Swing States, Battlegrounds and the 2012 Map

by Stuart Rothenberg June 19, 2012 · 3:37 PM EDT

Everyone has an opinion about swing states. I figured it was time to explain how I see the presidential map.

My approach isn’t based solely on statistics, though numbers matter a great deal. (I suppose this means that while I admire Oakland A’s general manager Billy Beane’s approach to baseball, I also think that non-quantifiable considerations are part of the analytical mix.)

When I use the term “swing states,” I am referring to those states that in a “neutral” landscape are likely to be the closest and could well swing to one party or the other.

Because they perform at or near the national margin, they give a good indication of the partisan direction of the cycle.

For my money, it’s meaningless to talk about presidential swing states in an electoral blowout, such as 1964 or 1972. I don’t care which state gives the winner his 270th electoral vote if the race isn’t close, though I can see why others would.

In trying to select this year’s swing states, I don’t put much emphasis on the 2008 results. That was a wave election in which many states performed atypically.

Democrat Barack Obama ran so strongly nationally that he carried Indiana and North Carolina, states that simply don’t pass the swing state smell test without the 2008 results. Of course, we have to consider the possibility that some states that behave unusually in any given election are doing so because they are in the middle of a fundamental partisan shift, but the 2008 election results alone don’t prove that.

Unlike many, I regard swing states and battleground states as two different categories.

For me, battleground states are those that don’t qualify as swing states but are potentially competitive. That usually means that the presidential campaigns spend resources there.

I see eight swing states: New Hampshire, Virginia, Florida, Ohio, Iowa, Wisconsin, Colorado and Nevada. And I see five battleground states: North Carolina, New Mexico, Pennsylvania, Michigan and Minnesota. I’m not entirely comfortable with Michigan and Minnesota being on the list, but they don’t belong in the same category as Connecticut and Maryland, either.

Most of the swing states are an easy call. Iowa, for example, went narrowly for Al Gore in 2000 and narrowly for George W. Bush four years later. Obama carried it by 9.5 points, a little more than a couple of points over his national margin of 7.2 points. New Hampshire flipped from a narrow Bush state in 2000 to one narrowly carried by Sen. John Kerry, a New Englander, in 2004. Both times the outcome in the Granite State was close.

Florida was a tie in 2000 but went for Bush by 5 points — about twice that of his national margin — in 2004. Obama’s margin in the state, less than 3 points, shows the Sunshine State’s GOP tilt, making it likely to swing back to presumptive GOP nominee Mitt Romney in a close election. Still, Florida is competitive enough to fall into the swing state category.

Ohio usually has a Republican tinge but is always close when the national contest is tight. Nevada, where Bush’s 2.6-point victory in ’04 almost mirrored his 2.4-point national margin, is much like Ohio, though with a growing Hispanic population that should benefit Democrats.

That leaves Virginia, Colorado and Wisconsin, along with the battleground states.
Bush’s margins in Virginia in 2000 and 2004 were slightly more than 8 points, much better than his national showing each time. Four years ago, Obama carried the state by just more than 6 points, about a point less than his national margin.

It’s possible that we’ve all been exaggerating Virginia’s competitiveness and that it will perform 3 points to 5 points more Republican than the nation as a whole.
Still, the growth of the Washington, D.C., suburbs, which are less conservative and more politically competitive than “Old Virginia,” suggests that the Old Dominion belongs on any list of competitive states.

The story is about the same in Colorado. It mirrored Bush’s Virginia showing in 2000 but was more Democratic than Virginia in 2004 (though Bush carried it as well), and even more Democratic in 2008.

In fact, Obama’s margin in Colorado, 9 points, was greater than his national margin of just more than 7 points. The growing importance of Hispanics in the state also can’t be overlooked.

Wisconsin is perhaps the most misunderstood state in the nation.

Obama won it by almost 14 points last time, a huge margin considering the size of his national win. That result, and the fact that the Badger State hasn’t gone Republican since 1984, apparently has led many to ignore the closeness of the ’00 and ’04 contests. Gore’s two-tenths of 1 percent margin was a hair under his national showing (he beat Bush in the popular vote by about a half a percentage point) and Kerry’s four-tenths of 1 percent victory made it, in percentage terms, the single closest state in the country.

While exit polling during the recent gubernatorial recall election shows the president with a comfortable advantage, his lead is likely to evaporate if the economy continues to slow. That fact, plus the state’s fundamentals (including the importance of working-class white voters) suggests an extremely close presidential race if the national race is also very close.

When I am asked whether Wisconsin is on the road to becoming a swing state, I answer “no” because it already is one.

Of the five battleground states, only New Mexico has consistently produced close contests for the presidency. Like Iowa, New Mexico swung from Gore in 2000 to Bush in 2004. Four years later, it went for Obama by an overwhelming 15 points.

But Bush was unusually strong among Hispanics, so his showing in 2000 and 2004 could be misleading. And the GOP’s problems with the growing Hispanic vote probably give Democrats more fundamental strength in the state. Given all of that, New Mexico doesn’t belong with the swing states but is probably worth watching.

North Carolina and Pennsylvania certainly haven’t performed as swing states. Obama won the Tar Heel State by three-tenths of a point while winning by more than 7 points nationally. And because the Democratic presidential nominees lost the state by more than a dozen points in 2000 and 2004, it’s difficult to believe that state changed so dramatically and fundamentally to make it a swing state.

Of course, both parties have advertised there, and Democrats certainly would like to expand the playing field by putting North Carolina, the site of the party’s national convention in September, into play. So it’s worth watching.

The same goes for Pennsylvania, which hasn’t gone Republican in a presidential contest since 1988. Still, it’s usually close enough — recent Democratic nominees generally did about 4 points better in the Keystone State than they did nationally — to pay attention to it.

In addition, the president’s problems with working-class whites and older voters combine to make Pennsylvania more interesting than usual.

Presidential margins in 2000 and 2004 in both Michigan and Minnesota aren’t all that different from those in Pennsylvania, and both of those states in the upper Midwest could see some action as Republicans seek to add normally Democratic-leaning states to the playing field. But if Obama is running even or very close in those states, he probably has bigger problems in true swing states.