0831 GMT October 22, 2020
An aura of political mystery swirls around swing states.
Like trade winds for ancient sailors, swing states are pivotal but seem unpredictable. "Where will they go this time?" ask millions of political onlookers every four years.
The very word "swing" suggests vacillation and a propensity to move independently from other, more consistently partisan populations, but the political orientations among voters in swing states are not so different from deeply red and blue states.
What makes swing states unique is that the demographic distribution of Democratic-leaning and Republican-leaning voters is more balanced – making election results less predictable.
According to Gallup, which tracks the partisan tilt of different US regions, four out of every five states lean substantially to one side or the other. Only 10 states feature a partisan advantage of five percentage points or less, and they attracted nearly all public events featuring the candidates in 2016. In this series, CNN Opinion focuses on some of these battlegrounds – including Arizona, Florida, Michigan, Texas, North Carolina, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.
Despite the high stakes that bring these swing states to everyone's attention, three major political dynamics reveal the way they are just as extreme, just as polarized and just as interconnected as the rest of the country.
First, swing states are not loaded with moderates.
Moderate voters are thought to be rare in the United States. Political scientists David Broockman and Douglas Ahler have shown how many pollsters distort their numbers by labeling as "moderate" people whose conflicting political opinions are incoherent with party platforms – even when some of these opinions are extreme.
Just as polarized as the rest of America, swing states' Republicans and Democrats are simply more evenly distributed. Public opinion among Republicans in Indiana, which Gallup lists as a leaning Republican state (46% Republican vs. 38% Democratic), is not massively different from public opinion among Republicans in Wisconsin, one of 2020's most critical swing states.
Similarly, public opinion among Democrats in Minnesota, a leaning Democratic state (46% Democratic vs. 38% Republican), is not massively different from public opinion among Democrats in Wisconsin either. Viewed in this way, Wisconsin (43% Republican vs. 43% Democratic) is just equal parts "Indiana Republicans" and "Minnesota Democrats."
Given the shortage of moderates, it is reasonable to ask why some political strategists urge parties and politicians to "moderate" their views. This is as much in the interest of persuading those rare moderate voters as it is to avoid raising the salience of issues that are likely to mobilize intense opposition from intense partisans.
Moderate views are less threatening to partisans, even if fewer people fully agree with them. For example, with regard to the racial justice protests over the summer, Joe Biden has avoided other Democrats' passionate demands to defund police departments while voicing his support for protesters and advocating for peace.
Second, swing states are not actually composed of a greater share of undecided voters than other states.
Last November, The New York Times Upshot and Siena College conducted a survey of voters across six principal swing states – Arizona, Florida, Michigan, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin.
Two-thirds of voters said that they would "definitely" vote for either the Democratic nominee or President Donald Trump, and these voters were about evenly split between the two candidates. Almost 20% said that there was "not really any chance" they would ever support an opposing party's candidate, leaving a mere 15% of swing state voters who could support either party.
Among this fraction, though, a number had already chosen a candidate, leaving only 9% of voters across the six states who were truly "persuadable." According to the American National Election Studies, about 10% of voters nationwide are persuadable, down from 18% as recently as 1992.
Even though fewer people align with a party these days, "independents" have been found to still reliably vote for the same party. According to polling conducted by the Pew Research Center in 2019, more than 80% of independents lean toward and tend to vote for one party or the other.
While many will point to these trends as evidence of hardening partisan loyalties amid America's profound polarization, it is also a product of candidates' increasing exposure. By the time presidential elections take place, social media and 24-hour news cycles ensure that nearly every detail of candidates' lives have been meticulously chronicled.
There is little more information one could need to make a decision. It's therefore not surprising that many undecided voters are also characterized by lower levels of political knowledge or having little free time to mull politics.
While campaigns will invest in broadcast and digital advertising in the weeks before elections to appeal to the rare undecided voters, many of them focus just as much on mobilization through outrage, fearmongering and identity politics – anything to motivate those already inclined to vote for their candidate.
In July, Trump said that Democrats want to "destroy our suburbs," warning that his opponents' policies would lead to rising crime and lower home values – baseless claims invoking the racially charged views that spurred suburban "White flight" in the 1960s.
For his part, Biden's campaign has run television ads in regions with older populations stating that Trump's plans will "deplete Social Security within three years," a claim that was refuted by The Washington Post. With so few undecided voters in swing states, all campaigns focus heavily on voter mobilization.
Third, because swing states have more or less standard shares of moderate and undecided voters, they are not disconnected from larger American demographic and electoral trends; they are subject to the pervasive political dynamics of the moment.
As demographic and attitudinal shifts accumulate, some swing states become more partisan and some partisan states become unpredictable. As late as the 1990s, the Democratic Party retained a strong unionist base and skepticism about global trade and free markets – views that appealed to White working-class populations across much of the Rust Belt. During that period, states like Iowa, Missouri, Ohio and West Virginia were swing states. Bill Clinton won all four in 1992 and 1996.
Today, Democrats have embraced globalization and immigration – and emphasized racial justice. In 2016, Trump won Iowa, Missouri, Ohio and West Virginia and is expected to win most, if not all, of them again in 2020. Instead, diversifying and urbanizing states like Virginia, Colorado, Nevada, North Carolina and Arizona – once reliably red – may all be blue this year.
Campaigns' focus on swing states has historically raised the profile of certain region-specific issues like fracking (Ohio and Pennsylvania), auto manufacturing (Michigan and Ohio) or relations with Cuba (Florida). However, as political scientist Daniel Hopkins has found – thanks largely to 24-hour cable news and social media – the "nationalization" of American politics has allowed presidential candidates to campaign on largely the same issues in Wisconsin as they might in Wyoming, if they ever visited Wyoming.
Of course, every election postmortem will continue to focus on swing states and their voters because that's where the action is. In doing so, we also renew the romance that American politics is still about persuasion.
The most recent example was the Rust Belt's White working-class voters in 2016. In the midst of a strong, quasi-peacetime economy, Trump was able to shift attention to divisive immigration and identity politics to make a nostalgic, populist appeal that mobilized a number of White working-class voters, who had long sat out of elections, felt increasingly ignored by Democrats or felt threatened by Hillary Clinton and her vision for a more global, cosmopolitan American future.
Some Democrats have wondered whether they can win these voters back. But many have advocated for the party to turn its attention to persuading suburban women and the elderly – and mobilizing their established constituents.
Whatever voters they target, both Democrats and Republicans will focus on issue salience, voter mobilization and leveraging demographic shifts. So, the real questions we should ask are:
1. Will Trump be able to shift attention away from his administration's botched response to the pandemic?
2. Are Republicans as motivated to reelect Trump as Democrats are to defeat him?
3. What are the overarching demographic trends that may produce new Democratic or Republican voters?
Once we know the answers, the mysterious swing state becomes much more familiar. They are the story of America on a smaller scale.