Swing state

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For the film of the same name, see Swing State (film).
Swing states in the 2012 presidential election. President Barack Obama won the nationwide popular vote by ~4 percentage points; this won him the bulk of the closely contested states, losing only North Carolina.
  States won by Republican Mitt Romney by 0–4 percentage points
  States won by Democrat Barack Obama by 0–4 percentage points
  States won by Democrat Barack Obama by 4–8 percentage points

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[edit]

These maps show the amount of attention given by the campaigns of George W. Bush and John Kerry during the final four weeks of the 2004 election. At left, each waving hand represents a visit from a presidential or vice-presidential candidate during the final four weeks. At right, each dollar sign represents one million dollars spent on TV advertising by the campaigns during the same time period.

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[edit]

The Oregon Daily Emerald cited University of Oregon political science professor Joel Bloom as mentioning three factors in identifying a swing state: "examining statewide opinion polls, political party registration numbers and the results of previous elections." The article also cites Leighton Woodhouse, co-director of "Driving Votes," as claiming that there is a general consensus among most groups regarding about 75 percent of the states typically thought of as swing states.[1]

States where the election has a close result become less meaningful in landslide elections. Instead, states which vote similarly to the national vote proportions may be more useful. For example, the closest states in the 1984 presidential election were Minnesota and Massachusetts; however, a campaign strategy centered on them would be unlikely to be meaningful in the electoral college, as even if Democratic candidate Walter Mondale had won Massachusetts, he still would have been crushed.[2] Rather, the "tipping-point state" which gave President Ronald Reagan his decisive vote was Michigan; Reagan won Michigan by 19 percentage points, quite similar to his national margin of 18.2%.[2] Michigan would have been a more relevant state to the election results had the 1984 election come out closer. Similarly, Senator Barack Obama's narrow victory in Indiana in the 2008 election might overstate Indiana's importance as a swing state; Obama lost Indiana in the closer 2012 election, but was still reelected.[2][3]

In 2012, the states of North Carolina, Florida, Ohio, and Virginia were decided by a margin smaller than 5 percentage points. However, none of these were the "tipping point" state; Mitt Romney could have won all of their 75 Electoral College votes and still lost the election. Rather, Colorado was the tipping point in 2012, as it was in 2008; Colorado voted for Obama by a margin of 5.4%, close to Obama's national margin of 3.9%.[3] If the election had come out closer, Romney's easiest path to victory would likely have involved flipping all of Florida, Ohio, Virginia, and Colorado. Pennsylvania, New Hampshire, and Iowa all had comparable margins to Colorado, and were heavily campaigned in during the 2012 election.

Swing states for the 2016 election[edit]

In May 2015, Politico created a list in collaboration with Larry Sabato and his news organization. A junior columnist, Kyle Kondik, touted Ohio, Colorado, Iowa, Nevada, New Hampshire, Virginia, and Florida as the seven states most likely to be contested in the general election. However, this article was released before Donald Trump became the presumptive Republican nominee.[4] Additionally, Trump's candidacy has put some previously safe Republican states, such as Utah, into play.[5][6]

A broad pundit consensus, although not clearly evaluated, came forth throughout 2015 regarding the status of battleground states for the 2016 presidential election. Contributors included Larry Sabato's Crystal Ball, Nate Silver of FiveThirtyEight, and analysts at 270ToWin.[7]

From the results of presidential elections from 2004 through to 2012, a general conclusion can be reached that the Democratic and Republican parties start with a default electoral vote count of about 191 each.[8] In this scenario, the twelve competitive states are Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, New Hampshire, Minnesota, Ohio, Iowa, Virginia, Florida, Michigan, Nevada, Colorado, and North Carolina.[9] 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, despite being not that Republican in general.[10] In addition, some reports have even suggested a Democratic presidential victory there in 2016 if there is a nationwide blowout.[11] 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.

Finally, the nominations of historically unpopular candidates such as Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump could conceivably alter, or perhaps skew, such assumptions. In addition, underdog Democratic candidate Bernie Sanders generally performed well in rural and more conservative areas, and drew much of his support from the most liberal voters. Trump's proficiency in these states was less overt. However, his campaign was propelled by victories in Democratic states, and his supporters often did not identify as Republican. Sanders' preferred primary locations formed a unique combination with the more traditional and highly religious parts of the country, which eventually became strongholds for the second-placed Republican candidate, Ted Cruz. Due to this paradox, a match-up between outsiders such as Sanders and Trump could conceivably flip many established political conventions.

Trump's supposedly 'eclectic' policy mix appeals to a different kind of voter than what would be considered a default Republican. In addition, considering his anti-immigration stances, Trump's ability to capture swing states with growing Latino populations such as Colorado and Florida is questionable. However, he could compensate for these losses by winning greater amounts of votes in the generally white Midwest. Thus, Trump would seek to make states such as Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and possibly Michigan the swing states for the 2016 election.[12][13]

Historical swing states[edit]

The swing states of Ohio, Connecticut, Indiana, New Jersey and New York were key to the outcome of the 1888 election.[14] Likewise, Illinois[15] 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,[16][17] and last voted against the person declared president in the 1960 election.


Cartogram of results in 2004, 2008 and the swing between the two. Each square represents one electoral vote.

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.[18]

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 Virginia, Ohio, and Florida in 2004 and 2008, and also Colorado in 2012. 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.[19] In the 2008 election, campaigns did not mount nationwide efforts but rather focused on select states.[19]

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.[20] 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.[21]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Portrait of a swing State", Meghann Cuniff, Oregon Daily Emerald, October 4, 2004.
  2. ^ a b c Silver, Nate (2012-04-27). "Arizona Is (Probably) Not a Swing State". The New York Times. Retrieved 2013-06-06. 
  3. ^ a b Silver, Nate (2012-11-08). "As Nation and Parties Change, Republicans Are at an Electoral College Disadvantage". Retrieved 2013-06-06. 
  4. ^ "Larry J. Sabato's Crystal Ball  » The Electoral College: The Only Thing That Matters". www.centerforpolitics.org. Retrieved 2016-06-11. 
  5. ^ 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. 
  6. ^ Roche, Lisa Riley (2016-03-20). "Poll: Utah would vote for a Democrat for president over Trump". DeseretNews.com. Retrieved 2016-06-11. 
  7. ^ "The 2016 Results We Can Already Predict". POLITICO Magazine. Retrieved 2016-06-11. 
  8. ^ "2016 Presidential Election Interactive Map". 270toWin.com. Retrieved 2016-06-11. 
  9. ^ "Larry J. Sabato's Crystal Ball » The Electoral College: The Only Thing That Matters". www.centerforpolitics.org. Retrieved 2016-06-11. 
  10. ^ 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. 
  11. ^ Roche, Lisa Riley (2016-03-20). "Poll: Utah would vote for a Democrat for president over Trump". DeseretNews.com. Retrieved 2016-06-11. 
  12. ^ "Rustproofing". The Economist. July 2, 2016. Retrieved July 5, 2016. 
  13. ^ "Donald Trump’s path to victory". Retrieved 2016-07-20. 
  14. ^ "1888 Overview" p.4, HarpWeek.
  15. ^ "Daley Remembered as Last of the Big-City Bosses", David Rosenbaum, New York Times, April 21, 2005.
  16. ^ Trolling the Campuses for Swing-State Votes, Julie Salamon, "The New York Times", October 2, 2004
  17. ^ Game Theory for Swingers, Jordan Ellenberg, "Slate.com", October 25, 2004
  18. ^ 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. 
  19. ^ a b 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. 
  20. ^ Hands Off the Electoral College by Rep. Ron Paul, MD, December 28, 2004
  21. ^ Myths about Big Cities and Big States by National Popular Vote

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