Swing States: A Closer Look

Several states that can potentially vote either Democrat or Republican.

The term “swing state” is thrown around frequently by news outlets. 

With the election less than two weeks away, it is understandable that our nation has become obsessed with predicting the outcome. 

But exactly which states are considered swing states? How likely are these states to vote, according to their poll numbers? Luckily, we can turn to past elections to give us a better answer. 


Swing States Flip, But Not En Masse

Six states that went blue in 2012 flipped to red in the 2016 election: Florida, Iowa, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin. In three of these states — Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin — President Trump’s margin of victory was less than 1%. 

While there is little consensus on which states are considered swing states going into the 2020 election, the four states most pollsters believe former Vice President Biden will take back from President Trump are: Florida, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin. 

By looking at past presidential reelection bids, we can get a better idea of how likely it is these states will flip back to blue. 

When President Bush was up for reelection in 2004, he gained two states from 2000: New Mexico and Iowa. However, he lost New Hampshire to Senator John Kerry. 

In 2012, President Obama lost two states from 2008 to former Governor Mitt Romney: Indiana and North Carolina. 

Even in 1996, President Clinton only lost three states from his 1992 victory (Colorado, Georgia, and Montana) and gained two: Arizona and Florida. 

Logically, we would turn to the 1992 election in anticipation of Trump losing. However, incumbent George H.W. Bush’s loss of 22 states to Arkansas Governor Bill Clinton from Bush’s landslide 1988 victory would not be comparable. That’s because President Trump did not win the 2016 election by a wide margin. 

Looking at the data, our last three elected presidents have only had a net difference of one or two states upon reelection. As such, four states flipping from red to blue would seem unlikely. 

Conversely, past election statistics do not indicate that 2020 is un-winnable for Biden. In fact, the combination of Florida and any other swing state would push Biden over the 270 magic number. The data simply highlights that history is not on Mr. Biden’s side. 


What 2016 Has to Say 

Currently, polling website 270 to Win has Arizona, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin flipping for Biden. 


The actual results of the 2016 presidential election.

The 2016 electoral map. Source: 270toWin.


Notably, aggregate polling websites incorrectly predicted that former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton would win the 2016 election, but how much were they off by? The answer varies from state-to-state.

To be fair, aggregate polling sites such as Real Clear Politics and FiveThirtyEight correctly predicted that Arizona, Florida, and Michigan would likely vote for Trump. While the vast majority of polls conducted in the months leading up to the 2016 election predicted these states would go blue, last minute polls released just days before the election put the three states in the red. 

According to the aggregate sites, the only true swing states were Nevada and North Carolina. Trump and Clinton were tied in those states just prior to the election. Nevada ultimately voted for Clinton while North Carolina went for Trump. 

The pollsters biggest blunders were Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. The states were put firmly in the blue with Clinton leading by an average of six points in Pennsylvania and eight points in Wisconsin. 

On election day, however, Trump won Pennsylvania by .7% and Wisconsin by .8 %. Thus, the aggregate predictions were off by a whopping seven and nine points in each state. 


What Isn’t Adding Up

On paper, it would seem most swing states were correctly predicted in 2016, but this is far from accurate. 

In terms of which state would vote for which candidate, only Pennsylvania and Wisconsin were incorrectly predicted. But remember which states were won by a margin of less than 1%: Michigan, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin.

With the sole exception of Michigan, aggregate polls incorrectly predicted which states would be closest. New Hampshire stands out, with aggregate polls predicting Clinton would win the state by eleven points; a far cry from her .4% victory. 

So which states are swing states? In 2016, the numbers insisted Arizona, Michigan, Nevada, New Mexico, and North Carolina were all swing states. On election day, only Michigan proved to be true with Clinton decisively winning Nevada and New Mexico, and Trump winning Arizona and North Carolina.

Currently, numbers from Real Clear Politics, 270 to Win, and FiveThirtyEight all show Biden leading by seven points in Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin. Biden is also shown to be ahead in Arizona, Florida, and North Carolina. 

How liable are these states to swing? We will simply have to wait and see.


By Thomas O’Connor



Emerald contributor since September 2020


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