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What Are Battleground States?

The phrases “battleground state” and “swing state” are indispensable to the language used in modern presidential elections. These interchangeable phrases refer to states with closely divided support for Democratic and Republican presidential candidates.

Each battleground state receives ample campaign visits, ad spending, and national attention because the outcomes in most states are clear months ahead of elections. These campaign investments count on a largely stable electoral map only shifted by a handful of hotly contested states.

Understanding how battleground states are determined provides a glimpse into how future presidential elections will be determined.


Origins and Use of ‘Battleground States’

Frequent use of battleground state in national elections makes it seem like a deeply ingrained part of our political language. Merriam-Webster found an example of the phrase in an 1842 edition of the Centinel of Freedom. In this case, the phrase was used to describe internal political strife in New Jersey politics.

Using Google’s Ngram Viewer, we see an uptick in the phrase’s use in 1980 before a significant jump in 2000. Swing state was a more popular term for closely contested states in presidential politics starting in the 1960s. By 2004, battleground state overtook swing state in popularity but both phrases are used by media outlets.

Dr. Eric Ostermeier at the University of Minnesota analyzed the frequency of use for both phrases during the 2012 presidential election. He found a spectrum of usage from ABC’s 2.5-to-1 ratio of battleground state to swing state to MSNBC’s 1.8-to-1 ratio of swing state to battleground state. The comparable phrase “toss-up state” was used only 29 times in the six months of reviewed reports. His analysis also included examples of both phrases used during the 1980 presidential election and the 1986 midterm elections.


What Makes a Battleground or Swing State?

Before evaluating battleground states, it is useful to categorize states outside of the battleground definition.

Ballotpedia’s analysis of the 2016 presidential election showed 38 states and the District of Columbia were effectively determined before Election Day. Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton held 200 electoral votes in 16 states and the District of Columbia, while Republican candidate Donald Trump held 179 electoral votes in 22 states. The remaining map of 12 states with 159 electoral votes decided the presidential election in Trump’s favor.

The most important factors in narrowing close states into the battleground category are recent margins of victory and polling. A state that had a margin of victory of 5% or less in the most recent presidential race shows a narrow divide among voters. Observers can also take averages of presidential polls for a state for a more current measure of battleground status. States where the polling averages a margin of victory of 5% or less could determine the election’s outcome.

There are underlying factors that are helpful in evaluating the future battleground status of a state. Presidential elections coincide with House, Senate, gubernatorial, and state legislative races that can influence voter decisions. Demographic shifts among groups that traditionally support the Democratic or Republican Parties can narrow state margins in future elections. A state government divided between a governor of one party and a legislature held by the other party reveals tensions amplified by presidential elections. The parties represented in a state’s congressional delegation also show regional divides in play every four years.


Battleground States in the 21st Century

The hardening of the electoral vote map in the 21st century has left a small group of battleground states. The National Constitution Center’s analysis of presidential election coverage found some consensus about battlegrounds from media outlets. The roster of consensus battleground states fluctuated from 11 in 2004 to six in 2008 and nine in 2012. This analysis also found an unusual range of potential battlegrounds in 2012 with up to 21 states listed by covered outlets during the campaign.

In 2016, the National Constitution Center listed 11 states as definite battleground states: Colorado, Florida, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, Nevada, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Virginia. Ballotpedia’s post-2016 analysis placed all of these states except Minnesota and Nevada in the group of 12 decisive states.

As election analysis has grown more sophisticated, it has been easier for campaigns to anticipate battlegrounds and narrow resources to the most dynamic states.


Differences of Opinion on Battleground States

Media outlets and political pundits have identified a few battleground states heading into the 2020 presidential election. Political analyst Kyle Kondik published an analysis that listed Arizona, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin as pure toss-up states. Priorities USA Chairman Guy Cecil identified Florida, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Nevada, and New Hampshire as core states for Democratic campaigns. Our electoral vote map for 2020 starts with 10 battleground states based on an analysis done by former Clinton political director Doug Sosnik.

The temptation to expand the electoral map ahead of a presidential election is strong. NBC News drew on the 2018 midterm elections to remove battleground distinctions from Colorado and Ohio while suggesting Arizona and Georgia could join the swing state club. An NPR report from August 2019 identified Texas as a potential battleground state due to demographic changes and turnover in the congressional delegation. It is important to note that these shifts often take multiple elections to be realized or rejected.


2020 Battleground States

These estimates of the state of play in the next presidential election show divergent opinions among political observers. An analysis of presidential election results from 2000 to 2016 using margins of victory can solidify battleground states in our minds.

During this period, 18 states had at least one presidential race that fit within the 5% margin of victory criterion. The only states to reach this margin in four of the five elections were Florida and Ohio. Michigan, New Hampshire, Nevada, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin each reach this margin in three elections. North Carolina was the only state with margins of 5% or less in 2008, 2012, and 2016.

With some certainty, we can narrow the field of 2020 battlegrounds to these eight states. Additional states might evolve from Republican or Democratic locks to battlegrounds in future races. Voters and analysts can draw on data from past elections and current polling to anticipate these shifts in the political landscape.