What Are Swing States and How Did They Become a Key Factor in US Elections? - HISTORY

President Harry Truman holds up a premature copy of the Chicago Daily Tribune declaring his defeat to Thomas Dewey in the presidential election, St Louis, Missouri, November 1948.

The claim that “every vote counts” is especially true in swing states. Close presidential elections throughout American history have borne this out: Harry S. Truman defeated Thomas Dewey in 1948 by winning by less than one percent of the popular vote in then-swing states like Ohio, California, Indiana, Illinois and New York—a race so close that newspaper headlines mistakenly proclaimed Dewey the winner

In the 1960 presidential election between Richard M. Nixon and John F. Kennedy, 10 states were won by less than two percent of the vote. And in 2000, the results of the election came down to who won Florida, which George W. Bush claimed by a margin of just 537 votes.

The high-stakes game of winning over swing states means candidates spend 75 percent or more of their campaign budget on courting them. Candidates almost exclusively visit swing states on the campaign trail, often skipping other states entirely unless they’re fundraising. “Swing states are the presidential campaign,” says Hudak.

What Dynamics Create Swing States?

There are three main factors that can create swing states, and they often overlap and are all at play.

1. Population Changes. Urban areas tend to vote Democratic and rural areas tend to lean Republican. When citizens leave liberal-leaning coasts or major cities to settle in smaller cities or more rural areas, they can alter the balance between parties. 

2. Ideological Polarization: The Pew Research Center has found that the ideological divide between parties began to widen in the 2000s. “Before the 1990s, there was a good number of liberal Republicans in the North and conservative Democrats in the South," says Hudak. "As parties divide, they can change whether a state is a swing state or not."

3. Moderate Politics: In a state with more moderate voters, the divide between Republicans and Democrats narrows, making it more difficult to determine political outcomes. Hudak says that states including Maine and New Hampshire "have a lot of moderate, independent-minded voters...who drive that two-party competitiveness."

Hudak adds that as the country has evolved, the number and identity of swing states has evolved as well. “The Voting Rights Act has had a huge impact on enfranchising African Americans who couldn’t vote 50 years ago in places like Texas, North Carolina, and Georgia,” says Schultz.

Swing States in the 2020 Election

In the 2016 electionDonald J. Trump eked out an Electoral College victory by winning six out of 10 of the most competitive swing states. 

Potential 2020 battleground states in the presidential election between Joe Biden and Donald J. Trump include Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Iowa, Maine, Michigan, Minnesota, Nebraska, Nevada, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.

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