Ah, to be a swing state. These lucky few get showered with attention while the California’s and Texas’ toil in relative obscurity.* Take a few minutes and familiarize yourself with the battleground states that you’re going to be hearing mentioned more and more as we get closer to November. A few quick notes before we begin.
It’s worth remembering that the Electoral College doesn’t deviate significantly from the popular vote. In fact, it's extremly unlikely that a candidate could lose the popular vote by more than 2 points and yet still claim the presidency. Only in close presidential races does the swing state math become important.
The relative importance of a swing state is the product of two major factors. First, how many electoral votes does it have? You probably don't need an example of why this matters but here's one anyway. The morning after the 2000 elections Florida, New Mexico and Oregon were all too close to call. However, even winning New Mexico and Oregon (as Gore eventually did) still left both candidates short of the necessary 270 electoral votes it took to win the election. Florida’s relative size made it the grand prize of the contest.
Second, could the state tilt in either direction in an especially close race? In 2008 Obama barely won North Carolina and lost Indiana and Missouri by narrow margins. However, it was only because Obama won the election so convincingly that these traditionally red-leaning states were even in play. An election where Indiana turns blue is an election where the Democratic candidate has already surpassed 270 electoral votes by a healthy margin
Thus, even though North Carolina is classified as a purple state and boasts an impressive 15 electoral votes its relative importance is going to be less than a “truer” swing state such as Virginia. This is a point Nate Silver brought up several months ago and one I emphasize throughout the individual previews.
I list a lot of the swing states as leaning slightly towards Obama but don’t think this means that the President has a sizeable edge overall. The outcome of each state is not independent; if the national polls start to move many of these swing states will shift as well. The current analysis is reflective of my general belief that Obama holds a narrow lead in the battle for the White House.
Finally, I had originally done a preview of Arizona but in retrospect I think it’s too right-leaning to clarify as a true swing state. Translation: Keeping Arizona on the list would mean writing previews of Michigan, Missouri and all of the other semi-swing states. You can read the Arizona summary here.
*Although a voter in Nevada probably isn't feeling so spoiled when they can't watch the evening news without having to sit through dozens of super-PAC ads.
While Colorado isn’t especially large (9 electoral votes) it could end up being a critical state in a close election. Here’s why.
As Nate Silver rightly points out, simply saying that a state is up for grabs doesn’t tell us how likely it is to swing the outcome of the election in one way or the other. In order to determine the “swingiest state” in the 2008 election, Silver ordered the states according to the per cent of the vote Obama received. Then, starting with the state where Obama’s margin of victory was greatest, he counted backwards until he reached the state that gave Obama the electoral majority. That state was Colorado. “The ordering of the states is usually fairly consistent from year to year,” so in a razor thin contest Colorado is among the most likely states to tip the scales one way or the other
Colorado’s transformation from reasonably red to swing state has been remarkably rapid. As professor Seth Masket explains, the rise in Latino population coupled with migrants drawn by Denver’s blossoming high-tech industry has created an influx of new Democratic voters. "The political geography of the state is pretty fascinating, Masket continues, “Boulder and Denver are quite liberal, while Colorado Springs is very, very conservative, and the west is slightly libertarian."
The emerging liberal coalition within the state itself may well serve as a future model for the Democratic. In a 2010 interview, David Axelrod, one of Obama’s closest advisors, explained that Coloradon Democrat Michael Bennet's victory in the 2006 Senate race was “particularly instructive.” Despite low support from blue-collar whites, Bennet did extremely well amongst young voters, minorities, social liberals and well-educated women. Obama will be hoping these groups turn out in high numbers in November.
Finally, Colorado, more so than most other swing states, is especially “sensitive” to changes in the political climate. Keep an eye on the polls; as swings at the national level may be magnified within the state.
Who can forgot 2000, when the outcome of the presidential race remained uncertain as the hanging chads in Florida were examined?
Although the Bush v. Gore election was almost certainly the high water mark of Florida’s electoral influence, the state shouldn't be overlooked in 2012. Over the past sixty years Florida has been amongst the fastest growing states in the nation and currently boasts an impressive 29 electoral votes. The expanding population has also greatly diversified the Floridian electorate, as 270 To Win explains:
Influxes of Cubans, retirees, service workers to the theme park economy booming near Orlando and other groups have resulted in a state much more diversified — both economically and politically — than many of its southern brethren.
Obama won the state by about 3 points in 2008 but Mitt Romney and the Republicans are determined to not let that happen again. The GOP is pulling out all the stops: holding their convention in Tampa and pouring resources into the state. Economic trends should work in Romney’s favour here as well. It’s very possible that if it weren’t for the financial crisis Obama would have lost Florida in 2008; but what helped him four years ago could be his undoing this time around. The state has been hit especially hard by the recession, with the unemployment rate remaining well above the national average.
A few months ago polls had the state tilting slightly towards Romney but right now it's looking like a dead heat. That's bad news for Romney given that this is pretty much a make or break state for him. Of course, Obama would love to carry Florida as well but chaning demographics in the Southwest mean that winning here isn't as critical for Democrats as it was in elections past. The President has a lot of routes to 270 that don't run through the Sunshine State.
Life isn’t fair. Iowa may only be the 30th biggest state, but it gets all the attention during the political season. By law, the Iowa caucus is the first stop of the primary season. As such, the candidates lavish incredible attention on the Hawkeye State, hoping for the type of impressive showing that will vault them into the national spotlight and propel them to the nomination. The Iowa caucus is the peak of the state’s political clout, but, as a swing state, it still carries a disproportionate influence in the general election.
Obama carried Iowa by 10 points in 2008. The state went for Bush in 2004 and Gore in 2000 — both by less than a one per cent margin. Overall though, Iowa has gone blue in six of the last seven presidential elections.
Given the state's recent history, Obama starts out with the edge here. And, as Bill Galston points out, there are additional factors that could work in his favour. First, the state’s unemployment rate has been consistently low, meaning that Romney’s critique of the economy may not resonate as much. Also, given the fairly unimpressive turnout at this year’s caucus, conservatives may not be as fired up as Romney would like. Still, don’t count out the former Governor of Massachusetts. We’re still a long way out, but recent polls show the race as neck and neck.
Same-sex marriage may also be a sleeper issue. While I don’t expect it to be a big factor in the national election, Iowa has a large evangelical population and the topic is likely to raise passions given the 2009 state Supreme Court ruling legalising same-sex marriage. Still, Romney may be reluctant to fan the flames on social issues, preferring to keep the focus on the economy.
Our journey through the swing states makes a pit stop in the Northeast. New Hamsphire has voted Democratic in four of the last five elections but it's no sure bet to stay blue this time around.
The Granite State has long been famed for its independent streak, as evidenced by the January primary, in which nearly half of the voters listed no party affiliation. And while the state's unpredictability might be overblown a bit it does it have one of the highest percentage of swing voters in the country.
The demographics of the state work in Romney's favour. New Hampshire has a bit of a libertarian streak and is one of the least religious states in the union. As such, Romney's business background and emphasis of economic issues over social ones may make him attractive to moderate New Hampishirites. Not surprisingly, the former Massachusetts's governor won easily here in the primary.
Still, Romney's got some work to do. Bill Galston points out that the long primary seems to have hurt the Republican nominee here, "reducing his public support in head-to-head contests against Obama by ten percentage points and turning an eight point lead into a nine point deficit." However, as the primary fades further into the past and Romney tacks back toward the centre don't be surprised to see his numbers start to pick up a bit.
New Hampshire only has four electoral votes but there are plausible scenarios where it could prove decisive. For instance, let's say Romney wins nearly all of the Eastern swing states save Pennsylvania, which seems to be leaning heavily towards Obama. Then, let's assume that the emerging southwestern liberal coalition that Democrats have been touting allows them to carry every swing state west of the Mississippi. In this scenario, Obama's sitting at 268 electoral votes, Romney's at 266, and New Hampshire determines the outcome. Or, give Obama Virginia where he's currently leading, and then flip Nevada and Iowa into the Romney's column and once again New Hampshire breaks the stalemate.
Let’s talk about Nevada, shall we? The Silver State has tripled in population over the past thirty years, and — like Arizona and Colorado — its changing demographics have slowly nudged the state to the left politically.
Much of the growth has been concentrated in the Las Vegas area which has seen a recent influx of migrants from states like California. Currently the state has two congressional districts nestled down in the southern corner and a massive district that geographically covers the vast majority of the state. This second congressional district is currently the third largest in the country, although it will be divided roughly in half when the state adds a fourth district this year. This gives the state a total of six electoral votes in the upcoming election cycle.
Nevada was at the centre of the housing boom and was hence hit especially hard by the financial crisis. Its unemployment rate is the highest in the country and the rate of foreclosure far outpaces any other state. Not surprisingly, both candidates have made repeated visits here to talk about economic issues. Interestingly though, studies indicate that, in presidential elections, it’s the performance of the national, not the state, economy that primarily influences voting behaviour.
Nevada went for Obama in 2008 by 12 points but Bush won here by decent margins in 2004 and 2000. With Latinos making up more than a quarter of the state’s population, their votes and turnout will be important in deciding the outcome. Currently, I’ve got this state leaning slightly towards Obama.
Team Obama pretty much ran the perfect campaign here in 2008 registering scores of new African-American voters and working hard to turn out young voters and especially college students. Their hard work payed off as Obama pulled out a narrow victory in a state that Democrats had pretty much written off at the presidential level after Southern realignment. This strategy, emphasizing mobilization rather than persuasion, was ideally suited for a state like North Carolina. Nate Silver explains:
"[North Carolina] has quite a few African-American voters, who are almost sure to vote for Mr. Obama. But it also has plenty of rural white Southerners, many of them evangelical conservatives, who almost certainly won’t. To a lesser extent, it also has some highly educated and very liberal white voters in the Research Triangle, who are also quite likely to be Obama voters. That doesn’t leave very many voters left over."
The problem for Democrats is that mobilization requires a well coordinated ground game featuring a bunch of enthusiastic volunteers. The 2008 election was excellent for this as the Obama campaign stirred up a lot of excitement and passion amongst younger Americans. Yeah a lot of these kids are going to vote for him again. But are undergrads still going to feel motivated to go knock doors on a rainy October morning while still hungover from last night's frat party?
Obama also isn't getting any favours from the state Democratic Party. The current Democratic governor is unpopular and a former staffer is accusing party members of covering up a sexual harassment allegation against a high level party official.
It's not all bad news for liberals though. The 2010 Census shows two trends that bode well for Democrats; an increasingly large minority population and continual migration from the Northeast. These trends should at least partially offset the tougher political climate that Democrats face this time around. Romney is the favourite in 2012 but it's by no means prohibitive. However, if Obama does claim the state's 15 electoral votes it will likely be extraneous as 270 will already be in his rearview mirror.
On to Ohio! The Buckeye State has been a bellwether in past elections, having thrown its support behind the winning presidential candidate in every election since 1964. In an earlier post, I claimed that Romney couldn’t win the election without winning Ohio. I had to rethink my statement after Jonathan Bernstein called such pronouncements rash: still, after reviewing the electoral map, I don’t feel the need to hedge my bets too much. To lose Ohio and still win, Romney would have to perform exceptionally well in the other swing states, including many that are currently leaning towards Obama. Ohio is enough of a bellwether to make this scenario extremely improbable. And while Obama can win without Ohio, his path to 270 begins to look significantly more difficult.
Ohio has been steadily losing electoral votes over the past half century but is still the seventh largest state, with 18 electoral votes. Demographically, it's primarily white and working class but has large African American populations in many of the major cities. This political map gives a great sense of its politics by region. Western and Central Ohio, including Cincinnati in the southwest, are conservative, while northeastern Ohio is much more liberal.
The national movement of working class white voters towards the Republican Party dosen't bode for Democrats in states like Ohio. And while Obama beat McCain here in 2008 by 4.7 points, that was still 2.5 points under his national margin. Ohio, as always, is one of the most important states in this election cycle. In a close race, the outcome here could very easily determine the next president.
Democratic strategist James Carville once described Pennsylvania as “Philadelphia and Pittsburgh with Alabama in between.” And while the statement is vaguely accurate, Carville's comparison obscures some deeper trends. Demographically, the Keystone State shares much in common with Midwestern working class states but the further east you move the more it starts to resemble the East Coast states it borders.
The challenge for Republicans is they need to perform very well outside of the two major cities in order to offset the Democratic advantage in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh. As The Politikal Blog explains,“twenty years ago, Republicans could use Philadelphia’s suburbs to balance Democratic margins from the city itself.” Unfortunately for the GOP, these suburbs have grown increasingly blue and not surprisingly Democrats have carried Pennsylvania in the last five presidential elections.
Given these trends Obama is probably around a 4-1 favourite here. Still, the poor economic figures from the past several months have led more and more pundits to include Pennsylvania on their list of swing states.
The swing state math currently favours Obama but if you colour Pennsylvania and its twenty electoral votes red the entire calculus changes. In that hypothetical, Romney can still win the election even if he loses a fair number of the other tossups.
All swing states are important, but Virginia stands out as one of a handful that’s especially likely to decide a close presidential election. First, it’s relatively large with 13 electoral votes. And second, it’s increasingly become a bellwether of the nation’s ever changing political winds.
“Old Dominion’s” emergence as a key swing state is a recent phenomena. From the mid 1920’s through much of the 1960’s state politics were controlled by Democratic Senator Harry F. Byrd and his political machine. However, as Byrd’s influenced waned, voters shifted their allegiance to the Republican Party. Barack Obama’s 7 point victory in 2008 was the first time in nearly sixty years that the state voted Democratic in a presidential election.
The transformation of Virginia into a swing state has primarily been driven by the changing demographics of the state’s Democratic suburbs. In recent decades, Virginia has welcomed a wave of new immigrants from more liberal east coast states with much of the growth concentrated in the Washington D.C. suburbs of Northern Virginia.
These trends only intensified the remarkable demographic divide between the northern and southern parts of the state. The suburbs of D.C. are filled with extremely affluent and well educated professionals nearly 80 per cent of whom were born outside of Virginia. Head South on Route 29 though and you’ll begin to pass towns where most of the inhabitants have family trees firmly planted in the state and deep attachments to Southern culture. This political divide seems only fitting for a state that borders the nation’s capitol but is also home to the former capitol of the Southern Confederacy.
Virginia's large African American population and liberal suburbs provided a promising coalition for Democrats in future elections. However, the Tea Party’s strong performance here in 2010 is a firm reminder of the state’s deep conservative roots.
In recent years, many of Virginia’s gubernatorial and Senate races have become high profile affairs thar are viewed as indicators of the larger political climate. The same looks to be true at the presidential level in 2012 as Obama’s narrow edge is fairly reflective of his overall national standing.
Referring to Wisconsin as a swing state is like calling Keanu Reeves an actor; in both cases you’re starting to stretch the descriptor beyond recognition. Okay, that's a bit of an exaggeration, but the left-leaning Badger State is more predictable than many of the other toss ups.
Wisconsin has voted Democratic in the past six election presidential cycles but Romney is hoping that unique circumstances in 2012 could propel him to victory. In February 2011, Republican Governor Scott Walker introduced the Wisconsin Budget Repair Bill which included a provision stripping government workers of most collective bargaining rights. A political firestorm ensured, with opponents garnering the necessary signatures to force a gubernatorial recall election in June 2012.
Both sides campaigned furiously with one GOP official commenting that the “Wisconsin Republican Party “is more united behind Scott Walker than it’s been for anything it’s ever done.” The election received intense national coverage and so when Walker won fairly easily many on the right heralded it as evidence that Obama might be in trouble as well.
However, this theory finds little support in the evidence as presidential candidates have actually performed slightly better in states where the governor is a member of the opposite political party. It’s impossible to know for sure how things will play out in November but Obama’s relative popularity in the state is a better predictor of the outcome than is Walker’s victory. Still, the President shouldn’t get too comfortable considering how close the presidential race was here in 2000 and 2004.
The Eastern part of the state is fairly conservative with the “bulk of the state’s GOP electorate” located in the “suburban communities to the west of Milwaukee.” Democratic voters are concentrated within the city limits of Milwaukee and the state capitol of Madison.