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US election results: Why the most accurate bellwether counties were wrong

America's most accurate bellwether counties, regions that have a reputation for accurately picking the president, got the presidential election completely wrong. Here's why.

On a cold, wind-swept November afternoon two weeks after election day, the crowds that thronged the beaches of Ottawa County all summer long are but a distant memory.

Situated on the southern shore of Lake Erie in Ohio, Ottawa County is one of America's most accurate bellwether counties - a region where voters correctly pick the president, election after election for decades at a time.

It's a largely rural area of 40,000 residents that's home to a nuclear power plant, a sprawling US National Guard training facility and islands that the British Royal Navy battled for and lost during the War of 1812.

A majority of voters here had backed the eventual winner of presidential elections every time since 1964. Until this year.

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With a total turnout of 78%, Donald Trump won Ottawa County by a margin of 61% to 38%, improving his 2016 return by four points

"I think people were pretty happy with some of the things he's done, what he's been able to accomplish," says Mark Copper, a leading local Republican who was re-elected county commissioner last month. "Especially considering there's a lot of things that has been done that don't get reported at all."

Ottawa County wasn't the only swing county to get the outcome wrong this time around.

In fact, of the 19 pivot counties across America to correctly pick the president every time over the past 10 election cycles, only one - Clallam County in Washington state - saw a majority back Joe Biden for president.

What's more, in this year's election voters in leading bellwether counties didn't just come out for Donald Trump marginally; they backed him in droves.

In Valencia County, New Mexico, which had correctly predicted the winner of every presidential election since 1952, Mr Trump won by 10 points; in Indiana's Vigo County, which backed every president bar two since 1888, he prevailed by 15 points.

In Westmoreland County, Virginia - a small, rural community south of Washington DC that's failed to be a bellwether only twice since 1928, and is home to twice the number of African Americans than the national average - he beat Mr Biden by 16 points.

The 2020 election appears to illustrate that the partisanship that's defined politics in Washington for years has now spread to small-town America. "People are more likely to identify with a party than we've seen before," says Harrison Kreisberg of BlueLabs Analytics, a polling firm that works with progressive and Democratic interests.

It's something Joan Day-Baker, chair of Valencia County's Democratic Party, has witnessed first-hand.

Arriving at a voting station to observe as a poll challenger on 4 November last, she sat down next to two people she didn't know. "I asked if they were from the Republican Party, and they said they were," she says. "I said: 'I'm the chair of the Democratic Party,' and the gentleman looked at me and said: 'Oh, the enemy.'"
Valencia County is home to a string of towns along the banks of the Rio Grande river in an otherwise largely arid stretch of desert south of Albuquerque.

In the past, says Mrs Day-Baker, the presence of conservative Democrats and split-ticket voting - choosing a Republican nominee for president but Democratic Party candidates as local representatives, or vice versa - were both commonplace. But that's no longer the case.

Here, local Republican candidates fuelled by Mr Trump's firebrand style almost wiped Democrats off the local political map.

She says that previously, "when there was a presidential election, people are watching, paying attention, and as soon as the president is elected, they forget [about politics] until it's election time again".

"That didn't happen after 2016," she adds. "They followed through the whole four years. Nobody forgot about politics."

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She blames much of that on the "Trump effect" - Mr Trump's ability to engage people in politics by appealing to their fears and discontents. In Valencia County, Mr Trump beat Mr Biden by six points more than he defeated Democratic Party candidate Hillary Clinton in 2016.

The divisions were everywhere. During the campaign Mrs Day-Baker says that local Democrats organised a "Ridin' for Biden" parade of vehicles through parts of the county. But when word got out, Trump supporters crashed it. "We had to quietly move our parade," she says. "Those are things that aren't just political, they become personal, after the election."

As with Valencia County, in the past bipartisanship wasn't unusual in Indiana's Vigo County. Profiled by BBC News weeks before the 2020 election, locals said voters' political identities weren't always defined in strict party terms and that people would regularly pivot between parties from one election cycle to the next.

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