,” Ray said.
To vote eight hours away from his home in Ohio, junior mathematics major Nathan Sears had to jump through a series of hoops, registering to vote for a second time and applying for an absentee ballot.
His mom encountered problems, too. Though her voting information hasn’t changed in 20 years, Sears said she was initially sent a ballot for the wrong district. Eventually, he said, she was able to sort out the issue.
Sears managed to mail his absentee ballot with just a day to spare. The hassle was worth it, he said.
“It was very nerve wracking,” he said. “I wanted to get my Biden vote in because it matters a lot to me.”
Ultimately, Ohio swung red, with Trump gaining two percentage points more of the vote than in 2016. But Sears still feels like his vote mattered.
In Ohio, tensions were especially high this year, Sears said. When he posted voter registration instructions on Snapchat, people nagged him for doing so and told him to “chill out,” even though he hadn’t encouraged people to vote for a specific candidate.
In the end, the Ohioan wasn’t surprised by this year’s election results. He says the conservatives in his state have been stuck in a bubble, with former President Ronald Reagan being the last person to inspire their politics. Many don’t realize how many casual Republicans there are, Sears said, especially because many people can get stuck in traditions of how they and their families have voted in the past.
“A lot of these people don’t consider where their bread is buttered,” Sears said. “Ohio’s hugely conservative, and I could have told you it was going red before the election night. That was not a secret.”
For nearly 30 years, Wisconsin voted for Democratic presidents — until the 2016 election, when it swung red for Trump.
But after 1:16 p.m. CST on Nov. 4, Wisconsin restarted its blue streak from the ground up: Biden won with about a 0.63 percentage point lead over Trump.
In northeastern Wisconsin, where criminology and criminal justice graduate student Kristin Reque is from, political conversations were virtually nonexistent until four years ago.
This year, Reque said, the political climate has been more tense than normal — the amount of yard signs she saw in her community, which she describes as a small, conservative Midwestern town, did not compare to the previous three presidential elections.
“[After] that night in 2016, it’s kind of been a roller coaster since then and it hasn’t slowed down,” Reque said.
She says she did not realize that she had unprocessed memories from the last presidential election until “the whirlwind of the last four years” came back on election night. She had a normal work schedule for much of the day and didn’t look at the news until a few hours before midnight.
“With this election, we knew it was going to take days or weeks to count the votes,” she said. “And yet, we were all hanging there Tuesday night hoping for answers.”
Post-Election Day, she said, people in her department were accommodating to students, including undergraduates, and understood that many would be absent-minded.
And now, Reque wonders how the elections will change Wisconsin’s general political climate.
“The vote was nearly 50/50, it was really close. And so, you know, half the state is not happy with the way the election turned out,” she said. “The political divisiveness doesn’t just disappear when the vote is certified.”
Still, Reque described Wisconsin’s shift to the left as redeeming. She feels like Midwestern states and their large manufacturing and agriculture industries are forgotten about when it’s not election season.
“The voters decided that [Trump] didn’t perform how they wanted him to. That was telling and that’s what felt good to me,” she said. “It felt like there was finally attention to some of the Midwestern states like Michigan and Wisconsin that normally just get forgotten.”
Since former President Bill Clinton’s first run in 1992, Michigan consistently voted Democratic until voting for Donald Trump with less than a 0.3 percentage point lead in 2016. Four years later, the state swung back.
William Bishop, a doctoral student in the government and politics department, grew up outside of Lansing, the capital of Michigan. He described the state as “always really interesting.”
Though the state elected a Democratic governor in 2018, both chambers of the state legislatures are predominantly Republican.
“When we have these presidential elections in Michigan, it’s really a question of turnout in the city,” he said. “The major cities in Michigan, typically Detroit and Lansing and Flint, and even up in the Upper Peninsula, Marquette, tend to be pretty democratic, even though their surrounding areas are Republican.”
Voting in Michigan this year was much easier than in the past, said Bishop. Its secretary of state automatically sent absentee ballot applications to all registered voters.
More than half a million more people voted in this election than in 2016. According to the Pew Research Center, 13 percent of the state’s electorate are Black voters, and most of them live in the largest cities.
This election year, Bishop said he was most concerned about issues at the intersection of racial justice, health care and the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
Systemic inequities and the coronavirus are tied in many ways, Bishop said, especially in Detroit.
“Early on in the pandemic, Detroit had some of the highest COVID death rates in the country and it’s a city that’s 80 percent Black,” he said. “It’s kind of hard to separate that racial reckoning from COVID-19, especially in a place like Michigan.”
Bishop, who has done research on Black partisanship, said the Democratic Party has taken Black voters for granted.
“There is going to have to be a point where the Democratic Party has to really work to secure policies for a large constituency,” he said.
Caitlyn Tucker knew it would be a while before she knew the results for Pennsylvania, her home state. Still, she constantly refreshed her screen for updates on election night.
This was her first time voting in a presidential election, so she didn’t have much to compare it to. But she knew to expect the unexpected when it came to her polarized home state.
“I was definitely expecting Pennsylvania to be red,” said Tucker, a junior environmental science and policy major. “When it wasn’t, it was exciting for me personally.”
In Pennsylvania, some people expect the state to swing the way the city of Erie does. Tucker says this tends to be a sore subject among residents.
“You never know with Erie,” she added.
Tucker described western and eastern Pennsylvania as night and day. Western Pennsylvania embraces fracking and industrial commercial activities, she said, while eastern Pennsylvania is more liberal and cares more about the environment.
“It’s blue everywhere in my area, but then the whole other side is red,” Tucker said. “It’s just easy to forget sometimes.”
Ryan Gold told his friends this was going to be Georgia’s year.
He was right. The state gave its 16 electoral votes to a Democrat for the first time since 1992, when it went for Bill Clinton in the former president’s first election.
“It’s been so long since Georgia voted Democrat, but I really thought that the metro Atlanta vote, like the absentee ballots, could swing it to Democrats,” said Gold, a sophomore finance major. “I was relatively surprised … but I definitely saw it coming.”
He thinks the state could turn back to red in the future, if there are less polarizing candidates.
Biden won Georgia with a lead of just 0.26 percentage points, according to data from the Office of the Georgia Secretary of State.
“I hope that it continues to be a swing state,” he said. “It makes me feel like my vote matters much more.”
Gold looks forward to seeing what the future holds for Georgia, especially within the upcoming Senate runoff elections in January.
“Republicans now know that they’re going to have to try much harder in Georgia, it’s not just a ‘gimme’ anymore,” he added.
According to a report from the American Civil Liberties Union, more than half a million Georgians removed from the voter registration files were purged by then-Secretary of State Brian Kemp in 2017. The mass voter purge preceded the 2018 Georgia governor race that Kemp ran in.
The ACLU found that Black and Hispanic voters are more likely to have their voter file purged in Georgia, which has the highest share of Black voters among battleground states. The majority of Black voters in Georgia live in Atlanta, according to the Pew Research Center.
Like Gold, senior sociology major Bari Steel also hoped Georgia would go blue — though she had her doubts.
Steel, who voted by mail, gathered with her friends on election night to watch John King on CNN. Because ballots would still have to be counted after Election Day, Steel knew Trump would seem to be in the lead for a while.
“It went from getting really nervous and scared to like more ease and then a lot of hope and promise,” Steel said.
Steel also said the small margin between Biden and Trump in her home state made her feel like her vote mattered. She believes the reason why Georgia swung was a combination of Stacey Abrams’ run for governor in 2018 and people being fed up with Trump, Kemp and the COVID-19 pandemic.
Steel said that people rallied together and were bonded by fear.
“Georgia is the perfect example of what can happen,” Steel said.