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The two key words to look out for in the coming few days are ‘swing states’. Understandably, as the presidential election campaign drew to a close, these were the states where Republican nominee Donald Trump and Democrat Joe Biden spent the most time. While Biden was seen campaigning in Ohio, Trump held five rallies in North Carolina, Michigan and Wisconsin. Both the candidates dashed to the finish with a final showdown at Pennsylvania, a state considered most crucial this electoral season. In the past few years, increasingly, elections in America have boiled down to a matter of a dozen or so states.
The ‘swing states’ have historically voted for different parties in presidential elections. Electoral data reveals that between 2000 and 2016, 38 states voted for the same political party in five presidential elections. It is the remaining 12 that have changed loyalties.
When the founding fathers wrote the constitution of America, it created the electoral college to pick the president. A candidate is required to win 270 out of 538 electoral college votes to be declared winner. Each of the states were given a number of electors, equivalent to their representation in the senate and house of representatives. Popular vote in each of the states goes to the electors, and since 48 out of the 50 states follow the ‘winner takes all’ system, it is relatively easy to predict the outcome in the 38 states that have consistently voted for the same president. Consequently, the swing states carry within them the power to decide a winner and thereby sees the maximum amount of campaigning.
A history of the swing states
The term ‘swing state’ first appeared in the New York Times in 1936 when the incumbent Democrat president Franklin Roosevelt won against Republican Alf Landon. “Each believes he has won by swing through the most doubtful states,” said the caption of the cartoon representing the election.
But the concept of swing states really started emerging in the wake of the civil war in the 1860s. “After the civil war, elections started to become ever more nationalised and candidate-centred and a wide array of states swung between competitiveness and solid partisanship,” writes political scientists David Schultz and Rafael Jacob in their book, ‘Presidential swing states’. They add that between 1896 and 1944, 15 states were most competitive in most of the elections. “It was during this period that presidential candidates and their personal campaign visits began to displace the activities of state and local party organisations engaging voters,” they write. Worth noting is the fact that it is only from the 1890s that presidential candidates began to leave their home states to address rallies in other states. The shift from party centred campaigns to ones centering around the candidate was instrumental in ensuring that states swung loyalties between different parties.
But the specific states that swing have also not always been consistent. A change in demographics, migration from rural to urban areas, and shifting ideologies have determined which state can be called a swing state. “Take Iowa and Ohio, which went from uber-competitive states to near blowouts for President Trump in 2016. Or Maine and Michigan, which hadn’t been all that competitive in 2008 or 2012, but lurched to the right in 2016,” write Elena Mejia and Geoffrey Skelley of FiveThirtyEight in their data report, ‘Is the electoral map changing’.
The history of America holds several examples of swing states determining the victory of a presidential candidate. In 1948, Democrat Harry S. Truman defeated Republican Thomas Dewey by winning by a margin of less than one percent of the popular vote in the then swing states of Ohio, California, Indiana, Illinois and New York. In 2000, the presidential race between Republican George W. Bush and Democrat Albert Arnold Gore came down to who won the 25 electoral votes at Florida. In 2016, Donald Trump managed to win the electoral vote as he emerged victorious in six out of the 10 most competitive swing states.
While analysts have identified a dozen swing states in the current presidential election, six of these are believed to be crucial. The Cook Political Report identifies Arizona, Florida, Michigan, Pensylvannia, Wisconsin and North Carolina as most important in determining who wins the 2020 presidential race.
Formerly part of the territory of Alta California in New Spain, Arizona joined the union in February 1912 as the 48th state and the final piece of continental United States. The state had been a Republican stronghold since 1952. Apart from 1996 when Bill Clinton won the state, it has on every other occasion voted red. In the last few years, however, the state has seen a shift towards Democrats.
A state that attracts a large number of immigrants, Arizona has seen a sharp increase in Hispanic population leaning towards the Democrats. The state’s industries like agriculture and construction depend heavily on immigrant work force. “The deeper underlying shifts in Arizona’s politics toward swing status are related to migrating Californians who dont easily fit the older Arizonian Republican mold,” write Schultz and Jacob. With a large population of American-born hispanics, Arizona attracts a large number of Latin American immigrants. It also hosts a signficant number of illegal immigrants.
In 2016, Trump won the state with a thin margin of three percentage points.
Florida (29)- Republican Donald Trump wins
The largest among the swing states, Florida has also been the most politically divided. A former Spanish colony, Florida joined the union as a slave state in 1845. Since the 1850s, Democrats ruled the state for 140 years and with the fall of the Confederacy, it was ruled by Republicans for 15 years. From 1996, the state turned purple, as it consistently swung between the two parties.
In 1996, it voted for Democrat Bill Clinton, in 2000 and 2004 for Republican George Bush, in 2008 it went in favour of Democrat Barack Obama, while in 2016 Republican Donald Trump won the state. In each of these elections, a margin of merely or two percentage points has separated the winning and losing candidates.
Florida is one of the fasted growing states of the nation, consisting of the second highest number of non-native voters. Two-thirds of the state is known to have been born elsewhere. In terms of demographics, its diverse population makes it a microcosm of a country. As per a report in the Tampa Bay Times, “78.1 percent of Florida’s population is white compared to 77.7 percent for the nation. Florida’s Hispanic population is 23.6 percent compared to 17.1 percent for America. The state’s black population is 16.7 percent compared to 13.2 percent for the United States.” Given its size and diversity, Florida also stands out as the most complicated and expensive states when it comes to drawing out electoral campaigns.
In terms of electoral diversity, the state of Florida can be divided into three parts, with South Florida aligning towards the Democrats, North Florida towards Republicans and central Florida being a swing region. The state is also crucial since as a bellwether state, it has sided with the winning candidate in every election since 1964.
Michigan (16)- Democrat Joe Biden wins
Formerly part of the New France colony, the region that is now part of Michigan came under the British rule in 1762. It joined the union in 1837 and voted consistently for the Republicans till the Great Depression of the 1930s. Well known for its industrial base, Michigan suffered signficantly during the Great Depression, but recovered in the post World War II years. Through the 1930s to the 1960s Michigan alternated between Republicans and Democrats, before once again becoming stronglyb Republican from the early 1970s to the end of 1980s. From 1988, Michagan voted for a Democrats in every presidential election, before it flipped towards Donad Trump in 2016, although by a very narrow margin of less than one percentage point.
Voters stand in line outside of Pere Marquette Depot to cast their ballots in Bay City, Mich., during Election Day on Tuesday, Nov. 3, 2020. (Kaytie Boomer/The Bay City Times via AP)
One of the 13 original founding states of the USA, Pennsylvannia was the second state to ratify the US Constitution. The historical signficance of the state is also derived from the fact that the Constitution of America was drafted here. Prior to Trump winning the state in 2016, Pennsylvannia voted for Democrats in six consecutive elections.
Like most other states, Pennsylvannia’s rural areas tend to be more conservation and vote for the Republicans, while cities like Philadelphia and Pittsburgh are strong blue. However, in recent years, the traditionally Democrat supporting regions of southwestern Pennsylvannia has deflected towards the Republicans.
Popularly known as the keystone state, Pennsylvannia is being projected as the most crucial one in the current election. According to the fivethirtyeight presidential forecast, Pennsylvania is most likely to provide Trump or Biden the decisive vote in the Electoral college. As per the analysis of fivethirtyeight, the state’s deflection to the right is owing to the increase in non-Hispanic white population without a Bachelors degree in the state, who have also undergone an uptick in voter turnout.
Wisconsin (10)- Democrat Joe Biden wins
Located in the North-Central region of the United States, Wisconsin in the 19th and 20th centuries attracted a large number of immigrants from Europe, particularly from Germany and Scandinavia. Just like its neighbouring state, Minnesota, it is a strong hub for German-American and Scandinavian-American culture. It is also well-known for being the country’s largest dairy producers.
The state had remained strongly Republican till the period of the Great Depression and World War II. Yet again from the mid 1940s to 1984, it remained in favour of the Republicans. However, from 1984 till 2016, it turned into a Democrat leaning state. In yet another major deflection, Trump won the state in 2016 by a narrow margin or 0.7 percent, even though opinion polls conducted ahead of the elections predicted otherwise.
The 2016 elections showed Trump leading in rural areas of the state that consists of a large number of working class whites. However parts of the state like Madison’s Dane County and the city of Milwaukee has a large Democrat supporter base.
North Carolina (15)
One of the original 13 states to form the US, North Carolina had declared secession from the union in 1861 and join the Confederates. Like most southern states, North Carolina consistently voted for Democrats from 1876 to 1964. From 1968, the state voted Republican. As per the website, 270towin, “The initial shift was largely in response to white conservative voter uneasiness with the civil rights legislation passed in the mid-1960s, which was effectively exploited by the Republicans “southern strategy.”
The state of North Carolina is sharply split between cities with large populations of moderate professionals, Black voters and college students on one hand, and big stretches of the state that are more rural and conservative.
It swung towards Obama in 2008 when he won 79.23 percent votes. However, in 2016, the state was won by Trump with 51.2 percent votes. Analysts say the urban and rural areas of the state vote for Democrat and Republicans respectively, and that a low turnout among Black voters in 2016 could have affected its right wards move. With the coronavirus pandemic prompting state leaders to increase access to mailed-in ballots, the voter turnout could be a deciding factor in which way the state swings this election.
Some of the other swing states this election include Iowa (6), Ohio (18), Georgia (16), Nevada (6), Texas (38), Minnesota (10), and New Hampshire (4).
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