What's the difference between a swing state and a swing voter?

A guide to the swing states.
Sept. 30 2008 8:23 PM

So You Think You're a Swing Voter?

Think again: It depends on whether you live in a swing state.

Read the rest of the Swingers  series.

Illustration by Robert Neubecker. Click image to expand.

If you are lonely, declare yourself a swing voter. You'll get lots of attention. Volunteers will come to your house with reading material. Politicians will beam at you. The pollsters will come in swarms. Tell them you are either undecided or committed but willing to change your mind. Your phone will ring incessantly, and if it's not a legitimate pollster, it'll be a push-pollster telling horror stories or a reporter who wants to know your every whim. If you frequent a diner or some other authentic-looking eatery near a major airport, a network producer will put you on television.

John Dickerson John Dickerson

John Dickerson is Slate's chief political correspondent and author of On Her Trail. Read his series on the presidency and on risk.

Just one thing, though: Do you live in a swing state? You don't? Oh—then, never mind. If you're lonely, get a dog.

There may have been a time when the political world cared about the views of voters in non-swing states, but with just 34 days until the election—and some voting already under way—all that matters is what happens in the 15 or so states that will determine whether Barack Obama or John McCain will win the 270 electoral votes necessary to become the next president.

You've heard of most of the battleground states before. Ohio and Florida are the two most famous, making all of the other swing states jealous because they've had movies made about them. Missouri, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, and New Mexico are also among the traditional swing states that have supported candidates from both parties in recent elections.

The number of battleground states is not fixed. Different news organizations have varying counts. NBC, CNN, the Washington Post, the New York Times, Mark Ambinder, and Pollster.com, all see it slightly differently. The slight distinction among the different analysts is about which new states will be accorded the coveted "swing state" title and which traditional swing states should fall off the list. Indiana and North Carolina are new states flickering in the desirable "tossup" category, whereas Iowa, a state George W. Bush won in 2004, appears to be headed out of McCain's reach.

To determine the states that are truly competitive, we start with the states that historically have been close and then look at the current polls, which are now quite favorable for Obama. Statewide polls can be unreliable, though, because of small samples and crazy methodology, so analysts also look at other cues like party registration. If the party that is traditionally the underdog is signing up lots of new voters—perhaps enough to make up for the 2004 margin—it might hint that the state is really in play. In traditionally red Colorado, for example, Democrats have seen the number of registered voters grow. It's also worth checking who or what else is on the ballot: Anti-union initiatives in Colorado might help McCain, while popular candidates like Mark Warner, who is running for Senate in Virginia, might help Obama.

When determining swing states, there is really only one iron-clad rule: Don't listen to what the campaigns say. They will claim to be competing in states they're not serious about to throw off their opponent and make them spend time, money, and attention defending their turf.

Instead, watch where the campaigns spend their time and money. The best way to tell whether a campaign is serious about a state is if the campaigns are spending money on advertisements and staff and offices in the state. And the most important indicator is how much time the candidate is spending in the state. If the candidate's spouse goes but the candidate doesn't, it probably means the campaign is not hopeful about the state but not yet willing to take it totally off the list.

When the McCain campaign pulled out of Michigan, no more evidence was needed that we didn't need to consider Michigan a swing state any more. Iowa is a more complex test case of this theory: It's a true swing state. Gore won it in 2000. Bush won it in 2004. Obama has been ahead there consistently in the polls. He started his campaign with a caucus victory in Iowa. McCain has constantly bashed ethanol subsidies, as he did in the last debate, which doesn't endear him to some Iowa voters.

The upshot is that Obama campaign aides think they've got the state locked up. The McCain team, meanwhile, says it's seen a dramatic pickup in Republican support in Iowa, mirroring a larger trend it sees across the battleground states. Since the Palin pick, McCain aides say, the number of volunteers willing to make calls and knock on doors in swing states has surpassed the number who did so in 2004 for George Bush. They say this boost of energy has been particularly strong in Iowa, where Republicans' support for McCain was far less enthusiastic than Democrats' support for Obama.

They're blowing smoke, right? Perhaps. But McCain has been to Iowa twice in the last two weeks, and he's running ads there. There's nothing more precious in the final days of a campaign than the candidate's time. A candidate's visit generates enthusiasm among supporters, helps organize volunteers, and gets lots of local news coverage. You don't waste that on a state that's not in play. McCain's advisers might still be wrong about Iowa. But at least they're backing up their beliefs with their candidate.

A few months ago, when the Obama campaign said it was going to compete in Indiana, it looked as if it was just making mischief. A Democrat hasn't won the state since 1964. But the state is starting to look as if it might be a genuine tossup. Polls are tightening—particularly one from respected pollster Ann Seltzer—and Republicans seem to feel some genuine level of threat. The Republican National Committee is running ads there against Obama.

North Carolina is like Indiana. It is not a swing state in the sense that it swings from one party to the other from election to election. It has been reliably Republican since 1976, but there is a hint it may swing this time. Obama is up in the polls, riding a wave of concern about the economy and perhaps even growing fears about Sarah Palin.

Once campaigns fix on their battleground states, they run a two-track strategy. First, they reach out to their base with highly partisan appeals. But because they can't win with their base alone, they hunt for those weakly committed and undecided swing voters. Though swing voters get lots of attention, they're nothing without a strong base—as George McGovern, Michael Dukakis, and John Kerry learned. All three won the swing vote, according to post-election polls, but none had enough of a base vote to win.

Just because you say you're an independent or unaffiliated voter doesn't mean you're a swing voter. A lot of people who are registered independents turn out to be hidden partisans, and a portion of those who are registered in one of the two parties are nevertheless up for grabs. The former Hillary Clinton supporters have been a vocal example from the current election cycle.

Studies over the years have shown that swing voters tend to be less engaged with the campaign than partisans and are slightly less educated and more moderate. They often live in suburbs,  especially what political scientists call urbanizing suburbs, which can be found between the metropolitan Democratic strongholds and the Republican fringe suburbs and rural areas—areas like the suburbs outside Philadelphia, where McCain and Obama are fighting over the issue of stem-cell research. McCain pitched himself to moderate voters as a champion of such research. Obama responded with ads contending, incorrectly, that McCain is opposed to it. McCain aides are happy even to be in this fight. The Philadelphia suburbs were thought to be lost to Republican candidates.

Swing-voter makeup varies from state to state. Latino voters play a larger role in Colorado, New Mexico, and Nevada. The targeted suburbs in Virginia and Pennsylvania are more moderate than those around St. Louis or Cincinnati. In states like Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Michigan, the uncommitted voters tend to be older, whereas in growth states like Colorado, Nevada, and Virginia they tend to be younger.

There have been many efforts to find the one key voting bloc that will turn the election—soccer moms, Wal-Mart Moms, office-park Dads—but in "The Future of Red, Blue and Purple America," Ruy Teixeira explains why those descriptions have always been either too simplistic or wildly wrong. It's more likely that the winning candidate will need to make inroads into a variety of swing groups.

McCain will have to retain his party's traditional advantage among men while trying to convince independents and soft Democrats to support him. These voters are torn, says McCain pollster Bill Bill Mcinturff. They "really admire" McCain, he says, but they also want "to make absolutely sure that there's going to be change, including change on the economic front." McCain's aides say that since the Palin pick, they have seen some improvement among professional women. They also say it's fallen off as the Obama campaign has reached out to those same women by stressing Obama's positions on the economy and on abortion.

The Democratic Leadership Council argues that Obama, even if he performs well among Democratic constituencies, needs to make inroads into white working-class voters—those men and women with no college degree who work and live in the competitive suburbs. He doesn't have to win that group. (Democrats haven't since 1984.) He just needs not to  lose by a wide margin. Polls suggest he may be on his way. Obama has the clear advantage over McCain with voters on the issues of the economy and who will change Washington. He has also been shrinking his gap with McCain on which candidate has the qualities necessary to be president.

As the science of targeting all voters becomes more precise—Obama voters prefer Starbucks; McCain voters prefer Wal-Mart—identifying voters who are undecided has become even more refined. Instead of focusing on large blocs of swing voters, campaigns can now target blocs within blocks, like gun-owning women with children who live in suburbs. So if you have decided to be a swing voter, don't be surprised if the campaigns already know a lot about you when they come calling.

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