Fairvote.org is currently undergoing an upgrade, and some features may not be working as usual. We apologize for any inconvenience, and expect to be back at full capacity soon.

Not Your Parents' Presidential Elections: The Decline of Swing States, 1960-2008

// Published June 13, 2011

Summary: American presidential elections have undergone a dramatic change in recent decades.The number of swing states (which are states defined as projected to be won by less than 10% in elections in which the major parties candidates split the national popular vote) has dropped sharply, especially since 1988 and especially among our nation's largest and smallest states.

For example, only one of the 13 smallest states and only four of the 27 smallest states were swing states in 2008, much fewer than in the 1980s. We don't see this imbalance changing soon -- indeed, in 2008 only three of the smallest 13 states were within even a 15% partisanship disparity.

Furthermore, at the other end of the population spectrum in our 11 largest population states,, fewer than half were swing states in 2004 and 2008 -- down from 10 out of 11 of these states in the 1960 and the 1976 presidential elections and 8 of these states in 1988.

Looking forward, none of the 2008 non-swing states are expected to become swing states in 2012, yet some 2008 swing states may well move to non-swing state status. This decline would continue a 50-year trend summarized here.

Swing States (within 9%) by # 2008 Electoral Votes, 1960-2008*

Year

2008 Electoral Vote
15 or more 

2008 Electoral Votes
9 to 14 
2008 Electoral Votes 
5 to 8
2008 Electoral Votes
4 or less 
Total
2008  5 of 11 states
 6 of 13 states
 3 of 14 states
 1 of 13 states
15
2004  4 of 11  6 of 13  5 of 14  1 of 13  16
1988  8 of 11  4 of 13  8 of 14  6 of 13  26
1976  10 of 11  6 of 13  8 of 14  5 of 13  29
1960  10 of 11  7 of 13  8 of 14  6 of 13 31
*Washington, D.C. is included in all years except 1960

Partisanship Disparity (P), All States, 1960-2008*

Year P=<9% 9%<P<20% P>=20% Notes
2008 15 19 17 13R & 4D landslide states
2004 16 20 15 10R & 5D landslide states
1988 27 22 2 1R & 1D landslide states
1976 29 14 8 5R & 3D landslide states
1960 31 13 6 2R & 4D landslide states

*Washington, D.C. is included in all years except 1960


Of 11 largest population states with 15 or more electors in 2008

  • 2008: 5 states within 9% partisan division (FL,NC, NJ, OH, PA)
  • 2004: 4 states within 9% partisan division (FL, MI, OH, PA)
  • 1988: 8 states within 9% partisan division
  • 1976: 10 states within 9% partisan division (all but GA)
  • 1960: 10 states within a 9% partisan division (all but GA)
  •  

    Of 13 mid-sized states with 9 to 14 electors in 2008

  • 2008: 6 states within 9% partisan division (VA,IN,MO,MN,WI,CO)
  • 2004: 6 states within 9% partisan division
  • 1988: 5 states within 9% partisan division
  • 1976: 6 states within 9% partisan division
  • 1960: 7 states within 9% partisan division
  •  

    Of 14 smaller mid-sized states with 5 to 8 electors in 2008

  • 2008: 3 states within 9% partisan division (NM,IA,NV)
  • 2004: 5 states within 9% partisan division
  • 1988: 8 states within 9% partisan division
  • 1976: 8 states within 9% partisan division
  • 1960: 8 states within 9% partisan division
  •  

    Of 13 smallest population states (including DC except in 1960) with 4 or fewer electors in 2008

  • 2008: 1 state within 9% partisan division (NH /Only 2 more within 15%)
  • 2004: 1 state within 9% partisan division (NH / Only 3 more within 15%)
  • 1988: 6 states within 9% partisan division
  • 1976: 5 states within a 9% partisan division
  • 1960: 6 states within a 9% partisan division
  •