The Winner-Takes-All: Why The Swing States Matter


As the US Presidential rivals enters its final day of campaigning, it’s no surprise to see where the two candidates are heading: President Obama is set to appear in the states of Wisconsin, Iowa and Ohio whilst Romney is due in Florida, Virginia, New Hampshire and finishing – where else? – in Ohio.

Why these 6 states? These are what as known as swing states; purple states; battleground states; essentially, the only states that matter in the election.

The US electoral system works in a way in that each of the fifty states is given a certain number of electoral college ‘votes’ depending on its population size; these become 50 (+1 for Washington DC.) separate contests. These states are then divided into voting districts; most states use a winner-takes-all system – with the two exceptions of Nebraska and Maine – where the candidate who wins the most districts in a state takes the all of its electoral collage votes. Get 270 votes and you’ve won the presidency. Simple.

Yet, similar to the idea of ‘safe seats’ in Britain, most of the states have a historic and traditional preference for one of the two parties.

Blues states are those that are typically democrat voting – as a rule of thumb, they are generally the west and north-eastern coastal and urbanely-populated states such as California, New York, Washington and Massachusetts.

Red states are those that are Republican strongholds which are generally in the more-rural rust belt. This encompasses most of the central US states, including the Midwestern and Southern states such as Texas, Alabama, Arizona and Georgia.

These states are so solid in their support that they written off before the election campaign even begins; in fact, the candidates generally don’t even bother campaigning in them. In total, they chalk up around half of each parties’ total needed, with the Republicans holding onto 191 votes and the Democrats, 186.

Effectively, this means that the election is decided by less than a 1/3 of the US population; by those situated in the undecided ‘purple’ states – whose decision swings the election to a certain candidate’s favor – with only 161 votes actually on offer.

This is where the battle is really fought; whilst the other states become irrelevant, the hardest-fought campaigning, time and money is spent in these 10-13 states that will decide the election. Indeed, for most of the US citizens, the election is a blur in the background; those in the key states are bombarded daily with television commercials, automated telephone calls and continuos radio advertisements all day long.

Map showing attention of between Bush & Kerry in 2004; with a wave representing a visit of a candidate or running mate and a dollar sign representing one million dollars spent on advertising.

Ohio is the best example of this; known as the ‘Bellwether State’, it has correctly predicted the successful presidential candidate in every election since 1960; it voted with the Republicans in 2000 and 2004, but then with the Democrats in 2008. In fact, no Republican candidate has ever won the election without winning the Buckeye state. No wonder its called the “Modern Mother of Presidents”. With 18 electoral college votes at stake, campaigning here is fierce with the media saturated with the election.

The scenario of the swing states mean that the candidate with fewer votes can actually lose the election by getting a general majority, but not capturing a majority of the electoral collage votes.

Such a scenario has occurred four times in American history; in 2000, George W. Bush got less of the popular vote than Al Gore, but won 271 electoral college votes therefore winning the White House.

Indeed, the final result of the election came down to a mere 540 votes in Florida, swinging the state to Bush’s favour. Just an example of how important swing states can be.

in 2000, George W. Bush got less of the popular vote than Al Gore, but won 271 electoral college votes therefore winning the election.

Indeed, it is more than likely a similar set of circumstances will occur tomorrow; polls position Romney and Obama as a very even 48% split of the electorate. Romney is likely to win many of the red states with ease, especially in Texas and Alabama thus gaining a popular majority; it is Obama, however, who has the advantage, leading polls in most of the key ten battleground states.

Opinion polls place him above Romney in Nevada, Ohio and Iowa – though Romney has now sneaked ahead in Florida and rumours of a potential coup in Pennsylvania; two of the biggest battleground states. Nonetheless, all polls are so close they remain in the margin of error. It is tight indeed.

Yet, for this reason – with his swing state advantage – Obama will probably sneak into a second term.

But who knows? Anything could happen.

Just remember to watch Ohio though.


Discussion6 Comments

  1. avatar

    Thanks for this easy to understand article, never fully understood just how the electoral college system, which hardly seems like the most democratic one.

    Good luck to Obama anyway. Four more years of disappointment is better than four years of devastation.

    Nick Mould


    Suffering from touch screen word omission syndrome.

    Alexander James Green

    Cheers Nick!

    Your “Four more years of disappointment is better than four years of devastation.” is probably the best sentence I’ve seen to describe this election! Incredibly true.


    Although certainly useful it’s slightly simplistic; there have been many times in the past 30 years where there have been relative ‘landslides’. Take this example from 1984:,_1984

    But I agree things have closed up recently, but it’s not always necessarily going to be that way.


    Nor am I saying it will be this way in this election. On the contrary, its likely to be very close indeed.

    Alexander James Green

    True. It is a simplistic guide – the whole point was to make it that way so people understand the mechanics of it all. But yes, you’re right. In many cases, especially since 78 and the 80s, there were landslides, far larger than just swings from the swing states.

    Generally though, they are now in a more regimented voting pattern – and will be key to an election this close (though, of course, it may not always stay this way.)

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