Out of 538 total electoral votes (as of 2010 and holding until 2020), only 270 are needed to win. According to a study by Larry J. Sabato, Kyle Kondik, and Geoffrey Skelley in Politico Magazine, of those 538 votes, a projected 154 are safely Republican Red; 206 in all if lighter-Red states are added. On the other hand, 179 votes are a projected safe Democrat Blue; 247 in all if the lighter-Blue states are added.
Neither side holds enough to ensure a win if both parties vote straight. That being the case, swing states–also called purple states or battleground states–hold 85 electoral votes, more than enough to tip the balance in either party’s favor.
Swing states are the battleground where the election is fought, much like Vietnam was a “hot war” spot in the midst of the Cold War. In other words, a battle is necessary to tip a swing state out of balance either into the Blue or the Red zones.
For a first-time voter, understanding swing states is important to understanding the overall 2016 presidential elections. Swing states, and issues in swing states, tend to influence the campaign messages of presidential candidates, and their overall goals while in office.
Characteristics of Swing States
The main characteristics of consistent swing states, and of projected new ones, help to explain which states are tending to swing, and why certain swing states keep their status over time. There are two characteristics in particular: diversity, and the ability to pick the winning candidate.
For consistent swing states, diversity is usually present
Racial diversity is the dominant feature of most swing states. As a whole, non-whites tend to vote Democrat (four in ten), while the Republican group is mostly white (nine in ten). At the same time, while 64% of blacks vote Democrat, the next largest percentage is 29% voting “Other”, according to a Gallup poll. For Hispanics, 50% vote “Other”, with 32% voting Democrat. Asians also vote 46% “Other”, with 36% voting Democrat.
One swing state where ethnicity has a lot to say is Florida. Over two-thirds of Florida’s estimated twenty million inhabitants were born outside Florida, with 19.4% born outside of the United States. Of the population, 24.1% identified as Hispanic. Those who identified as Black followed with 16.8%. Non-white voters make up 45.5% of the population.
Other swing states Colorado and Nevada are characterized by rising numbers of Hispanics. Virginia’s black voters swung the state for Obama in 2012, while its population is naturally diverse–50% of Virginia’s population was born elsewhere, over 11% outside of the United States.
Age diversity is also a factor. Young people, both white and non-white, tend to vote Democrat; the older generation tends to vote Republican, especially across the white sections of the population. Virginia in particular shows this, as its younger generation voted Democrat for Obama in 2012, helping to give him the state. New Hampshire also has many new young voters who tend Democratic.
Economic sector diversity is mainly shown in Ohio. With an unusual but balanced mix of agricultural, corporate, and manufacturing sectors, Ohio is diverse particularly in employment issues. To win Ohio, presidential candidates need to address all three economic sectors.
The last and other dominant trait of most swing states is diversity in party affiliation. For example, in Florida, each party has a registered 47-48% of the population–a fair split. Because of this, independent or non-affiliated voters can easily tip the balance. Iowa as well in 2011 had a close three-way split among registered Democrats, registered Republicans, and the non-affiliated.
A swing state tends to vote for the winning presidential candidate
All-in-all, the seven predicted “super-swingy” states of 2016 have a 8.29/10 chance of voting for the winning candidate, reckoning from 1976. Ohio is the most accurate, with the winning candidate carrying the state 10/10 times. Both Florida and Nevada voted for the winner 9/10 times; Colorado and New Hampshire, 8/10 times; and Iowa and Virginia, 7/10 times. Their accuracy strengthens their claims, meaning that they don’t vote straight for one party and thereby miss the winner half the time.
Possible Swing State Issues for 2016
Some issues are likely to crop up in 2016, specific to swing states. Each has unique challenges that Democrats and Republicans should surmount. At the moment, the two top issues for swing states are immigration and marijuana legalization.
With racial diversity a fact or on the rise in four out of the seven swing states, presidential candidates will have a hard time skirting this issue as they campaign. Polls among Latinos show that immigration reform is very significant, with 53% selecting it as one of the most important issues in 2016.
Democrats tend to be more open-minded on the issue of illegal immigrants remaining in the United States while Republicans tend towards the other end of the spectrum. With President Obama’s policies on immigration constantly under fire, the issue is likely to remain until the 2016 elections.
Given the diversity of swing states, it might be said that Democrats have an advantage, particularly in Nevada and Colorado. In these states, and others such as Florida, Democrats need to convince their traditionally non-white voters that tending Democratic is still a good thing. On the other hand, Republicans, used to targeting a whiter swath of voters, are faced with a demographic that they will be forced to take account of during the 2016 elections.
Presidential hopeful Hillary Rodham Clinton declared that she would pursue a policy that eventually allows citizenship for illegal immigrants. On the other hand, most Republican hopefuls such as Jeb Bush, Rand Paul, and Mike Huckabee hover somewhere between legal-but-not-citizenship status, and deportation. Marco Rubio is silent on the matter so far, which is understandable: being of Cuban ancestry and simultaneously a Republican makes it difficult.
With a Democratic opponent who is less vocal on immigration reform than Clinton, Republicans could win through lack of voter turnout. Without that, however, they might be hard-pressed to win the growing Hispanic vote.
Another swing state-specific issue that may come to the forefront in 2016 is that of legalization of marijuana, at least in Colorado, and perhaps Florida and Ohio. Presidential hopefuls may find themselves forced to address the issue to win Colorado’s vote.
Since there is no “traditional” stand of either Democrats or Republicans on this issue, practically all the current presidential hopefuls are hovering somewhere between legalizing medicinal marijuana and preventing all use of the plant.
However, all the candidates know that the 18-29 age bracket might turn out on the issue in 2016. To keep the young voters that Obama won during his presidential campaigns, Democrats might need to hold a loose stance on marijuana legalization. On the other hand, Republicans could do the same, but that may weaken their hold on conservatives and evangelical Christians who traditionally vote Red.
Potential Swing States for Battleground 2016
2008 and 2012 held a few surprises in terms of swing states as some states voted Blue despite being previously Red. Other states have rapidly changing demographics that may catch the eyes of the presidential hopefuls. These might form part of the battleground for 2016.
South Carolina, traditionally a very Red state, startled Obama, Gore, and Romney in 2008 and 2012 as it swung Blue for both elections. One possibility might be the growing number of Hispanics, but despite the Blue victory in the last two elections, that state is still solidly Red.
New Mexico has a steadily increasing population of Hispanics that might make Democratic presidential hopefuls target it as part of their campaigns. Alaska is also growing in overall population diversity, as internal migrants from California, Oregon, and Washington make their way to the state. Their views tend more liberal than Red Alaska. The Democrats might have an advantage if Alaska continues to diversify. North Carolina is also a possible swing state, with its Black and Latino voters increasing at a faster rate than white voters, despite being pale-Red.
However, the Republicans may be gaining an advantage in three pale-Blue states: Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin. In all three of these states, the population over fifty constitutes a significant percentage of eligible voters: 44% in Michigan, 46% in Pennsylvania, and 44% in Wisconsin as of 2012. Even more significant, in these states their turnout is close to half of the actual voter turnout. If Republicans can reach out to the white voters over fifty in these states, they may coax them into swing states by 2016.
Because of what they are calling her “emailgate” scandal, Clinton, the current best bet for the Democrats, has been losing ground in a number of swing states, including Florida and Ohio. Bush leads in Florida, while Paul is closing with her in Ohio and Virginia. Paul also leads her in Colorado and Iowa.
However, the Democrats still have an advantage in that they have a clear strongest candidate for the Democrat nominee. For the Republicans, Rand Paul is their strongest contender in the swing states in terms of being able to beat Clinton. But among swing state Republicans in general, Jeb Bush leads in Florida, while John Kasich leads in Ohio. The lack of a clear contender makes the role of the swing states even more crucial at the moment.