How the Swing States Work

It's a common adage in a democratic society that "every vote counts." The hard truth of the matter is that, under the United States' Electoral College system, there are plenty of votes in presidential elections that don't count at all.

If you take issue with that statement, which goes against everything Americans are taught about living in a democracy, think about it this way: A Democrat who lives in Kansas will never cast a meaningful vote in a presidential election in his or her life.

As a result, states in which the majority of voters vote for the same party in every election (like Kansas) are all but ignored by presidential candidates on the campaign trail. Instead, they spend their time and effort in the swing states (also referred to as battleground states or purple states) -- those states where the popular vote is usually close, and the outcome is up for grabs.

In this article, we'll explain how the Electoral College created swing states and why not all votes are created equal.

Electoral College

Each state's number of electors for the 2004 and 2008 elections
Each state's number of electors for the 2004 and 2008 elections

It seems like electing the president should be a pretty simple process. Everybody votes, and whoever gets the most votes becomes president, right? That method, called the popular vote, was one of several that the founding fathers of the United States considered when they made up the rules for presidential elections more than 200 years ago. They didn't pick the popular vote method, however. They went with an indirect system called the Electoral College.

It's easier to understand the Electoral College if you remember that it isn't really a national election -- it's a whole bunch of separate state elections. Each state gets a certain number of electors:

  • one for each senator (which means two, because there are always two senators)
  • one for each representative (which depends on the state's population as determined by the census)

In almost all cases (see "Winner Doesn't Always Take All" below), whichever candidate wins a given state wins all of that state's electoral votes, and it takes a majority of the electoral votes to win the overall election.

For more detailed information on the Electoral College system in the United States, see How the Electoral College Works.

States and Their Leanings

This winner-take-all system is what led to the creation of swing states, as well as states in which votes just aren't particularly important. How can you tell the two apart?

There are nine states -- Alaska, Utah, Wyoming, Kansas, Idaho, North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, Oklahoma, Indiana and Virginia -- that have voted for Republican candidates for the last 10 presidential elections. In fact, in almost all cases, the votes weren't even close. The Republicans enjoy a huge majority in eight of those states; in Virginia, Republicans won by just an 8 percent margin in 2004. In Wyoming, Utah and Idaho, Republicans had about a 40 percent majority in 2004. Montana, Colorado, Arizona, Mississippi, Alabama, North Carolina and South Carolina have only voted for the Democratic candidate once in the last 10 elections.

Democrats don't have an overwhelming hold on any states quite the way Republicans do. In fact, there are only five states that show a strong tendency to vote for Democratic candidates: Massachusetts, New York, Minnesota, Maryland and Hawaii. These states have tended to vote Democrat 70 percent to 90 percent of the time since 1964.

What does this mean to the average voter? If you live in Wyoming, for example, you can vote Democrat all you like, but the fact remains that the majority of the voters in that state will vote Republican, so the Republican candidate will get all the electoral votes.

Swing states (see map above) are ones in which recent presidential elections have been decided by a narrow margin -- in some cases, less than one percent. In 2000, New Mexico, Florida, Iowa, Oregon and Wisconsin had the closest margins, with the vote in each state decided by less than 1 percent. Florida's famous disputed vote came down to 537 votes, or 0.01 percent. With Florida worth 25 electoral votes at the time (it now has 27 electoral votes), those were 537 incredibly important votes. In 2004, Wisconsin, Iowa and New Mexico once again had the closest margins, with the vote in each state decided by less than 1 percent. New Hampshire, Nevada, Ohio and Pennsylvania were all very close, too -- the vote in each state was decided by less than 3 percent.

Sometimes states are considered swing states for reasons beyond close margins. For example, for the 2004 election West Virginia, Louisiana, Arkansas and North Carolina (because it is the home state of Senator John Edwards, who was Kerry's running mate in 2004) were also considered swing states by political analysts.

What's it looking like for the 2008 election? Washington Post political blogger Chris Cillizza lists Iowa, New Mexico, Nevada, Colorado, Ohio, Virginia, New Hampshire, Florida, Minnesota and Missouri as potential swing states in the 2008 election [source: Washington].

Of course, politicians have known about swing states for decades. Let's find out how it affects their campaign strategy.

The Campaign Trail

When it's time to make speeches, shake hands and kiss babies, politicians head for the swing states.
When it's time to make speeches, shake hands and kiss babies, politicians head for the swing states.
Tony Anderson/Getty Images

When presidential candidates travel the country in the year leading up to the election, they don't hit every single city in every single state. It would be impossible. Campaign coordinators plot out the campaign based on the most important states for the candidate to show up in. If a state has voted Republican in every election for the last 40 years, then the Democratic candidate would just be wasting his or her time giving speeches there. The Republican candidate would be, too, for that matter -- why bother stopping in a state if it's going to vote for you no matter what?

Campaigns do visit non-swing states, however, and the reason is simple: money. High-priced campaign events can raise millions of dollars, which will ultimately pay for campaign advertising in other, more important states.

­ When it comes time for making speeches, shaking hands and kissing babies, swing states get all the action. If a state was decided by a few thousand votes in the last election, it's easy to see why it's important to give several campaign speeches around that state, each one delivered in front of several thousand, potentially undecided voters. If you add news coverage, word-of-mouth and poll momentum (the tendency for undecided voters to vote for whichever candidate is leading in the polls), a campaign speech in a closely contested state can make a huge impact on election night results months later. The closer the state's margin, the more important the campaign speech.

Just being a swing state isn't enough to bring a state to the top of a candidate's campaign itinerary, however. Since electoral-vote apportionment is based on population, some states have more votes than others. The states with the most votes get the most attention. Why make speeches in three states with five electors each when you can make one speech in a state with 15 electors?

What Happened in 2000?

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