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Close results expected in the US swing states

Keep America great or build [it] back better? - the United States decides

by: Isti Miskolczy

On the 3rd of November, people in the United States will cast their votes at the ballot boxes in the forthcoming presidential elections. They will have the opportunity to choose between the reigning Republican president, Donald Trump, and his challenger, former vice-president Joe Biden from the Democratic Party. With just a few days left until the election, almost all polls are predicting a Biden victory, albeit, with a small margin. This is probably the result of a very extensive and sometimes harsh campaign from both sides.

However, let us not forget the previous elections in 2016, when Democrat candidate Hilary Clinton was also favoured by the nationwide polls. Still in the end her opponent, Donald Trump, won the elections due to his accomplishments in the so-called 'swing states'. Trump, besides securing a victory in all of the 'classic' Republican states, won all the electors of all swing states and with that the elections as a whole. This happened despite Clinton securing more votes nationwide than Trump. If this does not, then nothing else proves the great significance of the so-called 'swing states' in the United States Electoral System. They are most likely to determine the outcome of the 2020 elections again. Here is how.


The United States' electoral system. In each state, people vote for a certain number of electors (displayed on the map), who later on, cast their votes to their supported presidential candidate. Photo courtesy of Clker-Free-Vector-Images via Pixabay. Data added by the author.


The Cambridge Dictionary defines a 'swing state' as "a state where the number of Democratic and Republican voters is about the same, that has an important influence on the result of the election of the United States President". Voting outcomes in these states are usually very close to each other, that is why with swinging from one party to another these states can very much determine the election results. This article - besides incorporating the definition of swing states - casts all states with a change in their voting outcomes in the past three elections a 'swing state'.

Hence, as displayed on the map below, states playing a key role in the upcoming elections are Florida, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, Indiana, Wisconsin, and Iowa.

Photo courtesy of Clker-Free-Vector-Images via Pixabay. Data added by the author.

No surprise, thus, that both candidates are concentrating their campaign activities in these states. It would be pointless for Biden to put a huge effort and amount of money campaigning in for example South Carolina or Wyoming, where Republicans have been constantly winning since 1964. Similarly, a Trump rally would not be particularly useful and worthy in California or New York for instance, as these states have been awarding their electors to the Democrats for the time of the same length.

If we assume that both candidates will win their stable states (in which their party has been winning for 12 years now) Biden will have 233, and Trump will have 180 electoral votes. So, to reach the required majority of 270, Biden will be missing 37 and Trump will be missing 90. This is of course a very vague estimation, which might not be totally true. Nonetheless, it shows why the ‘swing states’ are particularly important. In these, winning their own fixed voters voting on the basis of party loyalty is not enough for the candidates. Besides that, they will also have to convince insecure voters as well as supporters of the other party in order to secure a victory - for which Trump needs a lot more votes than Biden.

As described in the chart below, the 2016 elections were particularly tight in Florida, Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin, inasmuch as when the results came in, the difference between Trump and then-candidate Hilary Clinton was not higher than 1% in any of them. However, while Florida and Pennsylvania were unpredictable and very tight in 2012 as well, in Michigan and Wisconsin (which are more likely to be won by Democrats) Obama won over Mitt Romney with a convenient margin of 8-10%.


Photo courtesy of Isti Miskolczy. Data is from FiveThirtyEight, CNN, Telegraph, and New York Times poll collections. The estimated polls for 2020 are describing the highest percentage of difference one candidate got, as the average of those will be available after the elections.


North Carolina and Indiana, counting altogether for 26 electoral votes, were both won by the Republicans in the last two elections. North Carolina was much tighter with 2-3% in between the candidates, whereas Indiana witnessed a Republican lead of 10-15% in 2012 and 2008 as well. As of today, Indiana is polled to be won by Trump, whereas there is no clear winner indicated in North Carolina.

In Ohio and Iowa, there is no clear indicated winner either. Nevertheless, both states are leaning towards the Republicans with Trump securing a victory in 2016 with 8% in the former and 10% in the latter. These states, especially Ohio were won by Obama in 2012 with a much smaller margin - only 8% and 2% respectively.

If we stick to the assumption that aside from the ‘swing states’ Biden wins 233 and Trump wins 180 electoral votes, Biden in most cases needs to win only two or three swing states. Trump, just as in 2016 will need at least double of that.

Who wins Florida, wins the elections?

This is a popular saying but is not always true. Nevertheless, in general, based on the last fifteen elections of the last seventy years, it might be correct. Florida has always been described as a must-win state and since 1960, it has been constantly switching in between the Republicans and the Democrats. There have been only two occasions when a candidate got elected as president without winning the 'sunshine state'. They were Bill Clinton in 1992 and John F. Kennedy in 1960, both very popular and iconic figures of the Democrats, who managed to secure a victory without having to rely on the 29 electors of Florida. On all other occasions, in the last seventy years, who won Florida, won the elections.

Biden and Trump know this very well, inasmuch as the incumbent president held eight rallies in Florida since the start of the general election campaign in June. This is the second-highest number of his rallies in a single state, with Pennsylvania (the other key state with 20 electors) witnessing thirteen Trump rallies in the last four months. Biden while also making many appearances, also recently used popular former president and close colleague Barack Obama during his campaign in Miami.

Photo courtesy of Mike Brice via Pixabay

"If you bring Florida home, this thing is over" - Obama told Democrat supporters at the rally in Miami.

According to our model, the 'stable democrat states' plus Florida would already mean 262 electors out of the required 270 for Biden, and this is where it gets exciting. In the last two elections, the difference between the Democrat and Republican candidates in Florida was only 1%, therefore both Biden and Trump need a hard push in their campaign final in the southern state. Biden can build on the Democrats outnumbering Republicans amongst the registered Hispanic voters, who make up a significant 17% of the voters, with a growing tendency since 2016 - according to Pew Research Center. The winning chances of the Democrat candidate are also increased by Trump's mismanagement of COVID-19, given that Florida has the third-highest number of coronavirus cases, with being the fifth oldest (and therefore a vulnerable) state based on its median age of 42.

However, Trump's position can be strengthened by the Democrats losing the governorship of the state as well as an incumbent senate seat in 2018. If his campaign can build on traditional Cuban support in south Florida, he could be winning the state. Moreover, the current president of the United States has personal ties to Florida with owning several golf clubs and properties (among others in Mar-a-Lago and Doral) and being registered to vote in West Palm Beach - which he did not so long ago. He usually refers to Florida as his "home state" - even though he was born in New York - and with that well popularizing his personal image.

Another major battleground: Pennsylvania

Pennsylvania is just as important as Florida in the American elections, having the second-highest number of electors (20 in total) amongst the swing states. A FiveThirtyEight research defines Pennsylvania as the likeliest state with a 37% chance to provide either candidate with the decisive amount of votes in the Electoral College.

"Pennsylvania is so important that our model gives Trump an 84 percent chance of winning the presidency if he carries the state - and it gives Biden a 96 percent chance of winning if Pennsylvania goes blue." - the research also contains.

Except for Trump turning Pennsylvania in 2016, since 1992, it had been always blue. The incumbent president was said to be winning in Pennsylvania four years ago because of people without bachelor's degrees making up 55% of the population age 25 or older. According to the Center for American Progress, the turnout rate among these voters increased from 53% in 2012 to 57.4% in 2016, which largely contributed to Trump's victory.

Moreover, the percentage of those workers belonging to trade unions and thus being a base for the Democrats has displayed a significant decrease in the past years, with many of them blaming the trading and environmental policies "pushed by Democrats for the decline of the state’s manufacturing and mining industries" - the same research also discusses.

In 2008 and 2012, Obama won the state with a 7-9%, while Trump in 2016 secured it with less than a 1% majority, despite the polls on average were predicting Clinton's win by 5-6%. Like so, polls are very hard to trust in Pennsylvania, mainly due to the aforementioned demographic reasons.

With the margin between the two candidates being that small, it comes naturally that both Biden and Trump are finishing their campaigns in Pennsylvania after a significant number (13 in total in the case of Trump) of rallies already held. In fact, both candidates, alongside their vice-president nominees are planning to hold a further number of rallies in the state during the last few days of campaigning. However, a Trump victory will be much harder than in 2016 due to the recent killing of a black man, W. Wallace by the police in Philadelphia - which largely fuelled the 'Black Lives Matter' protests in the state.

Where Trump could win: Iowa, Indiana, North Carolina, and Ohio

Out of all the ‘swing states’, Iowa (6), Indiana (11), North Carolina (15) and Ohio (18) are most likely to witness a Republican victory. Iowa has seen the overwhelming victory of Donald Trump in 2016 with a huge, 10% margin. Based on the polls, this is unlikely to be repeated, however, Trump could still secure a win, (even though since June 2020 he only rallied once in Iowa) largely as a result of the state predominantly being white by ethnicity.

The electors of Indiana are very much likely to go to Donald Trump and former senator, now vice-president Mike Pence.

Donald Trump and Mike Pence. Photo courtesy of History in HD via Unsplash.

Indiana was won not just by Trump previously, but also by Romney in 2012 - both times with a shocking 10-15% margin. The Indiana polls are favouring Trump too with differences varying up to 12%. As the Economist points out, "the Pew Research Centre found that overall, college graduates favoured Hillary Clinton by 21 percentage points, while those without a degree backed Donald Trump by a seven-point margin". This could be particularly significant in Indiana, where 45% of the population holds only a high school graduate degree or lower.

North Carolina, traditionally also being a Republican state, however, delivers a much closer race in the campaign finish. Despite it being won by both Trump and Romney previously, both were with 2-3%, so now a slight Biden victory is estimated in most polls. That is why Trump and vice-president Mike Pence have visited the state six times during the general election campaign.

Nevertheless, both campaigns are believed to be heavily spending in North Carolina, which makes us unable to predict who will win there.

Lastly, having 18 electoral votes makes Ohio the third most significant ‘swing state’ and almost a must-win for Donald Trump - as he did with an 8% margin in 2016. In 2012 even though Obama won, he only did so with 2%. Trump could win re-election here too, however only with an excessive campaign. Surveys are mostly predicting him to be the winner in Ohio though.


Party affiliation amongst adults in Iowa, Indiana, North Carolina, and Ohio. Photo courtesy of Isti Miskolczy. Data is from the Pew Research Center.


Biden's advantage in Wisconsin and Michigan

According to the recent polls, Biden and Harris are said to be having a significant lead in Michigan and Wisconsin as well. Michigan seems to be easier for Biden with 47% of the voters identifying as a Democrat in comparison to Trump's 34% according to the Pew Research Center. The state was won by Trump with a 0.3% difference - the closest in 2016 - this Biden could turn easily. Michigan also has 77 COVID-19 deaths per 100.000 residents, which is amongst the highest per state. This could also help Biden if he highlights the wrongdoings of Trump in relation to the pandemic.

Wisconsin is polled to Biden too, just as it was to Clinton in 2016. Nevertheless, if we apply the same mistakes to the polls that were made in 2016, both Clinton and Biden were / will be losing according to the polls, which makes Wisconsin a crucial place for Biden to campaign and win. When it comes to party preferences, both parties have an equal 42% of the voters, however, Biden seems to be more convincing to those without a lean.

Overall chances

FiveThirtyEight, in their overall estimation, predicted a Biden win in 90 out of 100 different variables, while Trump is only projected to win in 10 cases out of the same amount. They name Pennsylvania (20) as the state which could determine the elections with its 37% chance of being the tipping point. However, Florida (29) is also equally important. If we still apply our theory, and there will be no changes in the stable states, then if Trump loses either Florida or Pennsylvania, he would have to win all the rest of the ‘swing states’ to secure a victory for himself and attempt to "keep America great".

And one thing in which Donald Trump is most certainly doing great is last-minute mobilization. It is generally believed that he managed to secure his close win in most of the ‘swing states’ in 2016 and with that disproving the prediction polls due to his final big push in the campaign - including putting Hilary Clinton's emails into the spotlight. Will he pull something like this off again? No one knows for sure.

Early elections have been happening for almost a week now with election day being the 3rd of November. By the time we wake up on the 4th, we will most likely know the identity of the next president of the United States; the one who managed to win this extremely tight race.


The cover photo is courtesy of Pete Linforth via Pixabay. The article was using studies and statistics published by FiveThirtyEight, The Telegraph, CNN, New York Times, Pew Research Centre, and The Economist. Thank you for your editing Rosie Benny and Marta Rodriguez.



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