The anatomy of a Swing State in the Clinton-Trump race
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My neighbor asked me last weekend, “why isn’t this election over?” My answer: “It has been over for a long time -- in 39 states.” Ever since Reagan’s 1984 landslide win, the number of truly competitive state contests for the presidency has been shrinking.

Obama’s 2012 popular vote margin was less than four percent, but we also saw a record number of 35 blowout states. Only four states (Florida, Ohio, Virginia, and North Carolina) were decided by five percentage points or less. No matter who is on the ballot, a small club of swing states dominates our political conversations and shapes what our presidential candidates do and say.

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The media often misleadingly refers to swing states as identical to “competitive states,” “battleground states” and “bellwether states.” Pennsylvania has been a battleground for decades, but has sided with the Democrats decisively in seven of the last ten elections. Because of its huge trove of electoral votes, the chance of swinging Senate and Governor seats, and affordable advertising rates, Republicans keep trying to swing the state, and in every presidential election since 1992, they have failed.

States like Georgia, Maine, Utah and even Indiana can be occasional battlegrounds too, but they do not swing either, though they might, in 2016.

To clarify which states are really swing and why, I joined a team of political scientists led by David Schultz and the late Stacey Hunter Hecht. We analyzed states that swung from one party to the other in presidential elections since 1988, which also were won or lost by less than five percentage points in most of those elections, and which were also bellwethers siding with the national winner most of the time.

Only ten states were in the club: Colorado, Florida, Iowa, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Mexico, North Carolina, Ohio, Virginia and Wisconsin. We included Wisconsin because even though it hasn’t flipped, it is nevertheless a bellwether, highly competitive, and primed to swing.

What makes these ten swing states so uniquely competitive, so swingable and also so representative of the national vote? One difference is who turns out to vote. On average Swing states have higher voter turnout than the 40 states on the sidelines. They have a rough parity in party identification between Democrats and Republicans too, yet also higher than average percentages of independents. Still, it is too simplistic to conclude that swing state just have a lot more “swing voters.” Actually, the key to understanding how swing states are different is that compared to the other forty states they actually have very few true swing voters, not more.

Swing states on average have higher percentages of independents who do not identify with a political party, but they also tend to have higher percentages of independents who lean consistently toward one political party. The recent astronomical increases in campaign spending on swing state advertising, and the new sharper capacities of campaigns to microtarget new voters with consumer preference data, help explain why swing states have so few truly undecided voters.

Not only do most swing states have fewer swing voters, but their swing voters are often culturally different from swing voters elsewhere. One difference has to do with diversity. The percentages of minority groups and young people in most of the swing states is rising more rapidly than elsewhere. These groups are ripe targets for intense persuasion and mobilization efforts by the campaigns, especially because they still vote only sporadically and have not established a stable party identity. States like Colorado or New Mexico are witnessing a rising generation of independent Latinos who may be tilted toward one party in the next two elections.

In swing states like North Carolina, where independents are largely Democrat-leaning African-Americans, wide swings are less likely. New Hampshire has the highest percentage of swingable independents of any state, but their preferences are less flexible. Because a high percentage of independents in New Hampshire are whites, and only a few are evangelical Christians, they are more likely swing in response to surprising national news stories or the personal likeability of current candidates.

The only question is whether 2016 will give us signs of who will be leaving or joining the club in the next couple of elections. You would need to look at the ethnic diversity of the independents, party parity and the implicit party preferences of a large bloc of independents. You would find that Arizona and Georgia will probably be swinging soon. Ohio and Virginia may soon stop being swing states. And states like Pennsylvania, Iowa and Texas will be occasional battlegrounds but it is hard to predict whether they will swing.

My neighbor later asked me: “If one of the parties had nominated a more likeable candidate, would the election now be a blowout?” Unlikely. The data suggests that no matter who the candidates are, the usual members of this exclusive club of swing states will decide the election-- and most of us will be off the guest list.

McLean is Professor of Political Science at Quinnipiac University. He is a contributing author in Presidential Swing States: Why Only Ten Matter, edited by Stacy Hunter Hecht and David Schultz (Lexington Books,2015).

The views expressed by Contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.


The views expressed by Contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.