Swing states and US presidential elections

  • Monish Tourangbam
Photo: Mark Alan

Maybe it’s unfair but some states in the United States, when it comes to electoral politics, matter more than others. They matter more, not because they have more Electoral College votes but because they are undecided in their alignment towards either the Republican Party or the Democratic Party. Hence, they are called swing states and candidates are more interested in wooing the voters in these states, than in states that are already certain in favoring either of the two parties. These states are neither completely red (as in favoring the Republican Party) or blue (as in favoring the Democratic Party) and thus are also called purple states. Candidates do not feel the need to spend time and money campaigning in states where either their win or loss is guaranteed.

As the candidates and the parties go through the grind of campaigning towards the November national elections, they like to increase their attention and make their presence felt in states which are regular swing states or that are predicted to turn into swing states. The fact that voters in a particular state are seen as undecided means that their votes are up for grabs and the numbers in those states can swing the results. It also matters that, during the national elections, all states in the US electoral system except Maine and Nebraska follow the winner-take-all system where the winning candidate takes all the votes, no matter how narrowly he/she wins. As the election season progresses, candidates start engaging in localised campaigns tailored to the political environment and voter peculiarity of swing states.

So, how are these swing states known? It seems there are no clear strategies although public opinion polls, previous election results and registration in political parties might give a fair sense of where the wind is blowing, or more precisely, that the wind is not necessarily blowing in one direction. Efforts by parties to entice unaffiliated voters to come out could include greater person-to-person contact and political ads targeting local issues that matter to them. In recent times, politics in the United States has been getting increasingly polarized with decreasing number of politicians who are able to bridge the divide between the two parties and bring more bipartisanism. Continued gerrymandering has led to increasingly partisan congressional districts, with fewer numbers of states that are considered unsafe by either of the two parties.

There is decreasing competition in many of the states and the margins of wins or losses are wider. Compared to earlier elections, number of undecided and hence competitive states has decreased with only 12 states decided by five points or less in 2000. The figure went down to only four states in 2012. In 2016, seven states are being predicted as the real swing states or toss-ups, i.e., Colorado, Florida, Nevada, Ohio, Virginia, Iowa and New Hampshire. Some also push the number of swing states up for grabs to 11, including Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Michigan and North Carolina into the mix. Reports show that most of the campaign spending towards television ads, grassroots voters’ registration and get-out-the-votes drives get concentrated in a few battleground states and the campaign is activated and personalized, to get every vote that counts. Majority of the candidates’ field offices are usually located in these few states as November approaches.

A new study has found that changing demographics in these 11 battleground states might majorly impact the voting patterns with significant consequences for the national results. The growing racial diversity and the aging white population in these swing states have been the subject of a new study. A few points here and there, either through increasing minority voters, or declining white voters can shift results in these states, and hence significantly help in determining who comes to the White House. Choosing between persuading eligible voters aligned to another party, and expanding the electorate by increasing the minority and newly eligible unaligned young voters, campaigners have often found the latter to be more cost-effective. In this context, the Democratic Party seems to have a mathematical edge over the Republican Party in terms of winning the swing states, owing to popularity among the rising minorities and aging white voters’ base denting Republican prospects to some extent. Hence, Republicans need to find the message and the strategy to not only keep its base voters, but also to eat into the Democratic voting base of non-whites.

The non-whites are still far from becoming a majority in the US population, but the electoral implications are already being seen as significant enough to tilt votes one way or the other, more so in the swing states. In states like Pennsylvania, which is seen as being less significant than states like Florida and Ohio in the proportion of non-white voters, the share of non-white voters will see a rise from 17 per cent of the electorate in 2012 to 19.2 per cent in 2016. This is enough to make a difference in a very close race. Hispanics make up the largest minority group in the United States, numbering to about 17 per cent of the US population. Gabriel Sanchez, a political science professor at the University of New Mexico reflected, “Every 30 seconds, a Latino citizen turns 18 and becomes eligible to vote… That’s 66,000 each month. That’s a powerful number.” But, how Hispanics turn out this November might be crucial for both the parties in the swing states because this group also carries a historical record of being bad turnouts on Election Day. The other side of the story is that the lesser number of voters among Hispanics who have not registered give some leeway to both the parties to attract eligible but unregistered voters.

Analyzing Obama’s past wins make it clear that changing demography apart, getting the minority voters enthusiastic and involved enough in the election to actually come out and vote was as important. It has to be seen as to what extent the Democratic candidate is able to excite minority voters in the swing states, and to what extent the Republican counterpart is able to make a dent in the Democratic support among minority voters. In other words, as both parties vie for voters in the swing states, the Democratic Party cannot take minority voters for granted and the Republican Party cannot hope to have a future without catering to minority voters.

The author is Assistant Professor at the Department of Geopolitics and International Relations, Manipal University, Karnataka.

The views expressed above belong to the author(s).



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