Constitution Daily

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Defining the swing states for 2012

May 9, 2012 by Scott Bomboy


The importance of Ohio and Florida in the past two presidential elections has folks looking ahead to the big swing states in November—and it could be a bigger crop than in past years.

Image: A divided Michigan in 2004.

This election cycle, there are somewhere between nine and 12 swing states— depending on who is counting.

This week, the New York Times accounted for nine swing states, and a USA Today/Gallup poll provided a breakdown of 12 swing states. In addition, Politico issued its own swing state list with 11 states.

Real Clear Politics has a much deeper pool of undecided states based on an average of current polls about the 2012 presidential election. It has nine states that are definitely battleground states and another 12 which aren’t firmly in the Obama or Romney camp.

Why swing states matter so much

It’s all because of the electoral college, America’s unique way of picking a president and vice president, and an integral part of the Constitution.

If you need a primer, a presidential candidate needs 270 electoral votes to win the election. For 48 states, it is a winner-take-all election within each state, with the winner getting every electoral vote. (Nebraska and Maine use a proportional vote system.)

Article II, Section 1, Clause 2, of the Constitution first spelled out the electoral college system and while there have been some tweaks over the years, it remains in place.

The electoral college isn’t going anywhere in the near future, so the Obama and Romney camps must decide which states to target in what will likely be a very expensive campaign.

Back in 2008, there were just six swing states in play at the end of the election, while the 2004 campaign featured 11 swing states.

The New York Times list for 2012 includes Colorado, Florida, Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and Wisconsin.

The USA Today/Gallup list has the same nine states as the New York Times, with the addition of New Mexico, North Carolina, and Michigan.

The Politico list excludes Michigan and calls New Mexico, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin “soft” swing states.

The Real Clear Politics projected electoral map adds Maine, Minnesota, New Jersey, Oregon, Georgia, Indiana, South Carolina, and Montana to the list of potential swing states.

Pennsylvania could be the key

Perhaps the most interesting swing state on the list is Pennsylvania, which Barack Obama carried easily in 2008, beating John McCain by 13 percentage points.

George H.W. Bush was the last GOP candidate to take Pennsylvania, in the 1988 election. (Bill Clinton took it in 1992 when Bush ran for re-election.)

But since 2008, the balance of power in Pennsylvania has shifted west of Philadelphia, and the Commonwealth has a GOP governor and state house.

In neighboring New Jersey, Real Clear Politics hasn’t given the Garden State to Obama yet.

New Jersey also went easily to Obama in 2008 by 15 percentage points but it has powerhouse Governor Chris Christie as a close Romney ally and potential vice presidential candidate.

The third state that will get a lot of attention will be Michigan, the state where Mitt Romney grew up.

And as usual, Ohio and Florida will be in play up until Election Day.

One thing that seems very unlikely is an electoral college result that would send the contest to the House of Representatives, unless a third-party candidate emerges.

Contested elections are rare, with the House picking a President in 1800 and 1824 after a candidate couldn’t secure a majority of electors in the general election, and the Supreme Court’s decision to stop a recount in Bush v. Gore in 2000. (There was also an issue with the 1876 election.)

The key to watch: which states get the most campaign spending in proportion to their electoral counts.

Scott Bomboy is the editor-in-chief of Constitution Daily.

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