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The Battleground: Swing State Campaign Strategy and How It Affects Your Vote

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The complexity of the American electoral system was highlighted in the 2000 Presidential election. This chapter explains how the electoral college affects votes in so-called "Swing States," and just why "every vote counts, but some votes count more than others."
This chapter is from the book

"War is the continuation of politics by other means."

—Carl von Clausewitz, Prussian military strategist

Every vote counts, but some votes are more important than others. At least that's how the campaign strategists for George W. Bush and John Kerry look at it.

If you live in one of this year's key swing states or "battleground states," as they are often called in this year of war, you can expect to be barraged with a wave of television advertising for—and against—the candidates. You can expect regular campaign stops from W and JFK, and you can expect to have your opinion on the hot-button issues matter more than those of voters from other states.

Shaping a Battle Plan

Because the Electoral College provides for a winner-take-all system of allocating delegates from each state, candidates focus on a select number of battleground states where the margin of victory has been close in recent elections. The projected battleground states in 2004, with their associated electoral votes, are shown in Table 3.1.

Table 3.1

View larger image of table

See Chapter 1, to learn more about how the Electoral College works.

Count yourself lucky if you live in these battleground states (or unlucky, if you hate political ads). Your vote will play a crucial role in determining who takes office in 2005. The election in each of these states is expected to be decided by a few thousand votes. In fact, early polls show the 2004 election shaping up to be just as close as the disputed election of 2000.

Figure 3.1Figure 3.1 Targeting swing voters has become a science.

Do the Math

To win the presidential election, a candidate must win a majority of the votes in the Electoral College—that means 271 of the 538 total votes. Campaign strategists must decide how to allocate their own candidate's time and money in the most effective way. Because some states are considered firmly Democratic or firmly Republican, the strategists shift campaign resources to states that hang in the balance—the battleground states.

That means Kerry will likely spend little time in his home state of Massachusetts. Voters there have backed the Democratic candidate for President in 9 out of the past 11 elections.

Bush won't be down on the ranch much in Crawford, Texas either. The large block of Texas electoral votes is considered firmly in his control.

Figure 3.2Figure 3.2 Projected Bush states, Kerry states, and battleground states. Analysts project Kerry to win several of the largest Electoral College states. Bush is projected to win lots of smaller Electoral College states, a pattern similar to 2000.

Kerry Goes Big

As has been the trend for Democrats in recent elections, Kerry has a lock on several of the largest Electoral College states, including California (55 electoral votes), New York (31 electoral votes), and Illinois (21 electoral votes). That's 107 votes in only three states, more than a third of the way to 271.

Winning these large population centers means Kerry is likely to capture a high percentage of the popular vote. But can he come up with a winning formula to triumph in the electoral vote?

Bush Plays Small Ball

Bush's largest projected Electoral College state is Texas, with 34 votes. North Carolina and Georgia are next, with 15 votes each. Indiana is the only other core "Bush state" with double-digit electoral votes.

Bush's top five "gimmes" account for only 84 electoral votes, whereas Kerry's top five deliver 134. But Bush is projected to rack up a lot of other states, covering a large swath of territory from the Deep South through the Great Plains and the Mountain West. The campaign strategists predict that Bush has 18 states safely tucked away in his camp, accounting for 139 electoral votes, plus 11 of the battleground states that are projected to go his way, depending on whose survey you look at.

The Sunbelt Factor

Another factor analysts consider in projecting the electoral vote is population change. Every ten years, the distribution of electoral votes is updated to reflect the most recent census. Population growth has been most dramatic in southern and western states where Bush has the upper hand.

Table 3.2 illustrates that Bush is projected to gain five electoral votes in Texas, Georgia, and North Carolina, his top three core states, whereas Kerry is projected to suffer a net loss of two electoral votes in California, New York, and Illinois, the top three Democratic core states.

Table 3.2

View larger image of table

Of the key battleground states, Florida, Arizona, Colorado, and Nevada gained six electoral votes. These were all Bush states in 2000. The battleground states Gore carried—Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin—lost electoral votes, four in all. Granted, Florida was a questionable win at best for Bush, but the bottom line in this analysis is that if things break anywhere near what they did in 2000, Kerry has a tougher road to achieving 271 based on population and electoral vote change.

You Can Make a Difference

Political strategists often talk about the alignment of states in national elections. In the most general terms, the current alignment has the Democrats controlling the most populous and most urban states along both coasts and in the upper Midwest. Republicans control most of rural America—the South, the Great Plains, and the interior west.

And some states are staunchly Republican or Democrat, no matter what the current alignment. Indiana has voted Republican for President all but one election since 1940. Massachusetts has gone the other way all but four times since 1928.

So, what should you do if you don't live in a battleground state and you're a supporter of the candidate who isn't expected to win?

Well, first of all, of course, you vote. Throwing up your hands and saying it's hopeless only makes the state you live in more firmly entrenched in the other party's camp. If the margin of victory is larger for the other guy in your state this time, you can bet that neither party will pay as much attention to your state and your opinions on the issues the next time around.

Try to build some grass-roots momentum for change in the hostile territory you happen to live in. Try to find some kindred spirits in your neighborhood, your town.

Join the party of your choice and be active in it. Vote for and work to elect local, state, and congressional candidates in your area. If no one from your party is on the ballot in a local election, run for the office yourself or try to encourage someone you would like to see in office run. You can't complain about a lack of choices if you don't do anything about it.

Even putting a bumper sticker on your car or a sign in your yard may help—at least it lets others know there are people who have other opinions about the election and what's going on in the world.

You can also try to affect the outcome of the election in battleground states. If you have friends or relatives who live in a battleground state, try to influence how they vote. Send them information about your candidate and your point of view. Get behind national efforts and organizations that represent your views on particular issues. Or, if you can, travel to a nearby battleground state and volunteer for your candidate there.

Visit the campaign Web sites for Bush, Kerry, and Nader to find out more about ways you can get involved in their campaigns, such as

  • Contributing money

  • Hosting or attending a "house party" or "meetup"

  • Volunteering for the campaign

  • Downloading campaign posters, brochures, and placards, or purchasing yard signs, pins, and other campaign gear

  • View lists of unofficial grass-roots Web sites and organizations that support the candidates in battleground states—and in your state.

The candidates' official campaign Web sites are




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