State of the States: Nebraska

Nebraska is red. This is easy to picture. The Nebraska football team wears red and white. The electoral results match the reputation too. The state has favored Republicans by no less than R+13 in every election from 1940 to the present. Only one Democrat has won Nebraska in the past 80 years, Lyndon Johnson in 1964, squeaking out a few point win while defeating Barry Goldwater by over 20 points nationally. If a Republican loses here, something is truly wrong.

Joe Biden is now favored to get an electoral vote here. Has Donald Trump irrevocably angered one of the reddest states in America? Not exactly. Starting in 1992, Nebraska joined Maine in assigning electoral votes by congressional district. The state has 3 districts and 5 total electoral votes. Two go to the statewide winner, and the others are parceled based on results inside of each district.

Usually, this makes no difference. In the elections between 1992 and 2016, Democrats picked up a total of one electoral vote. Barack Obama barely won CD-2 in 2008 and it was a sprinkle on top of the cupcake, not a key part of him getting to 270. Hillary Clinton got close last time, losing by 2 points. The district is currently occupied by a Republican, but the past few congressional elections were close. A Democrat won in 2014.

The district is basically Omaha and surroundings. Unlike your image of Nebraska, it’s 98% urban, “only” 82% white. The median family income would rank 16th if the district were a state. It’s the sort of purply place Democrats have recently done better in. More specifically, CD-2 likes Trump less than a generic Republican. The congressional race is effectively tied. In the same September poll, Biden led Trump by 6 points, while incumbent GOP Rep Don Bacon only trailed his challenger by 1. There are more undecided voters on the congressional side. Should they break for Democrat Kara Eastman, she’ll win. Bacon isn’t cooked just yet (sorry, had to.) While a majority of voters are saying they’re sure they won’t vote for Trump, he’s benefitting from being less visible.

While this is just one electoral vote, CD-2 is a good example of why many Democrats wanted to avoid Bernie Sanders as the candidate. Biden looks like a perfect fit. While his national numbers are about 5 points better than where Hillary finished, he’s running 9 points ahead of her in this district. Unlike Bernie, he’s not scaring the upscale, educated voters (47% of poll respondents have a bachelor’s or graduate degree), and gives away less to Trump among the 38% who have less than an associate’s degree.

CD-1, which includes Lincoln, the state capital and home of the university, plus some far more Trump friendly areas, could be close. Normally, it shows as R+11, which would give Biden a few point deficit to make up. A survey taken by a Democrat-affiliated pollster in August showed Trump up by 2. We don’t need to give this very much thought. If Trump loses CD-1, Biden is going to win the national popular vote by 9 to 12 points and all the president’s machinations about protesting the election will fizzle.

CD-3 is the western 85% of the state. It’s the part that seems endless while you drive across it (and unless your car has better than average range, it’s a multiple gas stop district.) Trump won by 54 points in 2016. Nobody is running district-specific polls there. It’s possible it will run even more red this time, propelling Trump to a similar overall margin in Nebraska, even while he loses that electoral vote.

2016 Results: Donald Trump 58.75%, Hillary Clinton 33.70%, Gary Johnson 4.61%, Write-ins 1.90%, Jill Stein 1.04% (R+27)

CD-1: Trump 56%, Clinton 36%

CD-2: Trump 47%, Clinton 45%

CD-3: Trump 74%, Clinton 20%

As you can see, Biden doesn’t even need to win 2016 Trump voters to take CD-2. He just needs most of the third party voters.

2020 Polls: Most polling activity involves CD-2, which we covered above. There is no reason to think Biden has any chance whatsoever to win the state outright, hence the lack of statewide surveys.

Key Historical Shifts: From the very first time Nebraska participated in a presidential election in 1868, it was solidly pro-Republican. We’d have nothing to discuss here, except for a 40 year break from how we recognize the state. It was prompted by William Jennings Bryan and his Cross of Gold speech at the 1896 Democratic Convention.

Phase One (1868-1892): You’d recognize this version of Nebraska in an instant. The first four presidential elections were R+23, R+29, R+32, and R+30. After a two election dip into the mid-teens, 1892 gave the GOP a +34 advantage. The only difference between then and now was an expanding population that pushed Nebraska all the way up to 8 electoral votes after the 1890 Census.

Phase Two (1896-1936): The best way to explain what happened is to imagine Pete Buttigieg getting the Democratic nomination in 2020. He’d have been the youngest major party nominee since Bryan. And like ex-Congressman Bryan, failed in his only statewide contest. Indiana is not quite as red as Nebraska (either the current or late 19th century version) and Mayor Pete would have struggled tremendously to win his home state as the Democratic nominee.

Bryan didn’t win at home by a lot, but he did win. A state never less than R+15 went D+9 with a Nebraskan on the ballot. It’s hard to explain in modern terms what a big deal it was to have someone from “out west” leading a major party in a presidential election. The closest thing would be if Obama had never left Hawaii and had run in 2008 as a congressman from a Hawaiian district, instead of a senator from Illinois.

The Great Commoner, as Bryan was known, holds two distinctions. The youngest ever major party candidate (age 36 in 1896) and the only candidate to lose three times heading a major party ticket. In 1900, Nebraska supported his encore by more than the national popular vote (D+3), but not enough for him to defeat William McKinley there. With Bryan off the ballot in 1904, Nebraska returned to its roots, favoring Teddy Roosevelt (R+19.) Though Bryan didn’t get any closer to the White House in 1908, he did regain the support of Nebraskans, winning the state with a D+10.

This series of Bryan candidacies broke the Nebraska habit of reflexively voting Republican. Woodrow Wilson took the state twice. In 1912, mostly due to Roosevelt and William H. Taft splitting the Republican vote. But in 1916, the state was D+11 in Wilson’s re-election effort. The influence of Bryan was still lurking. He’d served as Wilson’s Secretary of State until resigning in 1915 because he felt the president was insufficiently neutral with the World War I combatants, a big deal in isolationist Nebraska.

But Wilson campaigned on having kept America out of the war, and it worked. Soon after his 1917 second inauguration, this changed and Wilson wound up declaring war on Germany. This, and his support for the League of Nations, turned Nebraska against him and the Democratic Party. By 1920, the state was ready to go back to the GOP, giving nominee Warren Harding a R+7 boost on top of his national landslide.

However, this didn’t make Nebraska fully red again. While the state did vote for Republican Calvin Coolidge in 1924, it was by a smaller margin than his big national advantage (D+8.) After the 1928 election (R+9) on top of Herbert Hoover’s 18 point national win, many would have thought the state was now safely Republican again, having supported the GOP by double-digit margins in three straight elections, two of them more enthusiastically than the country as a whole, in a period where the GOP was more successful than any other time before or after.

But then the stock market crashed and the Great Depression ensued. Nebraskans were as impacted as anyone else, and FDR won the state by 28 points (D+10.) As per usual for this phase of Nebraska’s electoral history, voters tacked back the other way in 1936, handing FDR another win, but by a narrower margin (R+7.) At this point, it likely seemed like this was destined to remain a swing state, oscillating back and forth depending on the candidates and major national issues. Nope.

Phase Three (1940-Present): Nebraska was staunchly isolationist until the Vietnam Era. Senator George Norris was one of the leading opponents of the League of Nations in the aftermath of World War I. He was one of only 6 senators to vote against declaring war on Germany to enter that war. By the late 1930s, Norris had changed his position a bit, becoming very concerned about Japanese aggression in China and elsewhere in Asia. His state had not moved.

As FDR moved to prepare for American involvement in World War II, he had the support of Norris, but not Nebraska voters, who instead preferred Republican Wendell Willkie (R+24) in 1940. It was the end for FDR in Nebraska, the end for the Democratic Party, and the end for George Norris, who had left the GOP in 1936 to run as an Independent who would ultimately caucus with the Democrats. He was defeated by isolationist Republican Kenneth Wherry when he next faced the voters in 1942.

Republicans haven’t looked over their shoulders in Nebraska since.

How Biden Can Improve on Hillary’s 2016 Result: It’s all about CD-2. Closing the statewide gap from 25 points to 18 to 20 is possible, but just vanity. Winning CD-1 would be the cherry on top of an unexpected national landslide. It’s a simple process. Pick up the few voters who gave Jill Stein a 2016 protest vote instead of supporting Clinton. Add a majority of Gary Johnson voters who were repelled by Trump but couldn’t stomach Hillary. That already gets him the district. Should Biden also be able to take a few suburban Republicans or disaffected Democrats who supported Trump in 2016 but aren’t feeling great about him now, he’ll win the district with some room to spare.

How Trump Can Improve on His 2016 Result: It’s not going to happen in CD-2. Should Biden have a rough debate or two, it is possible for Trump to recover enough to win the district narrowly again. If enough voters in CD-1 and especially CD-3 are excited about Trump’s Supreme Court choice and the prospect of getting to a 7 to 2 conservative majority if 82-year-old Justice Stephen Breyer can’t make it through another four years, he could win either or both of those districts by wider margins than 2016.

Forecast: I don’t have any good reasons to argue with the polls or Nebraska’s history over the past 80 years. Assuming he keeps his national margin to 4.5-5% or better, Biden should take the one electoral vote, while Trump grabs the other four, winning the state by a healthy double digit margin.

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