Swing States in the Presidential Election

Swings states
Hill Street Studios/Getty Images

Swing states are those in which neither major political party holds a lock on the outcome of presidential elections. The term can also be used to describe a state whose electoral votes have a high probability of being the deciding factor in a presidential election.

Swing states are also sometimes referred to as battleground states. More than a dozen states are considered swing states, and most of them hold a large number of electoral votes and are considered major prizes in presidential elections.

Presidential campaigns focus on these states since the election is decided by electoral votes chosen by the popular vote of each state and not by a direct national popular vote. "Safe states," on the other hand, are those where a majority of voters are expected to vote either for the Democratic or Republican candidate, so those electoral votes are considered to be safely on the candidate of that party's tally.

List of Swing States

The states most often described as being up in the air or ones that could side with either a Republican or Democratic presidential candidate are:

  • Arizona: 11 electoral votes. The state voted for the Republican presidential nominee in 10 of the last 11 elections.
  • Colorado: Nine electoral votes. The state voted for the Republican presidential nominee in seven of the last 11 elections.
  • Florida: 29 electoral votes. The state voted for the Republican presidential nominee in seven of the last 11 elections.
  • Georgia: 16 electoral votes. The state voted for the Republican presidential nominee in eight of the last 11 elections.
  • Iowa: Six electoral votes. The state voted for the Democratic presidential nominee in six of the last 11 elections.
  • Michigan: 16 electoral votes. The state voted for the Democratic presidential nominee in six of the last 11 elections. 
  • Minnesota: 10 electoral votes.  The state voted for the Democratic presidential nominee in each of the last 11 elections.
  • Nevada: Six electoral votes. The state voted for the Republican presidential nominee in six of the last 11 elections.
  • New Hampshire: Four electoral votes. The state voted for the Democratic presidential nominee in six of the last 11 elections.
  • North Carolina: 15 electoral votes. The state voted for the Republican presidential nominee in nine of the last 10 elections.
  • Ohio: 18 electoral votes. The state voted for the Republican presidential nominee in six of the last 11 elections.
  • Pennsylvania: 20 electoral votes. The state voted for the Democratic presidential nominee in seven of the last 11 elections. 
  • Virginia: 13 electoral votes. The state voted for the Republican presidential nominee in eight of the last 11 elections.
  • Wisconsin: 10 electoral votes. The state voted for the Democratic presidential nominee in eight of the last 11 elections. 

Texas is mentioned as a possible swing state in the 2020 presidential election. It voted for the Republican nominee in 10 of the last 11 elections, with Jimmy Carter in 1976 being the last Democrat to win the state.

Swing Voters and Their Role

States that shift back and forth between candidates of both major political parties in presidential elections could be evenly divided between voters registered Republican and Democratic. Or they could have large numbers of swing voters, those who tend to vote for individual candidates and not the party and have no loyalty to a party.

The portion of the American electorate made up of swing voters ranges from about a quarter to a third between presidential elections, according to the Pew Research Center. The number of swing voters declines when an incumbent president is seeking a second term.

Different Uses of Swing State

The term swing state is used in two different ways.

The most popular use of swing state is to describe one in which the popular vote margin in a presidential race is relatively narrow and fluid, meaning that either a Republican or Democrat could win the state's electoral votes in any given election cycle.

Others define swing states as those that could be the tipping point in a presidential election.

For example, Nate Silver, a widely read political journalist writing on The New York Times blog FiveThirtyEight, defined the term swing state this way:

"When I employ the term, I mean a state that could swing the outcome of the election. That is, if the state changed hands, the victor in the Electoral College would change as well."