In presidential politics of the United States, a swing state (also, battleground state or purple state, in reference to red states and blue states) is a state in which no single candidate or party has overwhelming support in securing that state's electoral college votes. Such states receive a large share of the attention and campaigning of political parties in presidential elections, since winning these states is the best opportunity for a party to gain electoral votes. Non-swing states are sometimes called safe states, because one candidate has strong enough support that they can safely assume that they will win the state's votes.
Origin of swing states
In U.S. presidential elections, the Electoral College system allows each state to decide the method by which it awards electors. Since in most states the legislature wants to increase the voting power of the majority, all states except Maine and Nebraska (explained below) use 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. As a result, presidential candidates have reduced incentives to spend time or resources in states they are likely to win or lose by a sizable margin.
Since a national campaign is interested in electoral votes, rather than the national popular vote, it tends to ignore states that it believes it will win easily; since it will win these without significant campaigning, any effort put into them is essentially wasted. A similar logic dictates that the campaign avoid putting any effort into states that it knows it will lose.
For example, a Republican candidate can expect to easily win many of the Southern states like Texas, Mississippi, Alabama, and South Carolina. Similarly, the same candidate can expect to lose most of the traditionally liberal New England states, such as Vermont, Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Rhode Island. Regional exceptions exist; New Hampshire is a swing state in New England, and North Carolina and Florida are swing states in the American South.
In Maine and Nebraska, the apportionment of electoral votes parallels that for Senators and Congressional Representatives. Two electoral votes go to the person who wins a plurality in the state, and a candidate gets one additional electoral vote for each Congressional District in which they receive a plurality. Both of these states have relatively few electoral votes (for the 2004 election, Maine had 4 and Nebraska had 5; the minimum is 3) and are usually not considered swing states (Maine is generally considered a Democratic-leaning state while Nebraska is typically thought to be a Republican state). Despite their different rules, only once has either state split its electoral votes: Nebraska in 2008, giving 4 votes to Republican John McCain and one to Democrat Barack Obama (who swept Maine).
In the 2004 elections, Colorado voted on Amendment 36, an initiative which would have allocated the state's electoral votes in proportion to the popular vote in the state. The initiative would have taken effect immediately, applying to the selection of electors in the same election. However, the initiative failed and Colorado remains under the winner-take-all system that is present in 48 states.
Determining swing states
Professor Joel Bloom has mentioned examining "statewide opinion polls, the results of previous elections, and widespread media attention" as the crucial factors in identifying swing states. The article also cites movie director Leighton Woodhouse opining that there is a general consensus among most groups regarding a majority of the states typically thought of as swing states. 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.
Instead, the closest 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. 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 despite losing such states as North Carolina, Arizona, Georgia, Missouri, and Montana.
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 Mitt Romney would not have been able to defeat Obama even if he had emerged victorious in all of them. Rather, Colorado was most in-step with the rest of the country. Coloradans voted for Obama by just over five percent, which was closer to Obama's national margin than those of any other contested state. Had the election come out closer, Romney's path to victory would have involved also winning Pennsylvania, New Hampshire, or Iowa, as these states had comparable margins to Colorado, and had been definite battlegrounds during the election.
A broad pundit consensus regarding the status of future battleground states developed in the years following the 2012 presidential election. Contributors included Larry Sabato's Crystal Ball, Nate Silver of FiveThirtyEight, and other electoral analysts. From the results of recent presidential elections, a general conclusion was reached that the Democratic and Republican parties start with a default electoral vote count of about 190 each. In this scenario, the twelve competitive states are Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, New Hampshire, Minnesota, Ohio, Iowa, Virginia, Florida, Michigan, Nevada, Colorado, and North Carolina. However, this projection was not specific to any particular election cycle, and assumed similar levels of support for both parties.
Swing states for the 2016 election
Most media outlets announced the beginning of the presidential race about twenty months prior to Election Day. Soon after the first contestants declared their candidacy, Politico listed Virginia, Colorado, Iowa, New Hampshire, Florida, Nevada, and Ohio as the seven states most likely to be contested in the general election. However, the article was released before Donald Trump announced his candidacy for the Republican presidential nomination. According to some analysts, the major campaign locations may be different than expected if the race turns out to be close. States such as Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and even Michigan may be in play with Trump as the nominee.
However, the margins needed to constitute a swing state are vague. In addition, local factors may come into play – for example, Utah was the reddest state in 2012, although the Republican percentage was boosted significantly by the candidacy of Mormon candidate Mitt Romney. In addition, some reports have even suggested a Democratic presidential victory there in 2016 if there is a nationwide blowout. Left-leaning blue states in the American Rust Belt may become more Republican, due to Trump's appeal to poorer blue-collar workers whose job opportunities have reduced in recent years, and generally represent a large portion of the white American populace.
Historical swing states
The swing states of Ohio, Connecticut, Indiana, New Jersey and New York were key to the outcome of the 1888 election. Likewise, Illinois and Texas were key to the outcome of the 1960 election. Florida and New Hampshire were key to the 2000 election. Ohio was the key to the 2004 election. Ohio has gained a reputation as a swing state since the 1980s, and last voted against the person declared president in the 1960 election.
The electoral college encourages political campaigners to focus on these swing states while ignoring the rest of the country. Populous states in which pre-election poll results show no clear favorite are inundated with campaign visits, saturation television advertising, get-out-the-vote efforts by party organizers and debates, while "four out of five" voters in the national election are "absolutely ignored," according to one assessment.
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 key undecided states; in recent elections, these states have included Colorado, Ohio, and Florida since 2004, and Virginia since 2008. In contrast, states with large populations such as California, Texas, and New York, have in recent elections been considered "safe" for a particular party—Democratic for California and New York and Republican for Texas—and therefore campaigns spend less time and money there. Many small states are also considered to be "safe" for one of the two political parties and are also generally ignored by campaigners: of the 13 smallest states, six are reliably Democratic, six are reliably Republican and only New Hampshire is considered a swing state, according to critic George C. Edwards III. In the 2008 election, campaigns did not mount nationwide efforts but rather focused on select states.
Proponents of the Electoral College claim that adoption of a national popular vote would shift the disproportionate focus to large cities at the expense of rural areas. Candidates might also be inclined to campaign hardest in their base areas to maximize turnout among core supporters, and ignore more closely divided parts of the country. Proponents of a national popular vote for president dismiss such arguments, pointing out that candidates in popular vote elections for governor and U.S. Senate and for statewide allocation of electoral votes do not ignore voters in less populated areas.
- "Portrait of a swing State", Meghann Cuniff, Oregon Daily Emerald, October 4, 2004.
- Silver, Nate (2012-04-27). "Arizona Is (Probably) Not a Swing State". The New York Times. Retrieved 2013-06-06.
- Silver, Nate (2012-11-08). "As Nation and Parties Change, Republicans Are at an Electoral College Disadvantage". Retrieved 2013-06-06.
- "The 2016 Results We Can Already Predict". POLITICO Magazine. Retrieved 2016-06-11.
- Silver, Nate (2016-06-29). "2016 Election Forecast | FiveThirtyEight". Retrieved 2016-08-23.
- "2016 Presidential Election Interactive Map". 270toWin.com. Retrieved 2016-02-04.
- "Larry J. Sabato's Crystal Ball » The Electoral College: The Only Thing That Matters". www.centerforpolitics.org. Retrieved 2016-05-21.
- "Larry J. Sabato's Crystal Ball » The Electoral College: Pennsylvania Moves Toward Clinton". www.centerforpolitics.org. Retrieved 2015-09-30.
- "Larry J. Sabato's Crystal Ball » The Electoral College: The Only Thing That Matters". www.centerforpolitics.org. Retrieved 2016-06-11.
- Levin, Sam (2016-03-21). "Why Mormons in America's most conservative state could turn a Trump stronghold questionably Democratic". the Guardian. Retrieved 2016-06-11.
- Roche, Lisa Riley (2016-03-20). "Poll: Utah would vote for a Democrat for president over Trump". DeseretNews.com. Retrieved 2016-06-11.
- "1888 Overview" p.4, HarpWeek.
- "Daley Remembered as Last of the Big-City Bosses", David Rosenbaum, New York Times, April 21, 2005.
- Trolling the Campuses for Swing-State Votes, Julie Salamon, "The New York Times", October 2, 2004
- Game Theory for Swingers, Jordan Ellenberg, "Slate.com", October 25, 2004
- Katrina vanden Heuvel (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 get 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.
- Edwards III, George C. (2011). Why the Electoral College is Bad for America (Second ed.). New Haven and London: Yale University Press. pp. 1, 37, 61, 176–7, 193–4. ISBN 978-0-300-16649-1.
- Hands Off the Electoral College by Rep. Ron Paul, MD, December 28, 2004
- Myths about Big Cities and Big States by National Popular Vote
- The Critical 2012 Swing States
- Battleground States 2008 via the Washington Post
- Swing State Ohio Documentary
- Swing State feature documentary project
- Guide to the 2004 swing states from Slate
- Battleground states from Democracy in Action site hosted by George Washington University
- How close were Presidential Elections? Influential States - Michael Sheppard
- The Bush campaign memo detailing its look at the swing states (PDF file)