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The Hindu Explains | What are swing States in U.S. polls?

A U.S. polling worker deposits ballots during early voting for the general election outside a library in Aventura, Florida on October 28, 2020.   | Photo Credit: AP

The story so far: November 3 is the final day of voting for elections to the U.S. presidency, 35 seats in the 100-member U.S. Senate and the 435-member U.S. Congress, besides to the post of Governor in eleven States. Around 90 million voters have already used the early in-person voting or the mail ballot option to register their mandate. This is nearly 64% of the overall turnout in the 2016 U.S. elections. Voter enthusiasm in 2020 has led to one of the heaviest turnouts ever.

What have the opinion polls been saying?

Opinion polls across the country point to Democratic Party candidate Joe Biden leading nationally with a near 10-point advantage over Mr. Trump. But U.S. elections are not decided nationally — its electoral college system is an agglomeration of State-wise wins and losses and it is not enough for a candidate to win the popular vote nationally. He/she has to secure a majority (270) of the 538 electoral college votes (cumulatively added from each State). The winner in each State gets the full share of members to be added to the electoral college.

The Hindu Explains | What are swing States in U.S. polls?
 

This ensures that the area of contention in the election are the States, and a candidate has to win a plurality of them even if his overall vote share is higher than the opponent. The State-wise contests in the U.S. show a closer battle in some of the States — the swing States — compared to others, which could tilt the electoral college tally to either side.

What are swing States?

While the presidential elections allow for anyone to contest the polls, the bipolar nature of U.S. polity has made these elections a largely two-party affair, with third party candidates rarely acting as a spoiler in recent election cycles. States on the east and west coast with largely urban populations have tended to vote for the Democratic party, while those in the rural-dominated south, the south-west and the north-west have favoured the Republican party. These States are considered safe ones by the two parties. Other States that could possibly be won by either of these two parties are called ‘swing States’. In these States, the difference between the vote shares polled by them in both opinion polls as well as recent elections is low.

Which are the States likely to ‘swing’ this election?

States such as Ohio (with 18 electoral college votes), Iowa (6), Wisconsin (10), Michigan, (16) and Minnesota (10) in the mid-west, Florida (29) on the south Atlantic coast, Nevada (6) and Arizona (11) in the mountainous-west, Pennsylvania (20), New Hampshire (4) in the north-east, and North Carolina (15) in the south have had close elections in recent cycles and are perennial swing States, according to the data journalism website ‘fivethirtyeight.com’. In this election, Texas (38) and Georgia (16), in the south, have also showed a keen contest, and with a surge in Democratic votes, they have also joined the swing States.

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States in the east coast region — New York, New Jersey, Vermont, Connecticut, Rhode Island, some in the mid-west (like Illinois), the south (Virginia, Maryland, Delaware), the west coast (California, Oregon, Washington State), mountainous west (Colorado, New Mexico), besides Hawaii in the Pacific Island, are strongly Democratic-leaning, and it is quite a surety that these will return Mr. Biden as the winner with full electoral college votes. On the other hand, States in the deep south and the south — Oklahoma, Arkansas, Alabama, Kentucky, Louisiana, Tennessee, Mississippi, South Carolina; Wyoming, Idaho, Montana, Utah in the mountainous west, North Dakota, South Dakota, Kansas, Missouri, Indiana in the mid-west, besides Alaska in the Pacific — have favoured Republicans in the recent past and are expected to return Mr. Trump this time too.

Why are there going to be some close contests?

Most voters in each State in the U.S. elections are categorised either as Democratic-registered or pro-Democrat, Republican-registered or pro-Republican, and independent/moderate voters. The Democratic Party, despite several factions and ideological divisions within, is broadly categorised as a socially liberal party, one that favours a greater role for the government in the economy, and is inclusive of progressive and moderate sections. Joe Biden, a moderate among Democrats, has secured support from the progressive wing as well. Support for the Democrats is more concentrated in urban areas, among voters with graduate education, and among racial and linguistic minorities (African-Americans, Indian-Americans and Hispanics). But support from this coalition does not always translate into votes. Voters in urban areas, among minorities, and the youth tended to turn out in lower numbers relative to other sections.

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The Republican party is a broad coalition of socially conservative (including religious-minded voters, such as prominent evangelical sections), pro-business and fiscally conservative voters, who are typically employed in or own small businesses. It also comprises big capitalists who are unfavourable towards policies related to taxation and welfare. In the Trump era, the party has taken a “populist”, personalised turn, driven less by any clear ideology, but positioning itself as trade protectionist, opposed to racial justice within the U.S. and liberal institutionalism across the world, and at the same time, pursuing policies favouring big business interests. This has changed the profile of the average Republican voter and has come to include sections of working-class voters, while alienating moderate or somewhat socially moderate Republicans.

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The nature of the demography, the topography and the economy of the States has been an indication of voters’ political preferences. The aforementioned safe States for the Democratic Party are largely urban in terms of topography and more diverse in population, with economies that are reliant on secondary and tertiary sectors such as high-end manufacturing, technology and services, to provide employment. States that are favourable to the Republican Party include largely rural or agrarian areas, with an abundance of small businesses linked mostly to a less industrial economy, and comprising a larger White-proportion of the demography. In particular, the urban-rural divide offers a very clear Democrat-Republican divide.

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Swing States, particularly those in the mid-west, offer a combination of factors: urban and rural topographies within the State, unionised industrial bases and/or newly diverse populations which have made them competitive for both Democrats and Republicans. Suburban areas, which are neither politically nor geographically monolithic, as an aerial survey of landscapes recently published in the The New York Times pointed out, are areas where Democratic and Republican votes could overlap. Such areas are more abundant in swing States than in others.

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What happened in the swing States in 2016? What is the situation today?

Mr. Trump’s surprisingly strong performance in the swing States delivered him the presidency despite losing the overall popular vote to Hillary Clinton in 2016. Victories in Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin — States that were relatively Democratic-leaning — besides other swing States such as Florida and Ohio, settled the election for Mr. Trump as white voters without a college education in suburban and rural areas, including white working class voters, chose Mr. Trump over Ms. Clinton. Opinion polls in these States, also turned out to be wrong, over-estimating support for Ms. Clinton. This was because the percentage of voters who recorded themselves as “undecided” was substantial, getting into two digits for some swing States. Many of them seemingly voted for Mr. Trump finally, rendering the opinion polls wrong.

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In 2020, however, the number of undecided voters in the swing States have been substantially lower in most opinion polls, pointing to more clear support for either candidate. Mr. Biden, for now, seems to have an edge over Mr. Trump in the swing States and beyond. However, if polling errors from 2016 were to be accounted for, the election is rendered much closer. In such a scenario, Mr. Biden would have to win a larger swing State, such as Pennsylvania (20 electoral votes), and a combination of other smaller ones to ensure a victory. Even so, the fact that there are pathways to a Trump victory suggests that the election cannot be called till all the votes are counted.

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