March 06, 2012

Election 2012: Why Ohio is the Key Swing State

After the American Century

There is a certain justice to the fact that Ohio has become so important in elections, because in many ways it is a microcosm of the country. Ohio is an important agricultural state, but it also has three large cities (Cleveland, Columbus, and Cincinnati). It has been an industrial powerhouse, but suffered a great deal from the outsourcing of factory jobs to Latin America and China. It has suffered greatly since the 2008 financial crisis, with large numbers of home foreclosures. But it has also been bouncing back economically, albeit slowly. It contains many minority groups, and a good cross section of the churches. It gets back from Washington almost precisely the same amount as it pays in federal taxes (unlike New York which gets back only 79 cents on the dollar, or Mississippi which gets back almost twice what it pays in.) Ohio can be seen as the end of the Eastern states and the beginning of the Middle West. Its southeastern region much resembles Appalachia, while its northeastern quarter seems an extension of industrial New York.  It has generally been a moderate state, politically. But while Ohio therefore is in many ways a good representative state, that is not why it has become so important in elections.

In elections, states are not created equal. The American states are unequal in population, and this means that a few of them have an enormous impact in presidential elections, because all of their electoral votes will go to one candidate or the other. Obama can expect to win the largest state, California and its 55 electoral votes, and the Republican nominee can expect to win Texas, the second largest, with 38. The Democrats generally have won the third largest, New York State (29), too. But precisely because these states are somewhat predictable, the focus is on the "swing states" that are not reliably behind one party in national elections. Most important of all are swing states with a large number of electors, notably Florida (29), Ohio (18), Pennsylvania (20), Virginia (13), Indiana (11), and Missouri (19). (Pennsylvania leans perhaps a bit too much to the Democrats to be a true swing state, but it is moderate.) The smaller swing states can also prove crucial, notably Colorado (9), New Mexico (5), Iowa (6), and New Hampshire (4).

Note that the swing states are not randomly distributed, but are largely in a band just above the middle of the country. They are all marked in yellow on the following map, and as a group they have 96 electoral votes. A candidate needs to win 270.

The Swing States

Here is a map of what well may happen in the 2012 election. It is a prognosis based on how the states voted in 2000, 2004, and 2008, plus my sense of what is going on in the various states, hunches, you might say.  It is based on the supposition that Obama fails to win Florida, North Carolina, New

Hypothetical map of 2012 election, with the electoral vote evenly split. Ohio and Indiana are in yellow.

Mexico, or Virginia. In terms of delegates, this map shows the red states with 254 electoral votes and the blue states with 255. The two yellow states are Indiana and Ohio. Indiana tends to go Republican, but its electoral votes are not enough. If either party gets Ohio's 18 electoral votes, it moves into the White House. (In this example, you could substitute for Indiana Nevada, Iowa, New Hampshire or Virginia, and the result would be the same. None of these states has Ohio's electoral clout.

This is not a far-fetched scenario. In 2000, when Gore lost to Bush in a much disputed election, here is what the map looked like:

2000 Presidential election

The final tally in that election was 271 (Bush) to 267 (Gore). If Gore had won Ohio, he wold have won the election easily, without Florida. That particular election was so close that Gore could have won by taking any additional state, but it is the swing states that matter, and Ohio was close.

How about the next election, in 2004?  Here again Ohio proved crucial to Bush's victory:

2004 Presidential Election

If Kerry had won Ohio and Indiana (or Ohio + Iowa), he would have been elected president.

No Republican has become president without winning Ohio. That is why the state is so important.

Update. After Obama led in Ohio during September, Romney won back some of its voters and he is much closer to winning the state - primarily due to his strong performance in the presidential debates. By the last week of October, it seems that Obama is likely to win Nevada and Iowa, while Romney seems likely to win Florida and North Carolina, with Virginia a toss-up.  Current polls still suggest that Obama will win, but the difference is narrow. After the second debate Obama seemed to regain momentum again, but in the meantime he lost ground in several swing states. In short, Ohio once again looks like the key battleground. The candidate who wins there will almost certainly win it all.

See also posting on Oct 11, on the four crucial swing states in the 2012 election. "Can Romney Win: Four Swing States Hold the Key"