What are Pivot Counties?

Image of donkey and elephant to symbolize the Democratic and Republican parties.

Two hundred and six counties nationwide voted for Barack Obama (D) in 2008 and 2012 before voting for Donald Trump (R) in 2016. Voters in these Pivot Counties cast 7.5 million votes in 2016—5.5% of all votes cast that year.

The 206 Pivot Counties are located in 34 states. Iowa’s 31 Pivot Counties—out of 99 counties overall—is the most of any state. Half of Maine’s 16 counties are Pivot Counties, the greatest proportion of any state. Maine is also the state with the greatest percentage of its population—47.1%—residing in Pivot Counties. Nine states have 10% or more of their population living in Pivot Counties.

The 206 Pivot Counties include 57 counties that have voted for every winning presidential candidate since 2000. Two of those counties—Valencia County, New Mexico, and Vigo County, Indiana—have voted for every winning presidential candidate since 1960.

Across all Pivot Counties, the average swing towards Republicans between 2012 and 2016 was 19.7 percentage points; Barack Obama carried the Pivot Counties by an average margin of 8.2 percentage points in 2012, while Donald Trump carried them by an average margin of 11.5 percentage points in 2016.

Barack Obama carried 16 Pivot Counties by margins of 1 percentage point or less in 2012; his narrowest margin in a Pivot County that year was 0.04 percentage points in Price County, Wisconsin, which Donald Trump carried by a margin of 25.00 percentage points in 2016. Five Pivot Counties went to Obama by margins of 20 percentage points or wider in 2012. His widest margin in any pivot county was 26.07 percentage points in Franklin County, New York, which Donald Trump carried by a margin of 5.45 percentage points in 2016.

In 2016, Donald Trump carried 12 Pivot Counties by margins of 1 percentage point or less, with his narrowest margin of victory being 0.12 percentage points in Panola County, Mississippi, which Barack Obama had carried by 8.62 percentage points in 2012. Trump carried 37 Pivot Counties by margins of 20 percentage points or greater. His widest margin of victory, and his only margin greater than 30 percentage points, was 44.13 percentage points in Elliott County, Kentucky. Barack Obama carried Elliott County by a margin of 2.50 percentage points in 2012 and 25.17 percentage points in 2008, representing a 69.30 percentage point swing towards Republicans at the presidential level in eight years.

In the 2018 U.S. House elections, there were 99 districts intersecting with Pivot Counties. Republicans represented 63 of those districts to Democrats’ 36. Democrats gained a net eight seats, winning 44 to Republicans’ 54 (the results of one U.S. House election were not certified owing to allegations of election fraud). At the county level, Democratic U.S. House candidates won 113 (55%) of Pivot Counties. In 184 Pivot Counties (89%), the Republican U.S. House nominee either lost the county or won with a narrower margin of victory than President Trump (R) had in 2016.

There are also six reverse Pivot Counties, which voted for John McCain (R) in 2008, Mitt Romney (R) in 2012, and Hillary Clinton (D) in 2016. Three of these counties were in Georgia, with one each in California, Maryland, and Texas. On average, the Reverse Pivot Counties had a larger population than Pivot Counties—971,164 to 78,018.

We’ll be watching how the Pivot Counties vote in the 2020 presidential election and updating our coverage with the latest details as they are available; check back later this week for more!

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