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11 October 2016

Clinton vs Trump: Which are the states to watch?

States keep swinging, states always work it out.

By Jonn Elledge

All men are created equal, the United States Declaration of Independence announces proudly with only the slightest hint of hypocrisy. When it comes to presidential elections, however, all of those states are not.

A big state that could conceivably go either way is likely to receive a lot of attention from campaigns, reporters and obsessive British bloggers with too much time on their hands. But smaller states? States that will reliably vote one way or the other, where the result has all the tension of a wet tissue? Forget about it. Boring. Move along.

The explanation for this lies in the idiosyncratic system through which Americans choose their leaders. The president is chosen not directly by the people but indirectly by the states, and the winner of the election is not the candidate who can win the most votes, but the one who can cobble together 270 votes in the electoral college. Generally this will be the same person; just occasionally – as when George W. Bush won in 2000 – it’s not.

There are all sorts of oddities to this system, and I could bang on about it for ages (in fact, if that’s your bag, I already have). But for our purposes, the key points are these: big states get more votes than smaller states, and the vast majority of states hand out their votes on a winner-takes-all basis.

There’s a third point, which is a matter not of constitutional or state law but of contemporary political reality: in the elections so far this century, the electoral map has calcified. Around 20 states, worth around 163 votes, are now seen as safe Republican territory (“red states”); another 16, plus DC, worth around 200 votes between them, are safe Democratic (“blue states”).

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That leaves just 14 states, and 175 votes, that could plausibly go either way without anybody freaking out. Even those include a few where, until it became clear that the Republicans had nominated a 4Chan-thread-made-luminous-orange-flesh, everyone assumed they were off the table.

So, as judgement day gets closer, if you want to know how the election is playing out, these are the big ones to watch:

Ohio (18 electoral votes) is one of those places you hear about during election years and barely at all in between times. It lies at the heart of the rust belt, the region which used to produce so much of the USA’s wealth, but which in recent decades has been characterised by industrial decline, falling population and urban decay.

The classic bellwether, the state has voted with the winner in every presidential election since 1964, which is presumably why, in 2004, the Guardian asked its readers to write to voters in Ohio’s Clark County, and beg them to vote for John Kerry. (This may genuinely have helped throw the election to Bush.) Four years later, I visited a Republican campaign office in the city of Toledo, where I met some of the nicest but most crazy people I expect to ever encounter, but at least I didn’t accidentally lose the Democrats the election in the process.

This year, oddly enough, Ohio might not actually matter that much: it’s generally been slightly more pro-Trump than most of the swing states, and it’s entirely possible that Hillary Clinton could win without it. My suspicion is that’s because the state lacks any really big, diverse cities, of the sort where Trump seems to be at his weakest. Nonetheless, it means that Ohio could finally be about to lose its bellwether status.

With 29 electoral votes, Florida is the biggest of the swing states, and the one even those with only the lightest acquaintance with US politics will recall from its mildly iffy role in the 2000 election (hanging chads and all that). Historically a southern state, in recent decades it’s attracted a growing number of northerners seeking sunnier climes. It’s split between a few solidly liberal cities (Greater Miami, Orlando) and a vast swathe of Republican territory. It’s divided enough that in most electoral cycles it could genuinely go either way. Trump basically has to win Florida to have any chance at all.

Pennsylvania (20 EVs) is similarly divided between the two diverse and liberal hubs of Philadelphia and Pittsburgh at either end of the state, and a chunk of conservative rural Appalachia (“Pennsyltucky”) in between. In every recent election it’s stayed Democratic blue, but the demographics mean it still gets listed among the swing states every four years. It’s probably the single state most worth watching – partly because it’s incredibly difficult to see how Donald Trump can win without it, but also because the polls have shown it to be so solidly behind Clinton that, if Trump wins here, there could be a bigger polling upset in the works.

It’s not quite right to think of Virginia (13 EVs) as a swing state: the biggest of the original southern states, and home to the capital of the Confederate capital, Richmond, the state voted Republican in every presidential election from 1952 onwards, except during Lyndon Johnson’s 1964 landslide. Then, in 2008, something funny happened: it voted for the Democrat, Barack Obama. It did the same in 2012. This year, polls have consistently shown a sizable lead for Hillary Clinton, too.

The explanation seems to lie in changing demographics: the urban areas of the state, especially the suburbs to the south of Washington DC, have become bigger and more populated. (In 2008, Republican vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin kept telling the rural bit of the state it was the “real Virginia”, apparently blissfully unaware that the fake Virginia has now outgrown it.) Nonetheless, it means it seems to be less a swing state than a formerly safe Republican state that’s now a safe Democratic one.

Even further south, there’s North Carolina (15 EVs), which voted Obama in 2008 but Romney in 2012. This one too is traditional conservative territory, but in Charlotte it has a significant regional financial centre, and in the Durham and Raleigh area a fairly major biotech hub, which make those areas much more multicultural and Democrat-friendly than the rest of the state. This one’s not a must-win for Clinton, but she currently holds a narrow lead there, which bodes pretty badly for Trump.

The other swing states are smaller, so likely only to affect the result if the election goes down to the wire. Nevada (6 EVs) is home to Las Vegas and a large hispanic population, so should be a lock for Clinton, but some of the polls have shown it flirting pretty heavily with Trump. Iowa (6 EVs) is one of the more conservative of the midwestern states (lot of farmers, not a lot of big cities), so might well go for Trump, too. New Hampshire (4 EVs) is a similar equation, only substitute New England for Mid West. Colorado (9 EVs) has historically flipped quite frequently, but seems pretty clearly in Clinton’s column now.

There are a number of other midwestern states which tend to be listed a swing states, even though they’ve recently stayed reliably blue. Trump’s strategy is dependent on, basically, winning a huge mandate from angry white people, of the sort who feel left behind by the modern world. (There’s a danger in drawing too many parallels here but to my mind there’s an echo here with the people who voted for Brexit.) If that works, other ex-industrial states in the Upper Mid West – Michigan (16 EVs), Wisconsin (10 EVs), even Minnesota (10 EVs) – could start to turn red.

There was little sign of that happening, however, even before Trump managed to alienate basically all women: indeed, there have actually been rather more signs of red states turning blue. Earlier this year, polls gave Clinton leads in Georgia (16 EVs), where Trump’s amazing success among African American voters helped (some polls showed him coming fourth) and Utah (6 EVs), where his ratings among Mormons did much the same. She was looking competitive in other solidly red states too: Arizona (11 EVs), South Carolina (9 EVs), Missouri (10 EVs). That all seems to have quietened down as the election has come closer, but if we’re heading for a true blue landslide these are the states to watch.

One state that we’re often told might start swinging any election now is Texas (38 EVs). It’s by far the biggest red state – but with a large Latino population and a few liberal patches like Austin, there’s a theory it will one day flip to the Dems. Once that happens, it’s basically game over for the Republicans at the presidential level.

But that has been spoken of as a couple of electoral cycles away for as long as I’ve been following US politics, and it never seems to get any closer. Nonetheless we can dream.