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The Swing States of America

Released June 25, 2009

A FairVote Innovative Analysis by Rob Richie and Paul Fidalgo

Facts in Focus:

  • Percentage of the 9 states won by George W. Bush in 2004 and Barack Obama in 2008 that have been visited by President Obama this year: 100% (all 9 states). Percentage of 19 states won by Democratic presidential candidates in both 2004 and 2008 that have earned a presidential visit: 26% (5 states). Percentage of 22 states won by Republican presidential candidates in both 2004 and 2008 that have earned a presidential visit: 9% (2 states).

  • Number of states that received zero campaign visits from major party candidates for president or vice-president in the last 2 months of the 2008 election: 32. Percentage of U.S. population living in those: 61.79%.

  • Number of electoral votes necessary to trigger the National Popular vote in states adopting it: 270. Number of electoral votes in states that have passed the plan in at least one legislative chamber: 201.

"If people don't like it, they can move from a safe state to a swing state and see their president more." - Former Bush press secretary Ari Fleischer, Washington Post 6/21/09

In a Nutshell

With every passing election cycle, the inherent unfairness of the Electoral College becomes more and more apparent. Voters in a handful of states have an exclusive claim to political relevance, while a vast -- and growing -- majority of Americans sit on the sidelines. But this disregard extends beyond the campaign, as the few states with the power to swing a presidential election now seem to be receiving extra presidential attention between national contests. It remains in a sitting president's interest to continue the long, long dance with those who brought him, leaving a dance hall full of wallflowers who can only watch the courtship from afar. Do our presidents care about the whole country? Of course. Does our system lead them to act otherwise? Let's go to the numbers.

Our Analysis

The 2008 campaign is long over. President Barack Obama has been in office for nearly half a year. He enjoys strong approval numbers, and every day there seem to be fewer serious challengers for 2012 (hello, Mark Sanford and John Ensign) rather than more. Given the myriad problems faced by Americans all across the country, the time would seem long past for the president's political handlers to put aside worries over appeasing swing state voters and really get down to the brass tacks of reacting to the concerns of the entire nation. The 2012 campaign can wait.

Or not. To campaign junkies, President Obama's travel schedule so far this year looks terribly familiar. According to a June 21 article in the Washington Post, the 16 states visited by the president since taking office include all nine of the states that Obama managed to flip from red to blue on Election Day. The remaining seven states are the states with our nation's biggest media centers (California and New York), one that is a morning jog from the White House (Maryland), the president's home state (Illinois), the home state of his 2008 major party opponent (Arizona), the home of the nation's first nomination contest (Iowa) and two states adjoining Iowa that are often general election battlegrounds (Wisconsin and Missouri). You'd think the president is on the campaign trail once again.

Lest one believe this analysis is picking on President Obama, consider one of his defenders in the Post piece: Ari Fleischer, President George W. Bush's first press secretary, commented, "If you're all substance and no politics, you lose support on Capitol Hill." He added, "If people don't like it, they can move from a safe state to a swing state and see their president more." So noted.

The Post's Scott Wilson suggests that that the president is going "where the votes matter most" and quotes the Brookings Institution's Darrel M. West on the fact that the battleground states "are the ones that matter." The corollary to such comments of course is that everyone else living in the uncontested states does not matter, at least not politically - even in a time of deep economic pain obviously affecting all of our communities. We're accustomed to hearing such dispiriting talk during the thick of the presidential race because the Electoral College essentially necessitates giving preferential treatment to a tiny slice of the electorate. But as we can see, the consequences stretch far past the campaign and into actual governing. Even at this early stage in the president's term, the White House political team obviously feels compelled to continue to curry favor with the swing states.

How might things be different if we had a national popular vote for president? Here's one example. Four years after Hurricane Katrina, a new, change-minded president might have highlighted New Orleans' ongoing struggle to recover. But Louisiana isn't a swing state. Nor are any of the four adjoining states, and all of these states have only seen the president on television this year. Small Rocky Mountain states like the Dakotas, Wyoming, Utah and Idaho are alleged to get an extra dose of influence from the Electoral College, but John McCain won them all hands down. They're not swing states going into 2012, and none have received a visit this year. The same is true of Democratic strongholds among small states like Vermont, Maine, Delaware and Rhode Island.

Insiders make no bones about the narrowness of the electoral map. In reviewing the 2008 campaign, Obama campaign manager David Plouffe made clear to Conde Nast Portfolio after the election, "We viewed the campaign as essentially 16 different campaigns," and also confessed to the Post in January, "We view this through the prism of the battleground states, that's all we focused on." Post-election, this outlook may seep into the administration's day-to-day decisions. Press secretary Robert Gibbs admitted to the Post, "It's hard [to look] at a map and not see red, purple and blue states."

Fleischer's flip comments about unhappy spectator states picking up their bags to move to swing states show that it's not just Team Obama; The problem is endemic to the system. Former Bush strategist Matthew Dowd told reporters during the Republican convention in 2004 that the campaign had not once polled outside of 18 potential battleground states in the previous two years. Think about that. The richest campaign in history to that point never wasted a dime finding out what a single person thought in states representing well over half the country. Why care about their ideas and interests when that knowledge would never affect your campaign strategy?

To be sure, the White House's near entire focus on swing states is not likely to remain so rigid throughout the rest of the president's term in office, but it is certain that the spectator states will disappear from candidate schedules in the heat of the next general election. As FairVote's Rob Richie summarized in a lengthy commentary in the San Diego Union Tribune on May 17th, more than 99% of campaign visits by major party presidential and vice-presidential candidates in the last two months of the 2008 campaign were in swing states representing barely a third of the country's population -- nearly completely overlapping with the states of focus in 2004 and projected swing states in 2012.

And this exclusive club of attention-showered states is only getting smaller. According to partisanship data collected by FairVote for our upcoming Presidential Election Inequality report, the number of swing states coming out of 2004 has shrunk from 13 to 9 going into 2012. The apparent expansion of the map in 2008 into new states was due to the election not being dead even -- if the 2012 election is as close as the contests in 2000 and 2004, fewer states than ever will be in play.

All of this attention to swing states is tied to simple state statutes governing presidential elections in all but two states: the candidate who wins the statewide popular vote wins all of that state's electoral votes, a practice developed gradually over the first half-century of our country's history. If we can say with certainty which party will win a state's popular vote in a nationally close year, the candidates won't spend resources there because winning more or fewer votes in that state won't have any impact on your electoral vote total.

We don't have to accept this reality: a roadmap for reform shines ever brighter before us. It's not the highly flawed idea of trying to divide states' electoral votes. The answer is the National Popular Vote plan that, once joined by states representing a majority of the Electoral College, will be activated and guarantee election of the winner of the national popular vote in all 50 states is elected. Polls show that this method of election has overwhelming support in state after state. President Obama's home state of Illinois indeed is one of five states that have adopted the National Popular Vote plan. In 2008 his former state legislative colleagues enthusiastically supported the principle that every vote should carry equal weight in presidential races.

Who knows, perhaps the president himself supports presidential election equality -- certainly there's no reason to challenge his sincerity in pointing out that we do not live in red or blue states, but the United States. But, trapped by our failed Electoral College system, you sure wouldn't know it by where his political team is sending him this year.

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*Stay turned for our release of an updated Presidential Election Inequality report next month for full details on just how problematic the current Electoral College system is for our representative democracy. See the 2006 edition here.
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Previous editions of Innovative Analysis can be found here.
Contact: Paul Fidalgo, communications director: paul(at)fairvote.org, (301) 270-4616
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FairVote's staff and interns have been busy blogging, typically with two or three informative posts every workday. See www.fairvote.org/blog.