Why Are There More Swing States These Days?

In an era of extreme polarization, you’d think that most states would be rock solid in one camp or the other. 

It wasn’t that long ago that presidential elections seemed to come down to who won Ohio and Florida. But in an era where political polarization is the hottest story, it is worth noting that the number of so-called “swing states” is growing.

The 2016 presidential election was decided by less that 80,000 votes in Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin—adding them to the list of states that could swing in 2020. More recently, we’ve been hearing a lot of chatter about the possibility that North Carolina, Georgia, and possibly even Texas could join the ranks. It is in that context that Ron Brownstein points to the possibility for an historic election in four southwestern states.

Democrats today are strongly positioned to oust Republican Sens. Martha McSally in Arizona and Cory Gardner in Colorado and hold their own open seat in New Mexico. If the party wins those three races, as most analysts today agree they are favored but not assured to do, it will control all eight Senate seats from Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico and Nevada for the first time since 1941, according to Senate records…

The exclamation point on this shift is the polls showing former Vice President Joe Biden, the presumptive Democratic nominee, in a competitive position to potentially win all four of these key Southwest states, something no Democratic presidential nominee has done since Harry Truman in 1948. One has to reach back even further — to Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1936 — to find the last time Democrats carried each of these states in a presidential race while also holding all of their Senate seats.

Colorado, New Mexico, and Nevada have been trending blue for a few cycles now. But it is very possible that Arizona could join them shortly. Brownstein gets into the weeds about why that is happening. It mostly has to do with population growth in the major metropolitan areas of those states—which trends blue. Recognizing something I wrote about a while ago, he says that could spell trouble for Republicans in Texas.

The scariest prospect for Republicans is that everything said above about Arizona and Colorado in particular could also apply to Texas, the foundation stone of the GOP’s national political strength. From Dallas/Fort Worth and Austin down south through Houston and San Antonio, the four metropolitan areas in what’s called the Texas triangle account for just over two-thirds of the state’s votes and jobs and more than three-fourths of its economic output.

All of them rank among America’s 10 fastest-growing cities, according to the census. (All are also big recipients of transplants from California, which sent over 86,000 migrants to Texas just in 2018.) And as they grow, they are shading more blue: In his narrow 2018 defeat, the Democratic Senate candidate Beto O’Rourke won the five counties encompassing those cities by nearly 800,000 votes, roughly six times then-President Barack Obama’s combined margin just six years earlier.

But there is another state that borders these three that could be swinging—although perhaps for very different reasons.

For some historical context, Utah’s electoral votes haven’t gone to a Democrat since Lyndon Johnson won there in 1964, routing Barry Goldwater in the Electoral College 486-52.

So what’s up with all of that swinging? Based on the kind of political polarization we’re witnessing, you’d think that most states would be rock solid in one camp or the other.

One answer to that question is clearly the presidency of Donald Trump. While he has maintained his support among Christian nationalists and white working class voters, he is bleeding support from Independents as well as the Never Trumpers in the Republican Party. The latter is especially pronounced among white, college-educated suburban voters.

But many of these trends pre-dated Trump, which means that they are as much a rejection of the Republican Party as they are of the current president. For example, states in the southwest have been trending younger and more diverse for quite a while. You might recall that it was back in 2012 that Jeb Bush warned that Texas would turn blue if Republicans didn’t do a better job of reaching out to Latino voters. And as the metropolitan areas in various states continue to grow, it send states swinging.

What we are witnessing is a major political realignment in process and these kinds of movements take time. Christopher Hooks noted that during a previous political realignment, the Republicanization of Texas “took nearly a half a century to enact.”

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Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly. Follow her on Twitter @Smartypants60.