Close presidential elections are a defining feature of our political era. And thanks to the Electoral College system, that means each contest is really waged in a handful of battleground states, which draw the bulk of campaign spending and candidate elbow grease. There is nothing preordained about battleground states’ location or number. The map has already shifted several times in just this century, and several states we think of as battlegrounds today may be noncompetitive in 2024.
A look back at the shifting battlegrounds in recent presidential elections is instructive. Using the most common definition of a battleground state as one decided by less than 5 percent of the vote, the 2000 election had these 12 battleground states: Florida (of course), Iowa, Minnesota, Missouri, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Mexico, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, and Wisconsin.
In 2004, another close election, there were again 12 battleground states. But Missouri and Tennessee dropped off the list while Colorado and Michigan joined it.
We can skip past the 2008 election, which Barack Obama won by a popular-vote margin of more than 7 percent. Obama’s 2012 reelection victory was much closer; there were only four states decided by less than five points, and only Florida and Ohio were battleground states in both 2004 and 2012. North Carolina and Virginia joined the list of close states.
In 2016, when Trump lost the popular vote but won the Electoral College in a shocker, the battleground map shifted again. The number of closely contested states blossomed from four to 11 with Ohio and Virginia dropping off the list and Arizona, Colorado, Maine, Michigan, Minnesota, Nevada, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin joining the list.
And finally, in 2020 there were eight battleground states in an election that Joe Biden won by a comfortable margin of the popular vote but a much closer Electoral College margin. Colorado, Maine, Minnesota, and New Hampshire dropped off the battleground list and Georgia joined it.
Florida is the only state that was decided by less than 5 percent of the vote in all five of the elections we’ve examined. Yet if you were going to pick the 2020 battleground state most likely to drop off the list in 2024, it’s probably the rapidly Republican-trending Sunshine State. Perhaps the second-most likely to become less competitive in 2024 is Democratic-trending Michigan. Both of the areas saw statewide sweeps in 2022 by the increasingly ascendant party.
To be clear, ultimately the battleground states are determined by where the presidential campaigns choose to “play” and, more to the point, to spend money. The map is determined not just by the results of the most recent presidential elections but by the number of electoral votes at stake, the relative cost of advertising, and the opportunities to strategically outmaneuver the opposing party (e.g., by forcing the party to expend resources and candidate time where it really would prefer to take a pass). That process has already begun for 2024:
It’s all another reason to pay at least as much attention to state as to national polls, even though the former tend to be less accurate than the latter.
But it’s also important to recognize that there’s a risk of perpetually fighting the last war in focusing on the previous election’s battlegrounds. In living memory, such highly noncompetitive states as California, Connecticut, Illinois, New Jersey, New York, and Texas have been presidential battleground states. The map never stops changing. We may be reminded of that again in 2024 when things don’t go as expected.
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