The Role of Swing States in Presidential Elections

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The Role of Swing States in Presidential Elections

The U.S. political system, through the Electoral College, is set up so that a few states have more say in elections and garner more attention from national candidates than other states do. This is, in part, due to population clusters. If much of the people in, say, Washington state, are Democrats living in the Seattle/King County area, politicians can take it as a given that the state will go Democratic in an election.

Their time would be better spent in a state where the numbers are more even and the results could go either way. One reliable gauge of a swing state is when it flops back and forth between Republicans and Democrats in the past few elections. This infographic takes a look at 10 states particularly prone to swinging and is worth examining given the 2016 results.


Florida shows up on the list of swing states; for example, in 2012, Democrat Barack Obama won it with 49.9 percent of the vote, while Republican Mitt Romney garnered 49.03 percent. In flat numbers, the difference was 74,309 votes. However, Florida as a swing state is perhaps most notable for the 2000 election, in which the voting difference was a mere 0.01 percent, and the Supreme Court got involved.

So what happened in 2016? Donald Trump, the Republican, safely won the state, beating Democrat Hillary Clinton 49.1 percent to 47.8 percent. This margin still leaves Florida in swing state territory, and it’s a huge state to win because of all the swing states, it has the most votes on offer. Its 29 votes can make or break an election. Either a Republican or Democrat could win in the next presidential election.


After Florida, Pennsylvania has the most votes of a swing state, with 20. Obama won it handily (handily as far as swing states go) in 2012, with 51.95 percent of the vote to Romney’s 46.57 percent. In 2016, though, Trump prevailed, winning 48.8 percent of the votes to Clinton’s 47.6 percent.


Wisconsin is another swing state that Clinton lost in 2016 but that Obama won in 2012. Trump got 47.9 percent of the vote, while Clinton received 46.9 percent. In 2012, Obama got a relatively hefty 52.83 percent, while Romney garnered 45.89 percent. Due to the low population numbers of the state, this difference of about 7 percentage points translated to only 213,019 votes.

It is fascinating to note that after the 2012 elections, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania had voted for Democrats to win in 2012, 2008, 2004, and 2000. That is a big reason why Clinton’s 2016 losses in the two states were so surprising.

One takeaway after the 2016 election is that “predictable” swing states such as Wisconsin and Pennsylvania are no longer all that predictable. It remains to be seen whether these states and their other swing counterparts will receive even more focus in the 2020 elections, but it is a good bet. Another takeaway, at least according to Obama, is that rural and exurban voters have even more say than ever. Candidates must work even harder to connect with them.


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