October 7, 2008

Swing States & Presidential Elections

by Logan Ruppel

In relatively close elections, as the past few have certainly been, it is the swing states — the battlegrounds that end up determining who becomes the next president of the United States. We all know which regions traditionally vote Democratic: the Northeast, the West Coast, and some of the Midwest, while the South and non-coastal West tend to vote Republican. Of course, there will always be exceptions to these generalizations with new swing states popping up every election, along with some perennials such as Florida, Ohio, and Pennsylvania.

Due to the ever-shifting political landscape, states running tight races just an election ago can turn definitively to one party or the other in just a few years or even months. For example, New Hampshire was solidly won by President George W. Bush in 2000, while in 2004, Sen. John Kerry narrowly squeezed out a victory there. New Hampshire's erratic voting over the past few decades is largely because its voters tend to be socially liberal like the rest of the Northeast, but also fiscally conservative and libertarian.

The political alignments of states can change drastically even in the few critical months before an election, as is the case of Pennsylvania in the 2008 election. Early in the race, Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) had a slight advantage in Pennsylvania. However, just a few months later, in October, Sen. Barack Obama (D-IL) has gradually gained enough strength to sit on a comfortable nine-point lead in the polls. It's possible that due to Obama's loss in the Pennsylvania primary to Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-NY), it simply took some time for him to build support in the state.

Ohio has been an influential swing state for over half a century, voting for the winning candidate in every election since 1948, except for 1960. Ohio's battleground status is mainly due to its 20 electoral votes and relatively moderate electorate. This means that there is a significant number of independent voters and those with party affiliations don't always vote that way.

Florida has been another important swing state in recent elections, most notably in the 2000 election. I don't even want to get into the outrageousness of the Florida voting system and the Supreme Court's highly partisan decision to forgo a recount. The end result of these shenanigans was a margin of victory in Florida for Bush of only 537 votes more than Gore that decided the election. It is important to realize that a recount would have involved more than 100,000 votes, a figure that could easily have changed the outcome of the election.

The current battleground states in the 2008 election are Ohio, Florida, Nevada, Virginia, North Carolina, and Colorado, all a bit tilted for Obama, along with Missouri and Indiana which slightly favor McCain. All of these states' polls are within the 3% margin of error, meaning that they could actually be tied or barely favor the other candidate. Make sure to keep a close eye on the races in these eight states, because they will make the vital difference in deciding whether America trusts McCain or Obama with steering our country in a better direction than it has been going for the past eight years.

(The graphic shows a map of the United States, adjusted for population size with a county-by-county breakout of the vote during the 2004 presidential election. The map's colors are in what have become the traditional colors depicting Republican votes in red and Democratic votes in blue. The map is © copyright M. T. Gastner, C. R. Shalizi, and M. E. J. Newman of the University of Michigan, who make this map and others available through a Creative Commons license.)

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