How Did We End Up With So Few Battleground States?

This blog was designed to focus only on the Battleground States. George Condon rightly points out there has been little coverage of the changing American landscape that got us to this point.  Here is his explanation for how we ended up with so few Battleground States:

Much has been written about the hardy band of “battleground states.” But little has been written about why the American electoral map has shrunk so dramatically, what it tells us about the nation and what it means for future elections. That shrinkage has been historic. Not since 1980 has any election seen more than 10 states with winning margins under 3 percent. Not since 1992 has any election seen more than 11 states finish with margins under 5 percent. In 2008, only six states were as close as 5 percent. Contrast that to 1960. Seventeen states that year were decided by less than 3 percent; 20 were less than 5 percent; 34 were under 10 percent. And it showed in the candidates’ travel itinerary. Richard Nixon campaigned in all 50 states; John F. Kennedy campaigned in 45.

Not this time around

No chance of that with Obama and Romney. Since June 5, the last big day of primaries, each candidate has campaigned in only 10 states. They have visited other states —Obama a total of 22, Romney a total of 32. But those other visits were not campaign stops; they were predominantly fundraising hits. The same disparity exists in spending by the campaigns and their affiliated groups. NBC reported this week that ad spending has crossed the $600 million threshold, with more than half of that spent in just the three states of Florida, Ohio, and Virginia.

Electoral locks today were competitive not long ago

California went Republican in nine of 10 elections from 1952 to 1988. It has gone Democratic in all five since. New York was a competitive state, splitting 5-5 from 1952 to 1988, but then Democratic in all five since. Pennsylvania went 6-4 Republican through 1988, then 0-5 since. Illinois was the same: 6-4 Republican through 1988, then 0-5. Ohio was even more lopsided Republican, going 8-2 Republican through the first 10 elections, but splitting 2-3 from 1992 to 2008. On the flip side, there is the Deep South. Texas voted Democratic in four of the 10 elections through 1988 but has been 5-0 Republican since.

Demography and partisanship

“It is night and day,” says veteran Democratic pollster Peter Hart, who first worked in the 1964 campaign. He blamed demographics for much of the shift, noting that California has “moved from being white to minority.” Additionally, he noted that Republicans have alienated Latinos, the fastest-growing group of voters. Bill Schneider, a senior analyst at the centrist Democratic group Third Way, suggests it also reflects the final stages of a decades-long push to polarization. “Partisanship has become dug in,” he says, citing author Bill Bishop’s “big sort” theory that Americans more and more are settling in communities that share their political biases.


Bishop, in his 2008 book The Big Sort, noted that about half of all counties in the United States now settle presidential elections in landslides no matter how close the national vote. In 1976, he wrote, only 26 percent of voters lived in landslide counties. That went to 41 percent in 1988, 45 percent in 2000 and 48.3 percent in 2004. It means, says Schneider, that more and more states are “locked in” for one of the parties. “If you are an unfortunate person who happens to live in Texas or California, you are not going to see a campaign. They only go there to raise money. So the campaign has disappeared except for a few lucky places like Iowa.”

Base elections

It also means that candidates in the final stretch of a campaign are fighting more to rev up the base than appeal to centrist voters. “Today, it is run to the edge rather than run to the middle,” says Hart. For Obama, that means excite young people and Hispanics. “And if that costs him some independent voters? He will more than make up for it on the edge.” Blame the smaller map.


  1. jvnvch
    Posted October 18, 2012 at 9:40 am | Permalink | Reply

    In my opinion there is really only one battleground state. Romney must win Ohio, or he loses the election. I think he will win Ohio, and the election.

    • Kevin
      Posted October 18, 2012 at 2:49 pm | Permalink | Reply

      If Romney wins Florida, North Carolina, and Colorado, all states he’s looking good in. If he also wins Virginia, which is a good possibility with all the military cuts affecting that state. Romney could still get to 270+ without Ohio. He would have to win a combination of Wisconsin and New Hampshire, or Nevada, Iowa, and New Hampshire. Ohio is the easy path, but Romney can still win without Ohio, it’s just a tougher road.

  2. Vadim
    Posted October 18, 2012 at 10:03 am | Permalink | Reply

    Rasmussen just released an Ohio poll. O 49, R 48. Very very close race. Only 2% are undecided. I do not know the Party ID split.

    • Medicine Men
      Posted October 18, 2012 at 10:29 am | Permalink | Reply

      The last party split was even (week ago). I don’t know this one.

    • William Jefferson Jr.
      Posted October 18, 2012 at 10:29 am | Permalink | Reply


  3. petep
    Posted October 18, 2012 at 11:07 am | Permalink | Reply

    I never liked the minimizing of the map. I first remember it from the 88 election, when Dukakis ran a 10-state strategy and ignored the rest of the country. Bush 41 ran a similar small-ball campaign in 92. I thought it was a bad strategy and a recipe for losing, sorry of like three prevent defense.

    Howard Dean was smart about expanding the map and recruiting folkseven in states you can’t win. Obama 08 really did a good job at this and got Indiana, Virginia, and NC out of it.

    Romney had been very cautious about the battlegrounds this year, but I am glad he is moving in on Dem territory.

    • margaret
      Posted October 18, 2012 at 12:45 pm | Permalink | Reply

      I agree. You only move into Dem territory though unless you rather sure of your own. The money and people resources are only finite and have to be allocated carefully.

  4. TPK
    Posted October 19, 2012 at 4:35 pm | Permalink | Reply

    Very interesting article. I’ve wondered what the “Big Sort” thesis means for a state like Texas. While Bishop does mention people choosing one state over another (such as Maryland vs Virginia for D.C. commuters), the more important sorting appears to be liberals migrating toward cities and conservatives migrating toward suburbs. This could have implications for Texas (and its electoral votes) as Texas continues to urbanize and as Texas’s major cities appear to be trending toward the Democrats.

    Take the last four Presidential elections. In 1996, Clinton won about 87 of Texas’s 254 counties (give or take – I had to count these off a map). The five major urban counties were pretty much split fairly symmetrically down the middle – Clinton won Bexar County (San Antonio) by 5% and liberal bastion Travis County (Austin) by 12%. Dole won Harris County (Houston) by 4% and staunchly conservative Tarrant County (Fort Worth) by 9%. Dole won Dallas County by a very slim margin for Texas – less than 5,000 votes out of more than half a million cast.

    In 2000, Al Gore won only 24 counties – way down from Clinton but it would prove to be about average for a Democrat in the next three elections. Gore won ZERO of the five major counties, losing to Bush even in liberal Travis County. Of course part of his loss in Travis County was Ralph Nader’s 10% showing – had all of those votes gone to Gore, Gore would have won Travis County by 4 rather than losing by 5. Bush won Bexar by 7, Dallas by 8, Harris by 11, and Tarrant by 14.

    In 2004, Kerry didn’t fare any better. He won only 18 counties, less than one county in 14! Bush won four of the five urban counties – he won Dallas County by just over 1%, but posted double-digit margins in Harris, Bexar, and Tarrant. Bush won Tarrant County by a whopping 25%! The only bright spot for Kerry was Travis County, where he bested Clinton’s 1996 showing with a 14 point win, demonstrating the radicalization of college towns during the height of the Bush years.

    In 2008, the Democrats made only slight gains in overall county wins – Obama won 28 counties, only 4 more than Gore, but still less than a third of the number Clinton won. However, Obama did much better than even Clinton in the urban counties – he won 4 out of 5, with McCain holding only conservative Tarrant County. Obama even carried Harris County, something no Democrat had done since LBJ in 1964. Obama winning in long-standing Republican urban counties wasn’t unique to Texas (see Hamilton County, Ohio), but could this be part of a trend in Texas?

    Compare county by county maps from the Clinton years to the Bush and Obama elections. One of the first things you’ll see is that the remaining Yellow-Dog Democrat strongholds in the panhandle and along the Louisiana border have vanished – other than the lone holdout of Jefferson County (Beaumont), which has been slowly trending R. The only rural Democratic stronghold remaining in Texas is the heavily Hispanic Rio Grande Valley. Outside the Valley, the western border counties, and Jefferson County, the only other counties Obama won were the four urban counties mentioned above. In other words, Obama’s support in Texas was every bit as geographically constrained as Gore’s and Kerry’s even though he did much better numbers-wise.

    What does this mean, and how does this tie into the “Big Sort”? Well, as in the rest of the country over the last quarter century or so, Democrat votes have been evaporating in the country and small towns and have been accumulating in Texas’s major cities. A lot has been made of the effect of the influx of Hispanics on Texas politics, but I think the cities could be a magnet for liberal voters from other states. Texas is home to several of the largest urban centers in the region and in the country, and if they are seen to be increasingly liberal politically, they could attract a number of younger liberals from out of state who are “Sorting” themselves away from conservative small towns and into liberal big cities. I suspect that this could easily offset any people who are moving to Texas because of its conservative reputation.

    Just a hypothesis for now, but while the “Big Sort” may be turning former battlegrounds into “locked in” states, is it possible that this phenomenon might contribute to turning Texas into a battleground state? Hard to say just yet, but I certainly will be interested in seeing what happens here in Houston. If Harris County votes for Obama for the second straight election (particularly if Romney ultimately wins nationally), it could be a rather distressing signal for the future of Republicans in Texas.

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