How Swing States Work On 'Stuff You Should Know'

On this episode of Stuff You Should Know, Josh and Chuck tell us all about swing states – the states in a presidential election that can’t be reliably predicted to vote for a particular candidate. These states attract millions in campaign spending on ads and social media, and more frequently receive candidates for rallies and stump speeches. However, plenty of Americans living in “safe states,” or states that can be reliably predicted as leaning toward one party or the other, feel left out of the political process, or even that their vote doesn’t actually count in presidential elections because swing states ultimately decide the outcome. Josh and Chuck go over how this works, why safe state votes really do matter, and the two historic times when candidates completely flipped the numbers on their heads.

Swing states have a lot to do with the electoral college, an unusual institution set up by the Founding Fathers to circumvent the popular vote. The founders wanted to create a representative democracy, but also still wanted political elites to choose the president, instead of relying on farmers and laborers. With the electoral college, citizens aren’t actually voting for the president – they cast a vote for the elector who will then vote for the president. In almost all states, these electors vote for whomever wins the statewide election, even if the candidate wins by only one vote. In Maine and Alaska, they award electoral votes by district. And because of this, there have been four times in history that a candidate lost the popular vote and still went on to win the election. 

Safe states allow candidates from each party to figure out where they should be focusing their campaign cash. 75% of campaign spending occurs in swing states, and because of the winner-take-all approach to the electoral college, candidates will sometimes focus on specific constituents – like coal miners, or auto workers – rather than trying to win over the entire state. But this means there are lots of safe states that feel their votes don’t matter; if you vote Republican in New York, or Democrat in Georgia, it may feel as effective as flushing a ballot down the toilet. However, because people in those states still go out and vote, safe states have flipped before – in 1992, Bill Clinton flipped nine states and made them reliably blue, including California and New Jersey; in 2016, Donald Trump flipped blue states like Illinois and Pennsylvania. And even if the state doesn’t flip, those votes do cause them to go purple, or become battleground states; the usually solid-red state of Georgia is a battleground in the 2020 election, for example. So even in safe states, “your vote really does matter,” Josh says. Hear all this great information and so much more on Stuff You Should Know.

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