Why Certain States Have the Power to Swing Elections

Illustration by Grace Wang.

Swing states have been pivotal in recent elections. It is often that one, or multiple, of these states becomes the deciding factor in who becomes the next president. Swing states generally don’t vote for a single party consistently, making elections in these states a talking point. However, the complexities of why states remain political battlegrounds remain buried. Understanding the root causes and factors influencing the political leanings of this state can improve the accuracy of predictions of future election outcomes and reveal general trends in the United States.

Prior to the late twentieth century, a swing state was not so much a state that would sway the electoral college in one candidate’s favor. Rather, it was a state which would predict the outcome of the election, or at least was believed to do so. While individual states began to influence election outcomes as far back as the Civil War era, the term ‘swing state’ wasn’t used until the 1936 election, when states in the West were hotly contested. Later that century, political party polarization and straight-ticket voting became more prevalent in many states. This resulted in states becoming more aligned with a specific party, according to Time magazine. According to Pew Research, in the past 20 years, the parties became more ideologically opposed, influencing state voting patterns. Those moderates who remained became key in deciding the outcomes of states which had a relatively equal proportion of Republicans and Democrats. The importance of the urban versus rural divide also plays an important role in swing states, as rural voters have swung to the right and urban voters to the left. Suburbs remain a battleground, where the ideological distribution is relatively equal. That begs the question: What are the swing states of today?

The states currently characterized as swing states are Arizona, Florida, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin. Depending on the occasion, New Hampshire and North Carolina could be added to the list. Donald Trump won Arizona, Florida, Michigan, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, and Wisconsin in 2016. However, Trump’s margin of victory in most of these states was quite narrow. Therefore, both Trump and Democratic nominee Joe Biden view securing those states as a paramount concern in their election bid.

Before November 3rd, polls showed that neither candidate had a clear edge in Florida. For instance, the Real Clear Politics average of national polls gave Biden a 1% lead. Though the Biden campaign focused on appealing to Hispanic voters, Trump’s categorization of Biden as a ‘socialist’ potentially contributed to his gain among Cuban and Venezuelan voters living in Florida. The Biden campaign responded with ads depicting Trump as a dictator. Biden’s campaign sought to negatively depict Trump’s management of COVID-19 to win over the elderly population, the demographic the virus disproportionately affects. Both campaigns made use of get-out-to-vote strategies, with Trump trying to gain more lower-income white voters. The result was very much in favor of Trump, with a 3% margin of victory in the state. Cuban-Americans in particular, along with other Latinos from socialist nations, swung strongly towards Trump. Not only did Trump perform well in the state, but many other contested seats in Florida were won by Republicans, leading some, such as The New York Times, to question whether Florida is still a swing state.

Wisconsin and Michigan, both states in the Upper Midwest, went to Trump in 2016, surprising many analysts and poll predictions. In 2016, however, Trump’s margins of victory were small. He won Wisconsin by 20,000 votes. Biden sought to win over white moderates with his rather centrist past and distancing from excessively progressive ideas. It was believed that this would be well-received in a moderate state like Wisconsin. In Michigan, black voters who didn’t participate in the 2016 election were encouraged to vote for Biden, under the impression that they could help push Democrats over the edge in the state. Door-to-door campaigning was another big part of the Democratic strategy. COVID-19 also became one of Biden’s tactics to discredit Trump in these states. In Kenosha, where a Black Lives Matter protest received national attention, Trump saw an opportunity to reaffirm his commitment to maintaining law and order. Biden used it as a way to rebuff calls to end systemic racism. Trump criticized the COVID-19 restrictions put in place by Gretchen Whitmer, the governor of Michigan. However, many analysts believe this is unlikely to sway moderates in Trump’s favor. Biden managed to pull out a win in both states, showing his strategies of appealing to moderates was overall successful, though the win in Wisconsin was quite narrow.

While many may not have expected it, the traditionally conservative state of Arizona is considered to be a swing state this year. There are a few main factors driving this change. First, urban areas in the state are leaning towards Biden by a much greater margin than to Hillary in 2016. While Biden did lose support in the suburbs, it is believed that the urban areas will bring him a greater amount of votes. Changing demographics is also helping Biden. Younger voters in urban areas have increased in greater numbers since 2016 in Arizona. The increase is driven in part by a growing job market and cheaper housing cost. Most of these younger voters are believed to be mostly Democratic. Lastly, the Biden campaign believed that it could mobilize Latino voters to go to the polls. The Latino population of Arizona has also increased rapidly in the recent past. Biden appears to have a strong lead in the state as of Friday, but with a large number of ballots waiting to be counted, the margins could become narrower. 

Similarly to Arizona, North Carolina was a state not entirely expected to have such a small polling margin. A greater number of African American voters and a general shift in demographics in the Democrat’s favor have helped Biden’s position in the state. The Biden campaign put a particular focus on issues facing African Americans in the state, such as financial opportunities, systemic racism, and a lack of affordable education opportunities. In addition, Democrats spent far more on advertising in North Carolina than Trump. Trump mainly continued his strategy of mobilizing white, non-college-educated voters. He spent a great deal of time visiting the state and hosting rallies, something Trump frequently does. While Biden may have been able to influence many African Americans in the state, Trump was able to get people out to vote, and is poised to win the state by a comfortable margin.

Last, but certainly not least, is Pennsylvania. Non-college educated white voters, especially those in rural areas, helped push Trump to victory in 2016. However, Biden aimed to win over this group. With Biden living in Scranton, Pennsylvania until age 10, his roots in the state have helped him to gain authenticity, legitimacy, and favor among many. Democrats also spent millions of dollars on ads in the state, while Biden held rallies and events all across the state. His appeal to moderates and lower-class white voters is believed to help push him over the edge in the state, as Hillary was unable to fully connect with this demographic. Meanwhile, Trump continued to hold campaign rallies in rural and suburban areas. This was part of an attempt to retain white voters, but he was losing ground in the Philadelphia area. While Trump appeared to be winning on Election Day, mail-in ballots and other forms of voting have helped push Biden ahead, though only by a small margin. With only a fraction of votes left to be tallied, Biden seems likely to pull off a win.

While both candidates have campaigned relentlessly in these states, and spent millions on ads, it seems Biden has racked up the majority of electoral votes in swing states. His appeal to working-class voters and moderates has helped him in the Northern and rural states. Meanwhile, changing demographics and a renewed effort to increase voters has helped him in the South and Mid-Atlantic. While the results are not yet set in stone, it seems that these swing states have once again flipped in a majority, representing a major shift from 2016.