Why the number of swing states is dwindling
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After wrapping up the Republican nomination in early May, Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump alludes to possible 2024 run in White House remarks Trump threatens to veto defense bill over tech liability shield Tiger King's attorney believes they're close to getting pardon from Trump MORE continued visiting primary states, like California and New Mexico, that in all likelihood won't be decisive in the general election. More recently, he made a trip to Indiana, the most Republican state in the Midwest, although that was an audition for Gov. Mike PenceMichael (Mike) Richard PenceTrump campaign files new post-certification lawsuit in Wisconsin Trump set for precedent-breaking lame-duck period Trump pardons Michael Flynn MORE, now Trump's running mate. Presumptive Democratic nominee Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonTrump has discussed possible pardons for three eldest children, Kushner: report McCaskill: 'Hypocrisy' for GOP to target Biden nominee's tweets after Trump Biden budget pick sparks battle with GOP Senate MORE, too, has spent time in non-decisive states, like New Jersey, though that was to critique Trump's business history in Atlantic City. But now that the conventions are upon us, recent history suggests that both candidates will, or at least should, narrow their travel.


While Trump is unpredictable enough that his plans may be anyone's guess, we should expect the Clinton campaign to run a textbook race, focusing almost exclusively on the states likely to decide the election. In 2012, the members of both presidential tickets held post-convention visits in just 12 states, with a third of those visits coming in just a single state: Ohio, the historic maker of presidents that I explore in-depth in my new book, "The Bellwether: Why Ohio Picks the President." Campaign ads were similarly concentrated.

It wasn't always this way, though.

Two days before he lost a very close presidential election to John F. Kennedy, then-Vice President Richard Nixon found himself in Anchorage, Alaska. A major part of his campaign had been a promise to visit all 50 states, and he saved Alaska for the end. In Anchorage, he noted the history he had made: "This is indeed, a historic moment. It is one that will never be duplicated. This is the first time in the history of the United States that a candidate for the presidency of either party has visited all of the 50 states of this country."

Nixon's pledge became a target of easy criticism as he used valuable time at the end of the campaign. "All through the campaign," wrote Theodore White in his definitive "The Making of the President, 1960," "as the race narrowed and it became obvious that it would be won or lost in the teetering industrial northeastern states, Nixon was cramped by his public pledge — so that on the last weekend of the campaign, as Kennedy barnstormed through populous Illinois, New Jersey, New York and New England, Nixon found himself committed to fly all the way north to Alaska, which offered only three electoral votes."

Even though it seems silly now, though, Nixon's vow made at least some sense in 1960. That year, in what would be an essentially 50-50 split in the national popular vote, 20 of the 50 states were decided by 5 percentage points or less, including big states like California, Illinois, Michigan, New Jersey and Texas. The same thing happened 16 years later in Jimmy Carter's 2-point national win over then-incumbent Gerald Ford. But by 2012, in Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaObama chief economist responds to McConnell quoting him on Senate floor: He missed 'a critical part' Amazon reports .8B in weekend sales from independent businesses on its platform Ossoff features Obama in TV ad ahead of in Georgia run-off MORE's 4 point victory over GOP nominee Mitt Romney, just four states were decided by less than 5 points.

As I note in "The Bellwether," Ohio has the best record of picking presidential winners over the last 30 elections — only two times in that period has it voted for the loser (1944 and 1960). It also, on average, deviates only about 2 points from the national voting, also the best mark amongst the states. But a state like Ohio is arguably more important now than it was a half-century ago because the number of states like it — those that vote close the national average — are dwindling, as the examples from 1960, 1976 and 2012 make clear. In fact, Nixon actually won Ohio in 1960, one of the rare times it voted for the loser.

Let's look at this another way, though. In 1960, about 75 percent of the nation's electoral votes were in states that voted less than five points from the national average, one way or the other. So in that election, where the national popular two-party vote was basically tied at 50-50, any state that voted 54-46 one way or the other, or closer, would be included. As the country has become more sorted, partisan and polarized over time, with fewer crossover voters and more ideologically cohesive parties, that number dwindled, so that in 2012, just about 30 percent of the nation's electoral votes were in states that voted within less than 5 points, either way, of the national average.

Included in that group are the competitive states that Americans have become accustomed to in recent years, like Colorado and Virginia — which are new to the group of highly competitive presidential states — as well as states that have longer histories reflecting the nation, like Nevada and Ohio, which nearly always vote for the presidential winner, as well as Florida, the biggest state in the Union that has been perennially competitive over the past handful of elections.

Teddy White rolled his eyes at Nixon's 50-state ploy in 1960. Nowadays, even a 25-state strategy would elicited the same reaction.

Kondik is managing editor of Sabato's Crystal Ball, a nonpartisan newsletter on elections produced by the University of Virginia Center for Politics. He is the author of the new book "The Bellwether: Why Ohio Picks the President."