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Swing States: The Power of the Purple

Background

If you’ve ever looked at maps of American election results, you may have noticed a few things. Firstly, states are either red or blue, depending on whether the Republican Party or the Democratic Party secured the electoral college votes there. Secondly, some states are always the same color. We’re used to seeing a blue California each and every presidential cycle, or a red Oklahoma. These states aren’t competitive - they tend to favor the same party every four years. 

Explanation

Not every state casts its electoral college votes for the same party every time. If they did, we would always see the same result. Unlike California or Oklahoma, which are sometimes called “safe” states for the Democrats and Republicans, respectively, some states change color on the map nearly every election, as the voting base swings in a different direction. These are known as swing states. 

Swing States

A “swing state” is any state in which both Democratic and Republican presidential candidates are competitive, and there is a reasonable chance that the state could cast its electoral votes for the member of either party. These states are sometimes known as battleground states, since concentrated campaigning often occurs in such highly competitive areas, or purple states, since they are neither firmly red nor blue. 

How It Works

The Electoral College gives each state a certain number of presidential electors based on how many delegates serve the state in both the House of Representatives and the Senate. Since every state is guaranteed to have exactly two senators, no matter the population, this grants certain states outsize influence in both the Senate and in the process of selecting a president. Even though California and Texas are the most populous states in the nation, presidential candidates rarely spend time there. Instead, they concentrate their resources on states whose electoral votes they believe they need to win the election. These states are those that do not vote reliably along partisan lines, and thus have the power to give either candidate the boost they need to get to 270 electoral votes, the winning number.

Since the results of so many other states are predictable, swing states are critically important in any presidential election. Some of the most notable swing states include Michigan, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Florida, and Ohio. Since these states are so contested, they are often won by an extremely small margin of victory. Thus, votes cast there tend to have more power than in other, non-competitive states.

A number of factors determine whether a state is likely to swing. Rural areas are typically more conservative, and thus more likely to vote Republican, whereas urban areas favor the more liberal policies of Democratic candidates. States with moderate or centrist voters can also be competitive, because voters do not vote reliably for a party but rather for a candidate whose views they most agree with, which can change every election. Demographic changes are also a major factor in determining which states are battlegrounds. African American and Hispanic voters tend to lean Democratic as a population group, while white voters are comparatively more conservative. If the demographic makeup of a state changes over time, this could shift the political balance. 

So What?

Our current presidential election system elevates electoral college votes over the popular vote. This puts certain states in the spotlight when it comes to campaigning, while routinely neglecting others. Altering or eliminating the electoral college would allow presidential campaigning to occur nationwide, instead of in a small subset of “purple” states. Although the Founders wanted states to be prioritized as the decisive unit of power when electing a president, we have the right to decide on an electoral system that best represents our interests as voters.

Think Further

  1. What other factors might impact whether or not a state is competitive enough to be considered a swing state in a presidential election? 
  2. Is it fair that swing states have so much power in the presidential election process?
  3. What alternative systems might grant more power to individual voters over states?

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Learn More

  1. Rotondi, Jessica Pearce. “What Are Swing States and Why Are They Critical in U.S. Elections?” History.com. 7 Oct. 2020, https://www.history.com/news/swing-states-presidential-elections. 
  2. Schultz, David A., and Rafael Jacob, editors. Presidential Swing States. The Rowman & Littlefield Publishing Group, Inc., 2018.
  3. Damore, David F., et al. Blue Metros, Red States: The Shifting Urban-Rural Divide in America’s Swing States. Brookings Institution Press, 2020.