Washington — As President Obama and former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney work the campaign trail between now and November, some paths will be more heavily traveled than others.
All votes — and voters — are important, and all states will be visited by the candidates or their surrogates. Campaign staffs and political action committees will flood the airwaves with advertisements and reach out to potential voters by phone or mail. But by far, the most attention will be lavished on a handful of states, some large and some small, because their voters will cast the decisive votes in the next U.S. presidential election.
These swing states, also called battleground states, play a disproportionately important role in the campaign and the election because neither of the candidates holds a reliable majority among voters. Both the Obama and Romney campaigns know which states will likely or even definitely vote for them, but these “safe” states will not collectively give either of them enough electoral votes to reach the magic number of 270 needed to win on November 6. That number represents a majority of the electoral votes under the 538-member Electoral College system under which states are represented according to their population.
Under the Electoral College system, it is possible to win the presidency without winning the popular vote, which happened most recently in 2000. Therefore, political parties must consider each state to be a separate contest in the presidential election.
According to data from the independent election analysis group The Cook Political Report, if the election were held July 2, Romney would have a total of 191 electoral votes from states that are likely or solidly in his favor, and President Obama would have 201. Cook’s data have 85 electoral votes in Colorado, Florida, Iowa, Nevada, New Hampshire, Ohio and Virginia listed as a “toss up,” with 46 votes in Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin leaning toward Obama and North Carolina’s 15 leaning toward Romney. In other words, the votes both candidates need to win the election can be found in these 11 states, and those states are receiving plenty of attention.
On July 10, Romney was campaigning in Colorado while the president was in Iowa. Vice President Biden was in Nevada. A July 9 article in USA Today said television viewers in swing states “can't escape arguably the most intense early barrage of ads in American political history,” while in much of the rest of the country, “just about the only time campaign ads for the presidential candidates are on TV is when there's a news story about the ads.”
USA Today quoted political scientist Darrell West as saying, "In a swing state, you're part of the presidential campaign," but "Everywhere else, you're outside."
Political correspondent David Paul Kuhn forecast the swing state battle in a March 4, 2011, article for RealClearPolitics — more than one year before it became clear who the Republican nominee was likely to be. Many of the 2012 battleground states, especially Florida, Ohio, Virginia, Wisconsin and Colorado, were safely predictable since they have had a closely divided electorate for the past few contests.
Kuhn said that in the 2008 election, President Obama’s campaign was helped by voter reaction to the September 2008 stock market crash, and polling data showed that was when public opinion in Florida and Ohio shifted slightly in his favor. But he cautioned that past elections, including gubernatorial and congressional midterms, have proven to be unreliable in predicting future votes.
Kuhn also made a point about how campaigns can use the race for swing states to lure their opponents into spending campaign cash unwisely.
“Be wary of the swing state hype. Political operatives sometimes push campaigns to invest in long shots (if it’s profitable). … Campaigns want the competition to invest in the unwinnable,” he wrote, including by influencing their opponents to spread cash, staff and other resources out too broadly.
For would-be pundits, the Web site www.270towin.com has created an Internet and mobile-based interactive tool that allows people to predict for themselves how the swing states will vote in November and what combination of electoral votes will be enough to give either candidate the presidency. Using polling data from as recent as July 10, it lists 10 states as undecided and it has even calculated 15 potential tie scenarios.