Swing state

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Map of states by margin in the 2020 United States presidential election, relative to the national popular vote margin (4.5% in favor of Biden).

Map Legend:
  Partisan lean of under 5 points toward the Democratic presidential nominee (Incumbent president Joe Biden)
  Partisan lean of under 5 points toward the Republican presidential nominee (former president Donald Trump)
  Partisan lean of 5 to 10 points toward Biden
  Partisan lean of 5 to 10 points toward Trump
  Partisan lean of more than 10 points toward Biden
  Partisan lean of more than 10 points toward Trump

In American politics, a swing state (also known as battleground state, toss-up state, or purple state) is any state that could reasonably be won by either the Democratic or Republican candidate in a statewide election, most often referring to presidential elections, by a swing in votes. These states are usually targeted by both major-party campaigns, especially in competitive elections.[1] Meanwhile, the states that regularly lean to a single party are known as "safe states" (or more specifically as "red states" and "blue states" depending on the partisan leaning), as it is generally assumed that one candidate has a base of support from which a sufficient share of the electorate can be drawn without significant investment or effort by the campaign.

Due to the winner-take-all method most states use to determine their presidential electors, candidates often campaign only in competitive states, which is why a select group of states frequently receives a majority of the advertisements and candidate visits.[2] The battlegrounds may change in certain election cycles and may be reflected in overall polling, demographics, and the ideological appeal of the nominees.


In American presidential elections, each state is free to decide the method by which its electors to the Electoral College will be chosen. To increase its voting power in the Electoral College system, every state, with the exceptions of Maine and Nebraska, has adopted a winner-take-all system, where the candidate who wins the most popular votes in a state wins all of that state's electoral votes.[3] The expectation was that the candidates would look after the interests of the states with the most electoral votes. However, in practice, most voters tend not to change party allegiance from one election to the next, leading presidential candidates to concentrate their limited time and resources campaigning in those states that they believe they can swing towards them or stop states from swinging away from them, and not to spend time or resources in states they expect to win or lose. Because of the electoral system, the campaigns are less concerned with increasing a candidate's national popular vote, tending instead to concentrate on the popular vote only in those states which will provide the electoral votes it needs to win the election, and it is far from unheard of for a candidate to secure sufficient electoral votes while not having won the national popular vote.

In past electoral results, Republican candidates would have expected to easily win most of the mountain states and Great Plains, such as Idaho, Wyoming, the Dakotas, Montana, Utah, Kansas, Oklahoma, and Nebraska, most of the South, including Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, Arkansas, Tennessee, Kentucky, and South Carolina, as well as Alaska. Democrats usually take the Mid-Atlantic states, including New York, New Jersey, Maryland, Virginia, and Delaware, New England, particularly Vermont, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and Connecticut, the West Coast states of California, Oregon, Washington, Hawaii, and the Southwestern states of Colorado and New Mexico, as well as the Great Lakes states of Illinois and Minnesota.[4][5]

However, some states that consistently vote for one party at the presidential level occasionally elect a governor of the opposite party; this is currently the case in Vermont and Virginia which have Republican governors, as well as in Kentucky and Kansas, which currently have Democratic governors. Even in presidential election years, voters may split presidential and gubernatorial tickets. In 2020, this occurred in Vermont and New Hampshire, which elected Republican governors even as Democrat Joe Biden won both states, while North Carolina elected a Democratic governor despite also voting for Republican Donald Trump.[6]

In Maine and Nebraska, the apportionment of electoral votes parallels that for U.S. senators and representatives. Two electoral votes go to the candidate who wins the plurality of the vote statewide, and a candidate gets an additional electoral vote for each congressional district in which they receive a plurality.[3] Both of these states have relatively few electoral votes – a total of 4 and 5, respectively. Nebraska has split its votes since 1992, and Maine has done so since 1972. Each state has split its electoral votes only twice since implementation – in 2008, when Nebraska gave four votes to Republican John McCain, and one to Democrat Barack Obama, and in 2020, when Nebraska gave four votes to Donald Trump and one to Joe Biden; in 2016 and 2020, Donald Trump won one vote in Maine, while Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden both were awarded three, respectively.[3][7]

Competitive states[edit]

States where the election has a close result become less meaningful in landslide elections. Instead, states which vote similarly to the national vote proportions are more likely to appear as the closest states. For example, the states in the 1984 election with the tightest results were Minnesota and Massachusetts. A campaign strategy centered on them, however, would not have been meaningful in the Electoral College, as Democratic nominee Walter Mondale required victories in many more states than Massachusetts, Republican Ronald Reagan still would have won by a large margin.[8] Instead, the tipping-point state that year was Michigan, as it gave Reagan the decisive electoral vote. The difference in Michigan was nineteen percentage points, quite similar to Reagan's national margin of eighteen percent.[8] Michigan would have been more relevant to the election results had the election been closer.

Similarly, Barack Obama's narrow victory in Indiana in the 2008 election inaccurately portrays its status as a battleground. Obama lost Indiana by more than ten percentage points in the closer 2012 election, but triumphed anyway as Indiana's electoral votes were not directly needed for a coalition of 270 votes; the same scenario was with Missouri, where John McCain narrowly won by 4,000 votes in the 2008 election, but was won by Mitt Romney by nearly 10 points in 2012 election, indicating its GOP trend. Other lightly Republican leaning states such as North Carolina and Arizona were more plausible Democratic pick-ups in 2012.[9] In 2012, the states of North Carolina, Florida, Ohio, and Virginia were decided by a margin of less than five percent. However, none of them were considered the tipping-point state, as Romney would not have been able to defeat Obama even if he had emerged victorious in all of them. Interestingly, Virginia was most in-step with the rest of the country. Virginians voted for Obama by just under 4 points, almost the exact same as the nation.[9] Had the election come out closer, Romney's path to victory would probably have involved also winning Wisconsin, Nevada, New Hampshire, or Iowa, as these states had comparable margins to Colorado, and had been battlegrounds during the election.

As many mathematical analysts have noted, however, the state voting in a fashion most similar to that of the nation as a whole is not necessarily the tipping-point.[10] For example, if a candidate wins only a few states but does so by a wide margin, while the other candidate's victories are much closer, the popular vote would likely favor the former.[11][12] However, although the vast majority of the states leaned to the latter candidate in comparison to the entire country, many of them would end up having voted for the loser in greater numbers than did the tipping-point state.[13] The presidential election in 2016 was a notable example, as it featured one of the largest historical disparities between the Electoral College and popular vote.[14][15] Additionally, this "split" in votes was much larger in both directions than in previous elections, such as the 2000 election.[16] In that election, Vice President Al Gore won the popular vote by less than 1 percent, while incoming president George W. Bush won the Electoral College by only 5 votes.[16] In contrast, 2016 Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton won the popular vote by over 2 percentage points.[17][18] This meant that Donald Trump would have picked up New Hampshire, Nevada, and Minnesota if the popular vote had been tied, assuming a uniform shift among the battleground states.[19][20] On the other hand, Clinton would have had to win the popular vote by at least 3 points to win the Electoral College, as Trump, the Republican nominee, won the tipping-point state of Wisconsin by less than 1 percent.[21] In 2020, Joe Biden won the popular vote by over 4 percentage points but won the tipping point state of Pennsylvania by only 1 percent. This shows Donald Trump could win the election even if he lost the popular vote by over 3 percent and would have picked up Georgia, Arizona, and Wisconsin with a uniform shift among the states.

Swing states have generally changed over time. For instance, the swing states of Ohio, Connecticut, Indiana, New Jersey and New York were key to the outcome of the 1888 election.[22] Likewise, Illinois[23] and Texas were key to the outcome of the 1960 election, Florida and New Hampshire were key in deciding the 2000 election, and Ohio was important during the 2004 election. Ohio has gained its reputation as a regular swing state after 1980,[24][25] and did not vote against the winner between 1960 and 2020.[26] In fact, only three people have won the presidential election without winning Ohio since 1900: Franklin D. Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy, and Joe Biden. Areas considered battlegrounds in the 2020 election were Arizona, Florida, Georgia,[27] Iowa, Maine's 2nd congressional district, Michigan, Minnesota, Nebraska's 2nd congressional district, Nevada, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Texas and Wisconsin,[28] with Florida, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin constituting the "Big Five" most likely to decide the Electoral College.[29] In the end, Joe Biden won Arizona, Georgia, Michigan, Minnesota, NE-02, Nevada, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin, while Donald Trump won ME-02, Florida, Iowa, North Carolina, Ohio and Texas.

Campaign strategies are not universal in swing states. Statistical analytics website FiveThirtyEight notes that some swing states, such as New Hampshire, swing because they have many moderate, independent swing voters, and campaigning puts an emphasis on persuading voters. Contrasting this is Georgia, which is a swing state because it has large populations of Republican-leaning evangelical whites and Democratic-leaning Black voters and urban college-educated professionals, thus campaigns often concentrate on voter turnout.[30]

Determining swing states[edit]

Presidential campaigns and pundits seek to keep track of the shifting electoral landscape. While swing states in past elections can be determined simply by looking at how close the vote was in each state, determining states likely to be swing states in future elections requires estimation and projection based on previous election results, opinion polling, political trends, recent developments since the previous election, and any strengths or weaknesses of the particular candidate involved. The swing-state "map" transforms between each election cycle, depending on the candidates and their policies, sometimes dramatically and sometimes subtly. For example, in the 2016 election, Hillary Clinton overperformed in educated, suburban states such as Virginia and Colorado compared to past Democratic candidates, while Donald J. Trump performed above standard Republican expectations in the Rust Belt, such as Michigan, Ohio, and Pennsylvania. In addition, gradual shifts can occur within states due to changes in demography, geography, or population patterns. For example, many currently Republican states, like Arkansas, Missouri, Tennessee, and West Virginia, had been battlegrounds as recently as 2004.[31]

According to a pre-election 2016 analysis, the thirteen most competitive states were Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, New Hampshire, Minnesota, Arizona, Georgia, Virginia, Florida, Michigan, Nevada, Colorado, North Carolina, and Maine. Nebraska's 2nd congressional district was (and is still as of 2020) also considered competitive.[32] However, this projection was not specific to any particular election cycle, and assumed similar levels of support for both parties.[33]

Ten weeks before the 2020 presidential election, statistical analytics website FiveThirtyEight noted that the electoral map is "undergoing a series of changes", with some states moving rightward, other states moving leftward, and two states (Florida, until the 2020 election, and North Carolina) described as "perennial" swing states.[34][35] Likewise, an analysis of results of the 2018 midterms indicated that the "battleground states" are changing, with Colorado and Ohio becoming less competitive and more Democratic and Republican, respectively, while Georgia and Arizona were slowly turning into swing states.[36][37][38]


The Electoral College encourages political campaigners to focus most of their efforts on courting voters in swing states. States in which polling shows no clear favorite are usually targeted at a higher rate with campaign visits, television advertising, and get out the vote efforts by party organizers and debates. According to Katrina vanden Heuvel, a journalist for The Nation, "four out of five" voters in the national election are "absolutely ignored".[39]

Since most states use a winner-takes-all arrangement, in which the candidate with the most votes in that state receives all of the state's electoral votes, there is a clear incentive to focus almost exclusively on only a few undecided states. In contrast, many states with large populations such as California, Texas and New York have in recent elections been considered "safe" for a particular party, and therefore not a priority for campaign visits and money. Meanwhile, twelve of the thirteen smallest states are thought of as safe for either party – only New Hampshire is regularly a swing state.[40] Additionally, campaigns stopped mounting nationwide electoral efforts in the last few months near/at the ends of the blowout 2008 election, but rather targeted only a handful of battlegrounds.[40]

Swing states by results[edit]

This is a chart of swing states using the methodology of Nate Silver for determining tipping point states, but including the other states in close contention in recent elections, ranked by margin of victory.[41] In this method, states and DC are ordered by margin of victory, then tabulating which states were required to get to 270+ electoral votes in margin order. The tipping point state, and the next 10 states with close margins on each side, are shown as the swing states in retrospect, along with the "bias" which is the difference between the final margin in the tipping point state and final popular vote margin. This takes into account inherent electoral college advantages; for example, Michigan was the closest state in 2016 by result, and Nevada was the closest state to the national popular vote result, but the tipping points that most mattered for assembling a 270 electoral vote coalition were Wisconsin and Pennsylvania.[41]

Swing states and tipping point states in presidential elections, 2000–2020
2020 election Margin 2016 election Margin 2012 election Margin 2008 election Margin 2004 election Margin 2000 election Margin
New Hampshire 7.35%D Maine 2.96%D Wisconsin 6.94%D Nevada 12.49%D Pennsylvania 2.50%D Minnesota 2.40%D
Minnesota 7.11%D Nevada 2.42%D Nevada 6.68%D Pennsylvania 10.32%D New Hampshire 1.37%D Oregon 0.44%D
Michigan 2.78%D Minnesota 1.52%D Iowa 5.81%D Minnesota 10.24%D Wisconsin 0.38%D Iowa 0.31%D
Nevada 2.39%D New Hampshire 0.37%D New Hampshire 5.58%D New Hampshire 9.61%D Iowa 0.67%R Wisconsin 0.22%D
Pennsylvania 1.16%D Michigan 0.23%R Pennsylvania 5.39%D Iowa 9.53%D New Mexico 0.79%R New Mexico 0.06%D
Wisconsin[note 1] 0.63%D Pennsylvania[note 2] 0.72%R Colorado 5.37%D Colorado 8.95%D Ohio 2.11%R Florida 0.01%R
Arizona 0.31%D Wisconsin[note 2] 0.77%R Virginia 3.87%D Virginia 6.30%D Nevada 2.59%R New Hampshire 1.27%R
Georgia 0.24%D Florida 1.20%R Ohio 2.98%D Ohio 4.59%D Colorado 4.67%R Missouri 3.34%R
North Carolina 1.35%R Arizona 3.55%R Florida 0.88%D Florida 2.82%D Florida 5.01%R Ohio 3.51%R
Florida 3.36%R North Carolina 3.66%R North Carolina 2.04%R Indiana 1.03%D Missouri 7.20%R Nevada 3.55%R
Texas 5.58%R Georgia 5.13%R Georgia 7.82%R North Carolina 0.33%D Virginia 8.20%R Tennessee 3.86%R
National 4.45%D National 2.10%D National 3.86%D National 7.27%D National 2.46%R National 0.52%D
Bias 3.82%R Bias 2.87%R Bias 1.51%D Bias 1.68%D Bias 0.35%D Bias 0.53%R
  1. ^ If Donald Trump were able to hold onto Georgia, Arizona and Wisconsin, the result would have been a 269-269 electoral tie decided in the House of Representatives. Wisconsin is the tipping point for Biden's coalition; to avoid needing Congress, Trump would have to have won Pennsylvania as well, although Trump would have been favored in the House due to the tie-breaking rules specified in the Twelfth Amendment.
  2. ^ a b The 2016 election had two possible tipping point states, depending on how they are calculated. If faithless electors are ignored, then Wisconsin was the tipping point in 2016; if they are included, then Donald Trump's loss of 2 EV's from faithless electors means that Pennsylvania is also required for his coalition to reach 270 electoral votes, while Hillary Clinton's loss of 5 EV's does not change that Wisconsin remains the tipping point for her potential coalition.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Larry J. Sabato's Crystal Ball » The Electoral College: The Only Thing That Matters". centerforpolitics.org. March 31, 2016. Retrieved January 27, 2017.
  2. ^ Beachler, Donald W.; Bergbower, Matthew L.; Cooper, Chris; Damore, David F.; van Doorn, Bas; Foreman, Sean D.; Gill, Rebecca; Hendriks, Henriët; Hoffmann, Donna (October 29, 2015). Schultz, David; Hecht, Stacey Hunter (eds.). Presidential Swing States: Why Only Ten Matter. Lexington Books. ISBN 9780739195246.
  3. ^ a b c "What Are Swing States and How Did They Become a Key Factor in US Elections? – HISTORY". www.history.com. October 7, 2020. Retrieved October 24, 2020.
  4. ^ "A recent voting history of the 15 Battleground states – National Constitution Center". National Constitution Center – constitutioncenter.org. Retrieved October 24, 2020.
  5. ^ "State Electoral Vote History: 1900 to Present". 270toWin.com. Retrieved October 24, 2020.
  6. ^ "2020 Governor Election Results – 270toWin". 270toWin.com. Retrieved May 11, 2022.
  7. ^ "Biden Wins Nebraska's 2nd Congressional District". Bloomberg. November 4, 2020. Retrieved December 1, 2020.
  8. ^ a b Silver, Nate (April 27, 2012). "Arizona Is (Probably) Not a Swing State". The New York Times. Retrieved June 6, 2013.
  9. ^ a b Silver, Nate (November 8, 2012). "As Nation and Parties Change, Republicans Are at an Electoral College Disadvantage". Retrieved June 6, 2013.
  10. ^ Silver, Nate (September 20, 2016). "2016 Senate Forecast | FiveThirtyEight". FiveThirtyEight. Retrieved November 6, 2016.
  11. ^ "Larry J. Sabato's Crystal Ball » SENATE 2016: FLIP FLOP". centerforpolitics.org. September 2016. Retrieved January 27, 2017.
  12. ^ "The Electoral College Blind Spot". FiveThirtyEight. January 23, 2017. Retrieved January 27, 2017.
  13. ^ "Election Update: North Carolina Is Becoming A Problem For Trump". FiveThirtyEight. October 5, 2016. Retrieved January 27, 2017.
  14. ^ "Larry J. Sabato's Crystal Ball". centerforpolitics.org. November 17, 2016. Retrieved January 27, 2017.
  15. ^ "The Real Story Of 2016". FiveThirtyEight. January 19, 2017. Retrieved January 27, 2017.
  16. ^ a b "The Odds Of An Electoral College-Popular Vote Split Are Increasing". FiveThirtyEight. November 1, 2016. Retrieved January 27, 2017.
  17. ^ Chang, Alvin. "Trump will be the 4th president to win the Electoral College after getting fewer votes than his opponent". Vox. Retrieved January 27, 2017.
  18. ^ "Clinton's popular vote lead surpasses 2 million". USA Today. Retrieved January 27, 2017.
  19. ^ "Why FiveThirtyEight Gave Trump A Better Chance Than Almost Anyone Else". FiveThirtyEight. November 11, 2016. Retrieved January 27, 2017.
  20. ^ "Clinton's Leading In Exactly The States She Needs To Win". FiveThirtyEight. September 22, 2016. Retrieved January 27, 2017.
  21. ^ Malone, Clare (July 18, 2016). "The End Of A Republican Party". FiveThirtyEight. Retrieved January 27, 2017.
  22. ^ "HarpWeek | Elections | 1888 Overview". elections.harpweek.com. p. 4. Retrieved December 20, 2023.
  23. ^ "Daley Remembered as Last of the Big-City Bosses", David Rosenbaum, New York Times, April 21, 2005.
  24. ^ Trolling the Campuses for Swing-State Votes, Julie Salamon, "The New York Times", October 2, 2004
  25. ^ Ellenberg, Jordan (October 25, 2004). "Game Theory for Swingers". Slate. ISSN 1091-2339. Retrieved December 20, 2023.
  26. ^ "Presidential Election Results: Biden Wins". The New York Times. November 3, 2020.
  27. ^ "How Georgia became a swing state for the first time in decades". The Washington Post. November 8, 2020. Retrieved January 7, 2021.
  28. ^ Weaver, Dustin (November 24, 2017). "How Dem insiders rank the 2020 contenders". The Hill. Retrieved January 13, 2018.
  29. ^ Balz, Dan (August 31, 2019). "The 2020 electoral map could be the smallest in years. Here's why". The Washington Post. Retrieved January 5, 2019.
  30. ^ Silver, Nate (July 22, 2022). "New Hampshire Is Tiny And Pretty Weird. That Could Help Maggie Hassan". FiveThirtyEight. Retrieved July 31, 2022.
  31. ^ "Battleground States Poll – June 21, 2004". The Wall Street Journal. June 21, 2004. Retrieved July 5, 2017.
  32. ^ "Larry J. Sabato's Crystal Ball » The Electoral College: The Only Thing That Matters". centerforpolitics.org. March 31, 2016. Retrieved May 21, 2016.
  33. ^ "Larry J. Sabato's Crystal Ball » The Electoral College: Pennsylvania Moves Toward Clinton". centerforpolitics.org. Retrieved September 30, 2015.
  34. ^ "Is The Electoral Map Changing?". FiveThirtyEight. August 26, 2020. Retrieved September 1, 2020.
  35. ^ "How The 2020 Election Changed The Electoral Map". FiveThirtyEight. December 8, 2020. Retrieved October 11, 2022.
  36. ^ Chinni, Dante; Bronston, Sally (November 18, 2018). "New election map: Ohio, Colorado no longer swing states". NBC News. Retrieved November 19, 2020.
  37. ^ Coleman, J. Miles; Francis, Niles (July 9, 2020). "States of Play: Georgia". Sabato's Crystal Ball. Retrieved November 19, 2020.
  38. ^ Sabato, Larry J.; Kondik, Kyle; Coleman, J. Miles (September 10, 2020). "The Post-Labor Day Sprint, Part Two: The Electoral College". Sabato's Crystal Ball. Retrieved November 19, 2020.
  39. ^ vanden Heuvel, Katrina (November 7, 2012). "It's Time to End the Electoral College". The Nation. Retrieved November 8, 2012. Electoral college defenders offer a range of arguments, from the openly anti-democratic (direct election equals mob rule), to the nostalgic (we've always done it this way), to the opportunistic (your little state will be ignored! More vote-counting means more controversies! The Electoral College protects hurricane victims!). But none of those arguments overcome this one: One person, one vote.
  40. ^ a b Edwards III, George C. (2011). Why the Electoral College is Bad for America (Second ed.). New Haven, Connecticut and London, England: Yale University Press. pp. 1, 37, 61, 176–177, 193–194. ISBN 978-0-300-16649-1.
  41. ^ a b Silver, Nate (February 6, 2017). "Donald Trump Had A Superior Electoral College Strategy". FiveThirtyEight. Retrieved February 26, 2019.

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