Forget Swing States: Think Swing Counties!
Date posted: Monday, September 24, 2012
Which small parts of the country could decide the election?
Five months ago, I wrote a column detailing the paramount importance of tracking voters’ intensions in swing states. As we now know, eight or nine battlegrounds will determine who wins November’s election, and they consequently deserve most of our attention. The other states are all but decided. But what if I were to tell you that we could further refine our search? What if I were to tell you that, much like how we know the political stripes of nearly every state, we also know how almost all counties in the remaining states will vote?
Remember, any sizeable state is not monolithic. Inside them are swift swings of ideology, once you drive away from dense population centers. Sizeable cities are blue; rural regions are red. It’s a rare county that votes with consistent balance. To illustrate, check out these images of the 2004 and 2008 presidential elections broken down by red and blue counties:
What we see, in spite of decidedly different results, are remarkably similar maps. Victorious Democratic Senator Obama may have won 113 more electoral votes than his Democratic predecessor John Kerry did four years earlier (365 compared to 252), but the map by county didn’t change much. A swing state like Ohio, for example, looks mostly red in both elections, despite going to the Republicans in 2004 and the Democrats four years later. For decades, the urban areas of Cleveland and Columbus have balanced out the sparsely populated rural regions. So, too, does Philadelphia and Pittsburgh balance out largely red Pennsylvania. These ideological divisions between cities and their rural brethren exist across the country.
Based on recent history and polling data, we have a general idea of how many people in each of these areas will end up voting. To be sure, they can have minor fluctuations, and the campaigns will do their best to turn out their bases on Election Day, but these efforts will likely negate each other. What will determine the election, then, are those exceptional counties in the battlegrounds that, unlike the rest of their so-called purple state, are truly unpredictable.
I thought it’d be fun to find a handful of these counties that hold disproportionate power in this year’s election. (Note that all swing counties must come from the principal swing states of Florida, Ohio, North Carolina, Virginia, Colorado, Iowa, Nevada, and New Hampshire, or the borderline swing states of Wisconsin, Michigan, and New Mexico. Otherwise, looking at a swing county is a pointless examination because they will not affect the electoral count.) Let’s take a look.
Duval County, Florida
This Florida Times-Union article suggests that Florida’s 29 electoral votes might come down to this one county. In 2008, they went 50.5 percent for John McCain and 48.6 percent for Obama. In the two previous elections, they voted nearly 58 percent for George Bush. In a county of nearly 600,000 registered voters, Romney would do well to re-gain a Republican stranglehold in a must-win state for him.
Defiance and Wood counties, Ohio
If Florida’s 29 electorals are the election’s grand prize, Ohio’s 18 are a significant second. Wood and Defiance counties could very well decide who claims the state. In 2008, Defiance County was listed as the most bell-weather county in the country; it didn’t just vote with the winner in every election since 1980, but it consistently did so with the least deviation from the national vote. While in 2008 it voted for McCain, it’s worth noting that Obama made serious gains compared to losers Kerry and Gore before him. As for Wood County, it has its own bellwether label. While not always voting as closely with the national margin, it’s the only county in the U.S. that has voted for the national winner dating back to 1964, including giving Obama an edge four years ago. Wood County picks winners. Watch it.
Wake County, North Carolina
One of the fastest growing counties in the country is understandably unpredictable. Might a county like Wake, which has presciently and apolitically voted for Reagan, Bush I, Clinton, Bush II, and Obama in past elections, decide the next president? North Carolina was the blue state won by the smallest margin back in 2008, with Obama winning 49.69 percent of the vote to McCain’s 49.36. Those 33 hundredths equate to fewer than 14,000 votes. With nearly a million people, Wake County’s schizophrenia wields serious power when awarding the state’s 15 electoral votes.
Henrico County, Virginia
Earlier this month, the Obama Campaign opened a second office in Henrico County. It seems to recognize that this election’s fourth largest battleground—Virginia’s 13 electoral votes—might be determined by this vacillating district. The Richmond-Times Dispatch tells us that, for decades, the county voted for the Republican presidential nominee. In 2008, however, it turned Democratic, as did Virginia for the first time since LBJ. But then, one year later, it sent Republican Bob McDonnell to the governor’s mansion. With Virginia expected to be razor tight, Henrico County might end up picking the next president.
After Virginia, we then get down to the single-digit swing states of Colorado (9 electorals), Nevada (6), Iowa (6), and New Hampshire (4). A single county in one of these states holds less national importance, so I won’t cloud the math by looking at counties in each state. However, I do want to consider one more county. It’s not a swinger, but it could become the most important county in the election.
Clark County, Nevada
Let’s say that by midnight Eastern on Election Night, the two campaigns have broken even across the east and midwest. We easily project how the west coast, Alaska, and Hawaii will vote. The battlegrounds, thus far, break toward the Republican. Romney builds from his base of 191 electoral votes and wins Ohio, North Carolina, Virginia, and a dramatically delayed Florida, while Obama builds on his 247 and takes New Hampshire, Iowa, and Colorado. Both candidates sit at 266 electoral votes after 49 states and the District of Columbia. The one state where gambling is legal now gambles with America’s future. Nevada’s six electoral votes pick the next president.
Its largest county, Clark, holds 1.9 million people and makes up two-thirds of Nevada’s population. The county’s recent voting history tells us that the Democrat will win it with between 50 and 60 percent of the vote, but since the rest of the state votes overwhelmingly Republican, the president needs it to be closer to 60. He won Nevada by 120,000 votes in 2008; if Clark County returns to its Kerry/Gore numbers (about 51.5 percent to Obama’s 58.5), the state will change hands, and in the electoral scenario painted above, Mitt Romney is the next President of the United States. If things stay close on Election Night, you’ll want to keep a close eye on Clark County.
While you’re at it, watch the other four, too. In an election that many consider will be extremely tight, it might come down to not just swing states, but swing counties.
What an election.[pinit]