Swing states. You’ve no doubt heard this term thrown around constantly whenever a presidential election is looming near. Swing states – also called ‘battleground states’ – are states that have such a close split between liberal and conservative leaning voters that, every election cycle, they are theoretically up for grabs by both major parties. They’re called “swing states” because these states contain so many Electoral Votes that they will “swing” the election in favor of the candidate who carries them. They could end up voting for either the Democratic Party or the Republican Party, basically.
They’re also called “purple states” for not being definitively conservative or definitively liberal in their presidential voting records. Because these swing states – Ohio, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Arizona, to name a few – have much more unpredictable partisan outcomes than deep red states like Alabama or deep blue states like Oregon, they become the focus of nearly all of the time, energy, money, and campaigning efforts of the two major parties.
After all, if you can win four of the seven to eight major “swing states,” you have a very good shot at hitting the 270 Electoral Votes necessary to win a presidential election.
This begs the question, however – why do we even have swing states? What exactly makes a state a swing state? How have swing states evolved over time? Is it even healthy to revolve presidential election cycles around 8 out of 50 states? There’s a lot of questions surrounding this phenomenon, and their answers carry significant implications for the future of not only the American presidency, but of the broader American political system at large.
So let’s get into it.
Using the 2020 presidential election as our most recent litmus test for which states have both razor-thin vote margins between the two major parties and enough Electoral Votes to command significant attention from presidential campaigns, we can hash out a rough list of current swing states (in order of descending Electoral Votes). For the following list of swing states, the key determining factor is that their winner was decided by a margin of 3% or less.
All of these states were decided by a margin of 3% or less in the popular vote, the closest margins out of all 50 states in the 2020 election. Of these, current President Joe Biden was able to win every swing state except for North Carolina, which voted for Donald Trump by a margin of 1.35%.
However, swing states are not set in stone – they evolve over each presidential election season. In 2012, for example, Ohio and Iowa were considered major swing states, and then-President Obama managed to carry both states by margins of 2.98% and 5.8%, respectively. Pretty tight margins of victory. However, in the 2016 election, Donald Trump won Ohio by a margin of 8.1% and won Ohio again in 2020 by an 8.0% margin. Because of those back-to-back victories by a margin significantly over 5%, Ohio is no longer considered a purple swing state, but rather a reliable Republican stronghold. The same is true of Iowa. Though Obama won the state by just under 6% in 2012, Iowa shifted red by a significant degree in both 2016 and 2020, voting for Trump by 9.4% and 8.2% respectively.
In the same vein, Arizona was considered a surefire red state in 2012 and 2016, attracting little campaign attention. In 2012, Mitt Romney won Arizona by over 9%. Not even close to being a swing state. However, though he still won Arizona in 2016, Trump only carried the state by 3.5% in 2016, leading many to posit that Arizona might be shifting into swing state territory. This thesis was later borne out in 2020, when Joe Biden won the state of Arizona, the first Democrat to do so in over 30 years, by a razor thin margin of just 0.31%.
So it’s helpful to keep in mind that swing states are not permanent indicators of a state’s political leaning. Socioeconomic, cultural, and political factors all play a role in the developing political identity of every state in the nation – turning some formerly swing states into tried-and-true slam dunks for one of the parties, and turning former slam dunks into hotly contested swing states.
So, why are seven or eight individual swing states so dang important? Why is it that they are the overwhelming focus of political campaigning and media coverage? Why is it never larger states like California or smaller states like Arkansas?
Three words: The Electoral College.
Because the U.S. presidential system is decided by the Electoral College, and not the popular votes, the importance of “purple states” becomes drastically magnified. A presidential candidate needs a majority of Electoral Votes – 270 out of a possible 538 – in order to secure a victory. Because of this simple fact, presidential campaigns can’t afford to “waste” resources on states that will almost certainly vote in their favor no matter what.
This quirk reared its head in the most controversial possible fashion during the 2000 election, in which the state of Florida was the last to be called for either Gore or Bush – and since both candidates were just short of the 270 electoral votes needed to win, Florida literally became the ultimate tipping point state. Whoever wins Florida wins the election at large… and as we all know, the count in Florida was so overwhelmingly slim that the issue of whether to conduct a full state recount was sent to the U.S. Supreme Court (who ultimately rejected a recount, thus delivering Florida, and the presidency, to George W. Bush).
That’s why Democrats running for President almost never seriously campaign in California or Illinois, and Republicans never bother to put real effort into visiting Mississippi or Oklahoma. But when states like Michigan or Pennsylvania could very realistically be won by the other side, their electoral votes become far, far more valuable than the electoral votes that you’re expected to receive. After all, each electoral vote your side wins means one less electoral vote for the other side too.
And in a national political environment that is becoming drastically more polarized than ever before in recent memory, that means the bundle of electoral votes that each set of swing states possess will essentially determine the winner of the Electoral College each election cycle. Win Michigan, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Arizona, and you’re basically guaranteed to win a majority of the Electoral College, in essence.
So, from a campaign’s perspective, why campaign in all 50 states when you can hyper concentrate all of your efforts on winning just four swing states? States that, if you win, will quite literally “swing” the election in your favor?
Now you’re starting to see why swing states suck up all of the oxygen in presidential campaign environments. They receive, by far, the overwhelming majority of campaign visits, events, ad buys, and media coverage in U.S. elections.
Because swing states exert such an outsized influence on every U.S. election, that means huge portions of the country are essentially left forgotten about by national politics. With the way the Electoral College is designed, the states with the tightest margins will necessarily become the most important to win – indeed, one of them will be the decisive “tipping point” state that, when won, ensures its winner will win the entire election – and that means any area of the country that isn’t bitterly divided down partisan lines is essentially left out of the national conversation.
That in and of itself is a danger to democracy. When only an exclusive set of voters are deemed worthy of attention each cycle, it’s not hard to understand why voters in other, more “predictable” states tend to drift towards voter apathy. After all, “what’s the point” of voting when your state’s outcome is essentially predetermined anyway? What’s the point of voting when presidential candidates never mention the problems your state faces, or bother to hear your story?
Following this train of logic is an all-too-reasonable track that many would-be voters take, and some tune out of political participation all together. On the flip side, it can also be exhausting to live in a swing state, where every 3 years, your state is flooded with a bevy of hungry, ambitious political candidates who will do and say everything they can in order to use your vote to gain power for themselves. It’s a transparent act, and it makes it difficult for the typical voter to decide which candidate’s motivations are genuine and trustworthy and which aren’t.
The existence of swing states only underscores how dysfunctional the two-party, Electoral College-driven political system really is. Can America really be called a functioning democracy if presidential candidates only pay attention to 8 states every election cycle, ignoring the other 42?
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