In a previous post, I wrote about how voter volatility has dropped sharply beginning with the 1996 elections, resulting in much greater stability in voter patterns. This has resulted in the cementing of party preferences in about 80% of the states leading to a semi-permanent red state-blue state map of the US, with just a handful of about 10 states (Ohio, Florida, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and Wisconsin being the largest of this small group) considered swing states whose outcome is now considered to be still up for grabs.
Because the presidential election is determined by the electoral college system that assigns votes by states, campaigning and resources are now largely targeted to just those states that are seen as competitive, with the rest of the nation being pretty much bystanders. Ritchie King has compiled a chart beginning in 1972 comparing the margin of victory in each state with the overall margin of the national vote and finds that the gaps have increased steadily since 1992. As King states, “from 1992 to 2012, blue states grew a bit bluer, red states a bit redder and tossup states a bit fewer in number.” However, the current election has seen a narrowing of the spread, at least as far as opinion polls go.
This year, in addition to having less of a spread, has more states with closer absolute margins than other recent elections. In 2008, for example, only six states had electoral margins of 5 percentage points or less; this year, our polling averages show 11 states as being that close.
Part of the reason there are more competitive states this year is that Trump is nudging some red states into the tossup zone while outperforming past GOP nominees in some blue states.
Professional political strategists advise candidates to pour almost all their resources into just these swing states. But while this may make sense tactically, it is not good for democracy in general. Donald Trump, defying convention as usual, has been holding rallies in the states of Connecticut and Washington that are widely believed to be definitely voting Democratic. He has been ridiculed for this but I applaud him. The president is supposed to represent the nation as a whole. What does it say if the candidates appeal to less than 20% of the states?
With the advent of data mining and micro-targeting, the situation is getting steadily worse as campaigns are now able to predict how smaller communities and even individuals will vote. Steven Rosenfeld reports on a new study David Schultz that suggests that as few as 20 counties in the nation, comprising fewer than 500,000 voters or just 4% of the total vote, can tilt the outcome one way or the other.
Where are 2016’s deciders? In Ohio, it’s Hamilton County, home to Cincinnati. In Pennsylvania, it’s Bucks and Chester Counties, to the north and south of Philadelphia, and also Lackawanna and Luzerne counties. In Florida, it’s Hillsborough and Pinellas counties, surrounding Tampa and St. Petersburg. In Wisconsin, it’s Brown County, where Green Bay is; nearby Winnebago County, further inland; and Racine County to the south near Chicago suburbs. In Iowa, it’s rural tiny Bremer County, and in New Hampshire, it’s Hillsborough township, inland on the Massachusetts border.
There are a few more: population epicenters such as Nevada’s Clark County, home of Las Vegas; Virginia’s Prince William County, outside Washington D.C., North Carolina’s Wake County, with Raleigh and Durham; New Mexico’s Bernalillo County, containing Albuquerque; and surprisingly, Dona Ana County near Las Cruces, which has a big state university.
“These seem to be the counties within the swing states where the candidates go,” said Schultz. “They view them as battlegrounds. They seem to be pretty good bellwethers, in the sense of predictors of how that state is going to vote… Even if they appear blue or red, there’s a question of how great the turnout will be.”
This is another reason why election blowouts are becoming increasingly rare and Trump still remains competitive while alienating many demographic subgroups.
Indeed, when Schultz identified these swing counties, he looked at their 2012 votes, and realized that had Mitt Romney been a little more successful in various combinations of these locales, he would have been elected.
“People don’t realize that the Romney-Obama race was actually far closer than most people think,” Schultz said. “There was an Electoral College blow-out, but if you had a shift of just a few hundred thousand votes across a few states, Romney would be running for re-election this year. We’re really looking at no more than a half-million votes shifting, depending on how you actually define it, and that’s a very small number of votes.”
How far can this process go? Will we end up with a handful of competitive neighborhoods? Streets? Individuals? Will a future presidential election focus on just whom Thelma Brown, of 240 Main Street, Cincinnati, Ohio will vote for as she will be the last remaining swing voter?