State of the States: Delaware

You can argue Delaware is the most anonymous state in the Union. The one people forget when listing the states. Rhode Island is the smallest, Wyoming the most sparse. This is the one they overlook. I’d suspect a good amount of Joe Biden supporters don’t remember what state he represented. He likes being called Scranton Joe after his birthplace. Which isn’t in Delaware. Geographically, it’s like Maryland has a moderate sized zit. You can barely find it on a map unless they do a close-up of that exact part of the Eastern Seaboard.

Few electoral strategies are based on securing the crucial 3 electoral votes. Democrats have won the state in every election since 1992, so nobody talks about it as a small swing state that could influence a close race like New Hampshire. The Delaware primary has never influenced a nomination. Except for Biden’s various attempts, the only Delawarean to run for president was Pete du Pont in 1988. Biden’s 2020 attempt was the first time a Delaware candidate lasted beyond New Hampshire. There were no Vice Presidents from Delaware until Biden.

Biden’s family moved to the Anonymous State in the early 1950s. The state had begun a stretch that would last over 50 years and 15 elections, where their presidential results would be within 8 points of the national popular vote each time, usually only a few points. That made Delaware both a swing state and very moderate one. When you hear about Biden’s moderate record as a young or merely middle-aged senator, or listen to his middle-of-the-road delivery now, it stems from this version of Delaware in which he cut his teeth.

Should Biden get inaugurated next January 20, having won on the strength of his appeal to moderate suburbanites, regardless of how the Trump campaign attempted to present him, he’ll be able to thank the state that made him.

2016 Results: Hillary Clinton 53.09%, Donald Trump 41.72%, Gary Johnson 3.32%, Jill Stein 1.37% (D+9)

This was a good result for Trump, the best a Republican did since 1996. Clinton won more populous New Castle County, but Trump took Kent (by 5) and Sussex (by 22) counties (Delaware has a whole 3 counties.)

2020 Polls: As you’d figure, Biden is running ahead of Hillary in his home state. The one semi-recent survey has him ahead by 21. That’s not that impressive. It’s D+14 compared to his national polls. While 5 points better than 2016, it’s a normal split for the past several elections. The other test will be if he can sweep the counties, which hasn’t happened since Bill Clinton in 1996. Given how pro-Trump Sussex was, it’s far from a sure thing.

Key Historical Shifts: Delaware’s one claim to fame is being the first state to ratify the Constitution. This made the state a great fit for the Federalist Party. After two uncontested terms for George Washington, Delaware supported the Federalists as long as there were Federalists. Between that final election in 1816, and becoming a blue state in the 1990s, the state was in play for almost 200 years.

Phase One (1796-1816): Like most states, Delaware didn’t use popular voting for electors at first. For this whole stretch, as the Federalists went from the majority party to a distinct minority, Delaware picked their candidate each year.

Phase Two (1820-1828): The only non-contested, non-Washington election in U.S. history was 1820. Delaware had no choice, so they held their nose and gave their electoral votes to James Monroe, a member of the Jefferson-Madison political tree. In 1824, there were several candidates. John Quincy Adams, the closest thing to a Federalist (and son of a Federalist president) got 1 electoral vote. William Crawford of Georgia got 2. Then in 1828, Adams got the nod over Andrew Jackson.

Phase Three (1832-1852): The Whig party wound up taking the place of the Federalists, but it wasn’t the same thing. In the next couple elections, there were multiple Whig candidates in the same general election. The Federalists were unified, but too sectional to compete. The Whigs were more successful, but often moving in multiple directions at once. The 1832 election was also the first to do a popular vote (with selected white male participants.)

The Whig candidate both won Delaware and did better there than nationally in each election from 1832 to 1844. In this stretch between the Missouri Compromise (of 1820) and the Compromise of 1850, slavery was a little more quiet as an issue, and it was easier for slaveholding Delaware to stay away from the Democrats. In 1848, Delaware supported the Whig Zachary Taylor, but not by as much as his national win. Next, in 1852, the state was W+7, but that wasn’t quite enough to push Lewis Cass past Franklin Pierce.

Phase Four (1856-1864): There was no escaping slavery as an issue in this era. And while Delaware chose to remain in the Union, it was still a border state, south of the Mason-Dixon Line. After the Whigs imploded, there were two replacements; the Republican Party and the Know-Nothings. Yes, they chose this for themselves. Their platform was something Donald Trump would have come up with if he was around in the mid-1850s. Ex-president Millard Fillmore was the candidate.

Delaware didn’t pick him. Democrat James Buchanan won the state. But Fillmore ran well ahead of his national support. Then in 1860, Delawareans passed over Abraham Lincoln and Democrat Stephen Douglas to choose Southern Democrat John C. Breckinridge. Constitutional Union candidate John Bell finished second. This resembled the way future Confederate states voted, though unlike them, all four candidates were on the ballot.

Finally, in 1864, Delaware supported Copperhead Democrat George McClellan over Lincoln, choosing the candidate who wanted to quickly negotiate a settlement with the Confederacy in an election Lincoln otherwise did very well in. This was not the Federalist/Whig state anymore.

Phase Five (1868-1888): Delaware supported the Democrat by more than the national average in each election during this stretch. In all but 1872 it was enough for Democrats to win the state. The margins weren’t always big, but always in the same direction.

Phase Six (1892-1936): This was a swing state, but a very contrarian one. In each election from 1904 to 1924 the state supported the losing candidate by more than the rest of the country. Not usually enough for that candidate to win their electoral votes, but still. Besides being backwards, there wasn’t any particular logic in who Delaware decided to lean towards.

Phase Seven (1940-1992): Consistently moderate, very balanced between the two parties. Again, no particular pattern. Was out on Dewey in 1944, in for 1948. Gave Nixon a bigger margin than the country did in 1968, but not in 1960 or 1972. Added a couple points to the Reagan landslide in 1984, but took 8 away from him in 1980. The habit of giving a candidate a boost, but not enough to win the state continued.

Phase Eight (1996-Present): Blue. Not ridiculously, but blue. It started with a +7 for Bill Clinton in 1996, and expanded from there. The networks have been able to call the state for the Democrat soon after polls closed in each election. Though Sussex County has voted Republican in each election since 2000, and Kent County frequently goes red, most of the voters live in very blue New Castle County, which is part of the Philadelphia Metropolitan Standard Area.

How Biden Can Improve on Hillary’s 2016 Result: He better.

How Trump Can Improve on His 2016 Result: He shouldn’t be able to.

Forecast: I’m very curious to see if Biden can beat the FiveThirtyEight projection, which has him winning by 22 points. It won’t matter, but we’ll find out if such a thing as in-state loyalty still exists. Historically, you’d expect a candidate from a small state that doesn’t often participate on the presidential level to outperform the normal lean of their state. This projection is expecting a normal for the 21st century D+15 outcome.

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