Today's blog appeared originally in the Philadelphia Inquirer under the title of As Scranton Goes So
It’s not simply a handful of swing states that will decide the 2016 presidential election. The swing voters in the swing counties of the swing states will decide it. And if my calculations are correct, it is perhaps no more than 19 counties in 11 states–less than 500,000 voters–who truly matter. That’s why Scranton, Pennsylvania seems to be so important this year.
From 1988 to 2012 the balance of power in US presidential races has centered on ten states. Republicans were likely to win 23 states totally 191 electoral votes and the Democrats winning 18 states and the District of Columbia totally 232 electoral votes. Then there are ten swing states–Colorado, Florida, Iowa, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Mexico, North Carolina, Ohio, Virginia, and Wisconsin–totaling 115 electoral votes. As I described in my Presidential Swing States: Why Ten Only Matter, these are the states where the presidential candidates campaign and visit after the conventions. They are the bellwether states, the battleground states, they are those most likely to flip from one party to another, and the margin of election victory in each state is generally close, but with some, such as Florida and Ohio, even more decisive than others in terms of their presidential selection influence.
These are still the crucial swing states in the 2016 election. Trump’s candidacy, both its strengths in appealing to white working class voters which may open up Pennsylvania as a swing state, or its weaknesses such as its racial overtures in possibly making Utah and Georgia possible Democrat pickups, might change the electoral map slightly. But the Electoral College and the way states allocate their electoral votes, along with the rise of political polarization and the declining number of swing voters to perhaps 5% of the electorate, mean that even this year in approximately 40 states the presidential race is largely already over.
But while pundits write about the swing states, more fascinating is how within them there are only a handful of counties that are decisive. They are the swing counties where the candidates actually campaign and where if they can win them they win the state. Since 1988 there have been a handful of swing counties. In Colorado it is Jefferson County that is key to winning that state. For New Hampshire, it is Hillsborough County, North Carolina it is Wake County, Virginia it is Prince William. In Florida it is Hillsborough, and in Ohio it is Hamilton County. Win Hamilton you win Ohio, win Ohio you win the presidency.
In 2012 there were 15 counties in the ten swing states that were critical to Obama’s victory. There were a total of 3,883,000 votes cast and Obama won 53.2%. He out-polled Romney by less than 350,000 votes. It is not clear whether Romney could have persuaded them to switch and vote for him or whether he needed to mobilize other voters, but the reality is that across those 15 counties in ten states, a switch of 350,000 or so votes would now have Mitt Romney running for his second term.
Assume these are the same swing counties and states in 2016. Perhaps now the number of swing voters in these states is up to 500,000 with population growths. Now add to that Pennsylvania, a state that has voted solidly for the Democratic presidential candidate since 1988. Trump needs to flip it to win. There are four counties in there–Bucks, Chester, Luzerne, and Lackawanna–that may be key to the state. Lackawanna County–where Scranton is located–seems to be the center of Pennsylvania’s political universe this year. Both Trump and Clinton have made recent visits there, expect more by November. In 2012 almost 97,000 voted in Lackawanna Country with Obama winning nearly 63%. Flipping that country seems like a tall order. Yet these four counties had a total of 790,000 voters in 2012, and Obama won them with less than 52%–about a 26,000 spread. Conceivably Trump could flip them but given that Obama won the state by more than 300,000 votes in 2012, Pennsylvania is a long shot.
Even with Pennsylvania thrown in, there are only about 19 swing counties in this year’s presidential contest that seem to matter. The number of swing voters there may be less than 500,000. The key to the 2016 election is moving these few swing voters in these swing counties in the swing states. The rest of us should vote, but the reality is that the next president will be selected by these few voters in a few counties.