As final predictions roll in before Election Day, everyone is looking to see who will win important swing states. Candidates work harder to win over voters in states like Ohio and Florida, because their voting behavior is less predictable. But this year, the map has shifted in unexpected ways.
We asked four of our experts to weigh in on why, and what we might expect from their states in future elections. Here’s what they said.
Texas, a battleground state?
James Henson, University of Texas at Austin
Some of the electoral projection sites have switched Texas’ classification from “solid Republican” to “lean Republican.” This is based on a series of polls taken in mid- to late October showing Donald Trump’s lead over Hillary Clinton dwindling to low single figures. Some even declared Texas a battleground state. Still more polling in the last week has moved in Trump’s favor, quieting talk of the possibility of an unanticipated partisan shift in the the Lone Star state.
Recent analysis of national polling data by Doug Rivers of YouGov and Stanford University, and Benjamin Lauderdale of the London School of Economics, explains some of this to-and-fro in Texas polling. They found response bias in national polls, meaning voters whose favored candidate was getting bad press were reluctant to respond to pollsters. Nonetheless, comparing Trump’s support among critical subgroups in the October 2016 University of Texas/Texas Tribune Poll to Mitt Romney’s and John McCain’s support in the same poll conducted in October 2012 and 2008, respectively, suggests why Trump has been performing less well in the polls in Texas than GOP candidates in the last two presidential elections.
Romney led Obama by 14 points among women in October 2012. Now, Trump and Clinton are tied among women. Romney led among men by 17 points; Trump leads by 7. Romney led among Texans with a 4-year degree by 29 points; Trump leads by only 2 points. Romney led among suburban voters by 21 points; Trump leads by 12.
Trump’s underperformance reflects in part that the poll was conducted at a bad time for him – after the release of the “Access Hollywood” tapes and the second debate, and with the third debate taking place during the data collection period. But even as his overall numbers in Texas appear to be rebounding, he is unlikely to completely overcome his underperformance among key groups in the Texas GOP coalition. Trump remains favored to win the state, but should be expected to fall short of Romney’s margin in 2012, which was more than 15 percent.
North Carolina losing its southern drawl
Jason Husser, Elon University
North Carolina was reluctant to become a swing state.
Republicans won all but one presidential election in North Carolina from 1968 to 2004. George W. Bush captured a commanding lead of almost 13 percent in 2000 and 2004. However, the state saw a seismic political shift when Obama won by 0.3 percent in 2008 and lost by only 2 percent in 2012. North Carolina remains a toss-up in 2016.
The single trend best explaining North Carolina’s shift from red to purple is interstate migration. The population of North Carolina has changed dramatically due to nonnative North Carolinians moving into the state. The portion of eligible voters in North Carolina who were actually born in North Carolina decreased from 75 percent in 1980 to 68 percent in 1990, and 54 percent in 2014.
These new residents have a greater tendency to vote for Democrats than for Republicans. Urban counties in North Carolina are both Democratic strongholds and are growing in population faster than the state average. A large portion of the people moving to North Carolina come from less conservative states like New York and Virginia.
We see this pattern in cultural indicators beyond census figures. Native North Carolinians are far more likely to have a southern accent than nonnatives, according to data that I have collected as director of the Elon University Poll. In my latest Elon Poll, I had interviewers code each respondent’s accent at the end of every conversation. Clinton led Trump by 38 points among those with no southern accent. But among those with a strong southern accent, Clinton was down 38 points.
Younger generations replacing older generations, increases in turnout among African-Americans and other factors have also contributed to a shift from red to purple, but migration is what most contributed to North Carolina becoming a critical battleground state. The competitiveness of North Carolina in 2016 is in large part due to new residents trekking south toward the Old North State.
As Ohio goes, so goes the nation – right?
Nathaniel Swigger, The Ohio State University
In recent elections, Ohio has been considered a bellweather that mirrors nationwide results. For example, in 2008 and 2012 President Obama’s margin of victory in Ohio was roughly the same as his margin nationwide. The partisan balance in the electorate has made it an important, competitive swing state for decades.
The story of Ohio elections is a familiar story in American politics: Urban areas are dominated by Democrats; rural areas are dominated by Republicans. The urban-rural split in Ohio is primarily due to the concentration of Democratic blocs such as young voters and African-Americans in cities.
However, while cities like Columbus and Cincinnati are thriving, rural areas and the state as a whole are not. Demographic trends in Ohio should worry Democrats beyond 2016. Ohio ranks near the bottom in population growth and has an aging population.
While the country as a whole is becoming more diverse, this is not really true of Ohio. The state is only about 13 percent African-American and 3 percent Latino, whereas Latinos make up about 17 percent of the national population. Those numbers haven’t risen much. If the polls are accurate, the Clinton coalition will consist of young people, Latinos, African-Americans and college-educated white voters. In the state of Ohio, none of those groups are likely to grow in size in the foreseeable future.
If these trends continue, Ohio is more likely to become a dependable red state like Indiana.
Florida still swinging strong
Susan MacManus, University of South Florida
Florida has long been one of the nation’s most fought-over swing states. Candidates want to win it. That may be because since 1964, only once – in 1992 – did the state vote differently in presidential contests than the nation at large. It is a highly competitive state where the margin of victory for the winner of the past three statewide elections has been 1 percent.
As Clinton and Trump surely know, Florida has seen several major demographic changes since the 2012 presidential race.
The growing number of voters registered with no party affiliation now makes up 24 percent of Florida voters. There has been an influx Puerto Ricans who lean Democratic. And, there is a rise of millennials and GenXers. They now make up 49 percent of the state’s registered voters.
What does all of this mean? Florida is once again shaping up to be a highly competitive state. Polling shows the candidates have been within the margin of error for quite some time.
Victory in the Sunshine State will come down to which side can better motivate and mobilize supporters in the final days of the campaign, as it has for more than 50 years.