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Election 2004
05.28.04
Politics and Economy:
Election 2004
More on This Story:
The Search for the Battleground

Some voting analysts have already figured out where the 2004 presidential election will be decided. Others argue that that kind of thinking excludes the majority of the voting public from having a say in who is elected in November. What's the source of the controversy? The notion of "battleground states."

After the 2000 election, there are few Americans who haven't heard the terms "battleground" and "swing" states, but general agreement on the topic ends there. Using various calculations, many pundits claim to be able to predict the outcome of the next November's election. Their projections are based on current polls in the states deemed swing states. A swing state is generally defined as a U.S. state that "swings between the two major political parties in presidential elections, making it an attractive campaign target." Within this group, there is the subset of "battleground states," those swing states with a large number of electoral votes. But there are pollsters who warn that this label is a myth or, at the very least, an elusive designation based on changing criteria. Some ask, should candidates be focusing their energy on a select group of states, virtually ignoring voters in the rest of the country? Furthermore, which states exactly are these battlegrounds? Estimates from different sources pinpoint anywhere from 13 to 20 states that could swing either Democrat or Republican come election day.

How important are these electoral votes? In the United States electoral system, only the winner of a state by popular vote receives any electoral votes. A candidate needs a minimum of 270 electoral votes, an absolute majority, to win the election. On Election Day in November, voters cast their ballots for the party slate of Electors representing their choice for president and VP. Whichever party slate wins becomes the state's electors so that, in effect, whichever presidential ticket gets the most popular votes in a state wins all the electors of that state (with exceptions in Maine and Nebraska where two electors are chosen by statewide popular vote and the remainder by popular vote within each Congressional district). Read more about the Electoral College from the Federal Election Commission.

Critics of the attention paid to battleground states feel that the current electoral college system denies the American public fair representation. According to Steven Hill, senior analyst for the Center for Voting and Democracy, "Key issues of concern to those in other states — even large states like Texas, New York, Illinois and California — will get short shrift because they are not in play... [M]ost Americans effectively will be on the political sidelines." Richard Morin, director of polling for the WASHINGTON POST, and Gary Langer, director of polling for ABC News, point out that the label may even be erroneous. They write,

It's...simply wrong to call all these states "swing" states, which suggests they swing between Democratic and Republican majorities in presidential races. Some do: From 1976 to 2000, Ohio and Michigan each had four Republican winners and three Democrats, and Pennsylvania favored four Democrats and three Republicans.

But others don't: They wobble more than swing, with the same party winning election after election, albeit by varying margins. Minnesota has had seven straight Democratic winners, yet it's on virtually everybody's list of battleground states. So are Arizona, which has voted for a Democrat for president just twice since 1948; New Hampshire (just three times); and Nevada, which, before Bill Clinton, hadn't backed a Democrat for 24 years.

For those who do see value in determining battle ground states, a combination of factors determine which states are chosen. These criteria include historical voting patterns, opinion polls, the state of origin of the candidate and also that of the candidate for VP, candidates' strategies, the resources devoted by a party to a particular location, and various other factors. Many analysts use candidates' spending patterns to determine which states campaigns view as the most coveted. This year, according the the Columbia Journalism Review's Campaign Desk: "The Republicans were the first to help the media draw a map when they launched an ad campaign in 17 swing states on March 4, two days after Kerry effectively secured the nomination. Then less than a week later, the Democrats responded with a 'parallel campaign' in 17 states, as reported in the WASHINGTON POST.

But there is no guarantee that swing states from one election will be a major focus in the next. Wikipedia offers some historical evidence that speaks to this point:

The swing states of Illinois and New York were key to the outcome of the 1888 election. The swing states of Illinois and Texas were key to the outcome of the 1960 election; however, today Illinois, New York, and Texas are not considered swing states. Ohio has often been considered a swing state, having voted with the winner in every election since the 1950s except for 1960.
To learn more about the Electoral College and popular votes in past presidential elections, visit the Electoral College Home Page of the National Archives.

Sources: The Campaign Desk, CBS News, Federal Election Commission, Fox News, The Indianapolis Star, New Democrats Online, TomPaine.com, WASHINGTON POST, Wikipedia

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