Forget Swing States: The Presidential Election Will Be Determined by 20 Swing Counties in Linchpin States

By Steven Rosenfeld, who covers national political issues for AlterNet, including America’s retirement crisis, democracy and voting rights, and campaigns and elections. He is the author of “Count My Vote: A Citizen’s Guide to Voting.” Originally published at Alternet.

Americans have heard that the election of the next president will be determined by a few battleground states, with Ohio, Florida and Pennsylvania as 2016’s leading examples. But what if it’s not simply a handful of swing states but swing counties, with less than 500,000 swing voters, that truly matters?

That’s the provocative assessment from David Schultz, a professor of political science at Hamline University in Minnesota and editor of the Journal of Public Affairs Education. Schultz co-edited a book on swing states and now predicts fewer than 20 counties will tip the balance to pick the next president.

Where are 2016’s deciders? In Ohio, it’s Hamilton County, home to Cincinnati. In Pennsylvania, it’s Bucks and Chester Counties, to the north and south of Philadelphia. It’s also Lackawanna and Luzerne Counties, straddling Scranton and Wilkes Barre in its western interior. In Florida, it’s Hillsborough and Pinellas Counties, surrounding Tampa and St. Petersburg. In Wisconsin, it’s Brown County, where Green Bay is; nearby Winnebago County, further inland; and Racine County to the south near Chicago suburbs. In Iowa, it’s rural tiny Bremer County, and in New Hampshire, it’s Hillsborough township, inland on the Massachusetts border.

There are a few more: population epicenters such as Nevada’s Clark County, home of Las Vegas; Virginia’s Prince William County, outside Washington D.C., North Carolina’s Wake County, with Raleigh and Durham; New Mexico’s Bernalillo County, containing Albuquerque; and surprisingly, Dona Ana County near Las Cruces, which has a big state university.

“These seem to be the counties within the swing states where the candidates go,” said Schultz. “They view them as battlegrounds. They seem to be pretty good bellwethers, in the sense of predictors of how that state is going to vote… Even if they appear blue or red, there’s a question of how great the turnout will be.”

These counties, which cast 2,485,793 votes for Barack Obama in 2012, compared to 2,106,985 votes for Mitt Romney, seem to be their state’s 2016 tipping points or bellwethers for a variety of reasons. They sit in between red and blue belts. They’re often suburban, experiencing major demographic shifts, including young and better-educated people moving in, and some are more racially diverse.

“What we are seeing in these counties, at least right now, is relatively balanced, in terms of Republicans and Democrats,” Schultz said. “We have a small portion of the population of these counties that are going to be the swing voter. When I say swing voter, I don’t necessarily mean swinging from Democrat to Republican. They might be swinging in to vote, or swinging out from voting.”

Swing States, Swing Counties

In a nation where 130 million people are expected to vote for president this fall, it’s disconcerting to think 96 percent of those ballots won’t count as much as those from swing states and a few key counties. But that’s a result of the Electoral College’s hard math, which since 1988 has seen Republicans likely to win 23 states with 191 electoral votes, and Democrats likely to win 18 states and the District of Columbia, with 232 electoral votes. The remaining 10 states have been considered the swing states—Colorado, Florida, Iowa, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Mexico, North Carolina, Ohio, Virginia and Wisconsin—with a total of 115 electoral votes.

As political scientists drill down into election results, they find swing states are generally won by the next president—but by 5 percent or less of the vote. They see states that have flipped between Democrat and Republican, and where candidates have visited and spent big sums on advertising and get-out-the-vote efforts. Needless to say, some swings states are more critical than others—such as Florida and Ohio.

Schultz said the next stage in this analysis, identifying the tipping point counties, is a bit of a frontier for academics. There isn’t good current polling available. But that’s not to say there aren’t reams of other data. Take the two swing counties surrounding Denver, Arapahoe and Jefferson. The U.S. Census reports they mirror national demographics, with slightly more than three-quarters white and about 20 percent Latino. Forty percent of residents have college degrees, which is higher than the national average. The average home value, $235,600, is higher than the national average of $175,700, and the median income of $62,213 is higher than the national median of $53,482.

One would think these statistics would show the Denver suburbs as being the increasingly blue core of that state’s purple political identity. But Schultz says not so fast, because even though Colorado has growing numbers of well-educated young people, as reflected in those figures, it remains to be seen what their voter turnout will be this fall. “Sometimes it is deciding to vote or deciding not to vote,” Schultz explains. That’s part of what’s critical here… How well they’re mobilized, how well they are motivated to vote.”

Take another set of swing counties, Pinellas and Hillsborough, in Florida, which is where Tampa and St. Petersburg are on the state’s central west coast. The Census reports that its residents are not as well off financially as in Denver, with median household incomes just under the national average, and home values also below the national average. They are slightly less white than the national average, and have a larger black population, about 18 percent, compared to the national average of 13 percent.

Schultz explained why these counties are the fulcrum for the Florida presidential vote. “Florida is interesting because you have southeastern Florida, which is a liberal Democratic haven, and you have the panhandle, which is solidly Republican,” he said. “One thing we found in all the swing states, by the way, was that they had multiple regions—strong bastions for Republicans, strong bastions for Democrats—and then you had these fuzzy areas, where you don’t seem to have clear domination by one or two parties, and it gets very competitive at the sub-state and congressional level.”

“Republicans have mobilized; they have gotten all the votes they can get out of the panhandle,” he continued. “Democrats have gotten everything out of Miami-Dade they can. It’s relatively evenly balanced at this point. The fight is now to get those marginal additional votes… Let’s say we’ll have roughly 10 percent of the vote where they’re not sure what will happen; that’s all about mobilization and that’s what’s going on there.”      

Schultz said some of the swing counties he identified—such as small rural ones in Iowa and New Hampshire—were sites of candidate visits and seemed to be bellwether predictors, which is not as pivotal as the role likely played by Pinellas and Hillsborough counties in Florida this fall. But other unlikely picks, such as Dona Ana County in New Mexico, where Las Cruces is located, is home to a big university and a potentially large but mercurial student voting block. Many of those students are non-white, and that too becomes a significant factor, he said.

The four Pennsylvania counties he cited are split between the Philadelphia suburbs and the northeast region where the cities of Scranton and Wilkes Barre are located. Speaking of Luzerne and Lackawanna counties, Schultz said, “these are old-line New Deal Democrats, from the FDR era, but potentially though, they are very flippable. And it’s very Catholic there.” He said that he included them in his list of swing counties because Donald Trump predicted winning Scranton, and Hillary Clinton has also repeatedly visited the area.     

What’s revealing about Schultz’s list of swing counties is that it pinpoints the fulcrums or likely tipping points in states that drive presidential candidates to Electoral College victories. That is not the same as the national popular vote, needless to say. Indeed, when Schultz identified these swing counties, he looked at their 2012 votes, and realized that had Mitt Romney been a little more successful in various combinations of these locales, he would have been elected.

“People don’t realize that the Romney-Obama race was actually far closer than most people think,” Schultz said. “There was an Electoral College blow-out, but if you had a shift of just a few hundred thousand votes across a few states, Romney would be running for re-election this year. We’re really looking at no more than a half-million votes shifting, depending on how you actually define it, and that’s a very small number of votes.”

Of course, everyone still needs to vote in the November election. But after tens of millions of ballots are tallied nationwide, the behavior of thousands of swing voters in the swing counties Schultz identified may make the difference between a President Trump or President Clinton.

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About Lambert Strether

Readers, I have had a correspondent characterize my views as realistic cynical. Let me briefly explain them. I believe in universal programs that provide concrete material benefits, especially to the working class. Medicare for All is the prime example, but tuition-free college and a Post Office Bank also fall under this heading. So do a Jobs Guarantee and a Debt Jubilee. Clearly, neither liberal Democrats nor conservative Republicans can deliver on such programs, because the two are different flavors of neoliberalism (“Because markets”). I don’t much care about the “ism” that delivers the benefits, although whichever one does have to put common humanity first, as opposed to markets. Could be a second FDR saving capitalism, democratic socialism leashing and collaring it, or communism razing it. I don’t much care, as long as the benefits are delivered. To me, the key issue — and this is why Medicare for All is always first with me — is the tens of thousands of excess “deaths from despair,” as described by the Case-Deaton study, and other recent studies. That enormous body count makes Medicare for All, at the very least, a moral and strategic imperative. And that level of suffering and organic damage makes the concerns of identity politics — even the worthy fight to help the refugees Bush, Obama, and Clinton’s wars created — bright shiny objects by comparison. Hence my frustration with the news flow — currently in my view the swirling intersection of two, separate Shock Doctrine campaigns, one by the Administration, and the other by out-of-power liberals and their allies in the State and in the press — a news flow that constantly forces me to focus on matters that I regard as of secondary importance to the excess deaths. What kind of political economy is it that halts or even reverses the increases in life expectancy that civilized societies have achieved? I am also very hopeful that the continuing destruction of both party establishments will open the space for voices supporting programs similar to those I have listed; let’s call such voices “the left.” Volatility creates opportunity, especially if the Democrat establishment, which puts markets first and opposes all such programs, isn’t allowed to get back into the saddle. Eyes on the prize! I love the tactical level, and secretly love even the horse race, since I’ve been blogging about it daily for fourteen years, but everything I write has this perspective at the back of it.


  1. EndOfTheWorld

    That’s BS. The swing states are in fact swing states. “Swing counties” are figments of the writer’s imagination. All he’s saying is some counties are more populous than others. But if the state is decided by one vote, the voter from the boondocks is just as important as the voter from the populous suburb.

  2. clarky90

    There is a real place called “The Land of Doing Without”; the Hollyford Valley, Fiordland, NZ.

    There is also a metaphorical Land of Doing Without, where we all end up at sooner or later. Poverty, old age, sickness, misfortune, accidents, war, fire, heartbreak…..escort us there. Hard times

    I believe that this election is up and down (NOT left and right) between the the top 1% and their lackeys (about 10%-15%). These are people, who may have visited The Land of Doing Without, but have never lived there. They will back Clinton.

    The People that reside in the LoDW are going to be inclined towards Trump. He is reaching out to Blacks, Whites, Hispanics, Asians, Indigenous, LGBTs, poor, middle class, destitute, upper-middle class, bikers, vets, Evangelicals……In fact, EVERYBODY, bar (except) the Special Interests and the RIGGERS.

    My sense is The American People are cowering in the corner. They have been coaxed out so many times over the last decades with “treats” and promises, only to be kicked and abused by the “sweet talking” elite bastards (The Whisperers). People are beginning to trust Trump, and Trump is beginning to trust the people. I feel privileged to be alive and watching this unfold (Damn, I hope I am right). This is all IMO

    Here is a link to a book about The Land Of Doing Without.

    1. clarky90

      When I watch Trump speeches, I can hear the people talking (calling out to) Trump, and he is listening to them and responding (calling back). remarkable

      It is old time politics (enjoyable for me). I believe that Trump will swing the swing counties and the swing states. He loves his job.

    2. sharonsj

      Unfortunately, Trump is an egotistical ignoramus. No one has any idea where he really stands on any issue. Instead, you need to take a look at all the guys he has chosen to advise him: they are all white men who are to the very far right. They are against birth control and abortion, believe climate change is a hoax, think the rich are entitled to everything, actually like illegal immigration because of cheap labor, would give the defense department even more money, want to exploit every planetary resource (Pence is a Dominionist), encourage outsourcing and tax evasion, and want to end Social Security and Medicare and privatize every government function–so they and their rich friends can get richer.

      Yes, we need a revolution, but Donald Trump isn’t it.

      1. mle detroit


        Trump’s advisors are also the same 10-15%, just a different clique sucking up to the loudest bully.

      2. Pat

        And electing Clinton is?

        Oh, I’m not saying Trump is anything more than a spanner in their works. And he is that. Otherwise you would not see so much bipartisan support of Clinton. But Clinton is not just part and parcel, she is the epitome of what is wrong with our current political system.

        Lambert is right, our best outcome from this is gridlock. And considering all the toys Trump smashes versus the reluctantly may have to vote Clintons, hmmm…. I wonder which candidate is the one likely to get that gridlock….

        1. CardShark

          Voting for the same actors for the 1% does nothing to change policies that in-effect benefit only the 1%.

          There is a moment where Reich says in this video that he’s going to do the same thing he’s done for 40 years.

          Doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results is what again?

          Vote Green or Libertarian. We need new voices. And if you aren’t in the listed counties above, feel free to make more choices available for the future. What harm would it do to get a broad political dialogue started with people you might not agree with?

    3. lyman alpha blob

      If people are really starting to trust Trump it just goes to show that PT Barnum was 100% correct.

      1. Pat

        I’m pretty sure the fact that Hillary Clinton is the Democratic nominee despite being under FBI investigation already proved that. And that they were able to sell ‘First Lady’ as job experience was just to make it clear.

        1. lyman alpha blob

          Yes however I was responding to a comment about Trump, not defending Clinton who I happen to despise.

          I really appreciate the fact this this site allows opinions on all candidates and doesn’t just ban those who are not promoting the site’s preferred choice as happens elsewhere but IMO there are too many showing up simply to repeatedly tout their candidate of choice at a site where the prevailing opinion seems to be ‘a pox all your houses’. And yes I should probably just ignore it.

          Elections are somewhat important and having an anti-establishment, anti-bank candidate in the race this time around meshed well with the themes this site has tried to promote over the years. That being said, I will be very glad when this silly season is over, at least for a few months before they sclerotic establishment starts in on the 2020 race.

          1. Pat

            I think Lambert has been very right every time he mentions that this election has been very revealing. And much as I hate with every fiber of my being the state we have clearly reached with this election, I will respectfully disagree with your representation of this as the ‘silly season’. Of the two unfit candidates we have, one has been the nominee as far as most everyone has been concerned since 2008, that is not ‘silly’ that is disgusting and massively disheartening. Trump is the only spoiler, the spanner in the works. He has ripped the very thin disguise off that our current system isn’t ‘broken’ it has been twisted into a very distinct shape that is well tended by the traditional parties. There were only two things not in the longstanding plan to make this election a front, a farce, a pointless exercise about the pretense of public representation, and Trump is the only who survives. And probably the only reason for that was that no one quite understood what he was going to tap into, and since they didn’t really have an agreed upon candidate, they didn’t rally soon enough to steal it from him. That he is possibly equally as bad a choice as Clinton is just one last revelation. I just don’t think it can be said enough that the supposedly sane normal candidate is nothing of the kind.

            I agree that elections are important. It is why I tell people that even if you go and write in Mickey Mouse for President, go and vote. Scare the cr*p out of the people at the top by making it clear that it isn’t that you don’t care, it is that their choices are unacceptable. It is my sincere hope this is the first of many elections where voters make that statement.

          2. jgordon

            Elect Hillary and there’s a damned good chance that there won’t even be a 2020 election. And even if there is one there’s about a 100% chance that we’ll be living under the yoke of corporate sovereignty. With Trump, the only other person who might be president next year, there is at least a good chance that neither of those things will happen. To be perfectly clear, I think that not supporting Trump, despite his many flaws, is suicidal.

            1. Paleo101

              Agreed. Everything the Pantsuit of the Apocalypse touches turns to fecal matter. I was hoping to get through life without finding out if a nuclear exchange with Russia is “winnable”.

    4. clarky90

      When I said, “I believe that this election is up and down (NOT left and right) between the the top 1% and their lackeys (about 10%-15%)” I should have added and the 99% (minus the minions servicing the 1%)

  3. TarheelDem

    An analyst who thinks Durham NC is in Wake County NC is immediately suspect although the turnout in urban areas statewide is what swings the state results. Durham tends to be 70% Democrat and pretty reliable even in midterms. Wake County (Raleigh and Cary) swing the vote. Charlotte (Mecklenberg) and Winston-Salem (Forsythe) can also be part of an urban swing vote. But it takes high turnout in minority majority rural counties to bring the rural vote near enough for the urban counties to make a difference.

    The notion of swing areas depends on a balance between everywhere else.

    Trend-breaking or realigning elections can upset those patterns.

    It is not clear yet what is going on in this election in terms of where the swing districts and states are. And polling is likely going to have a larger error because of the high unfavorables for both Clinton and Trump. People will be reluctant to answer polls or will not honestly select their choice. And they know that there will be secret phone canvasses by the parties misrepresenting themselves as polls.

    Expect some surprises along the way or on election day.

    1. Crprod

      Durham’s black population is about 42 percent the last time that I looked. That’s about the same as the white population. There have been a few Republican mayors in the four decades I he lived here although the last one was about twenty years ago. They were the only Republicans of consequence. Rep. Funderburk arrived in the Contract on America days but rapidly extinguished himself and departed after a single term.

  4. Bullwinkle

    “It’s also Lackawanna and Luzerne Counties, straddling Scranton and Wilkes Barre in its western interior.”

    Don’t mean to quibble but Lackawanna and Luzerne Counties are in Pennsylvania’s northeast region not western interior.

  5. andyb

    There was a recent article on Florida’s absentee ballot requests that showed a tremendous amount of them coming from people who hadn’t voted in all of the previous 4 elections. This certainly indicates that this election cycle may see the highest turnout percentage in over 50 years. If this is the case, then this election will be about change!….. and that means Trump will win.

  6. Brad

    After an illustration of how profoundly undemocratic our plebiscitory Presidential electoral system is, the article ends off with, “Of course, everyone still needs to vote in the November election”.

    Huh? Why bother, if you are not in one of a handful of the “demographically elect” counties? Why keep promoting the sham of “American democracy”? Or maybe that Yankee from the “Constitution State”, PT Barnum, was right?

    We could use an actual democracy here in the USA, especially at the Federal level. The U.S. Senate is the only honestly elected representative position, but the Senate itself was designed as an inherently anti-democratic institution. New England with less than half the population of California gets 12 Senators to California’s 2.

    State legislatures is where they gerrymander the House seats and suppress the vote. Will minorities once again decide State legislative outcomes? Does anyone pay attention to these State legislative contests? Does anyone know who their State legislative representatives? You know, your all-important State “senator” whatever that is supposed to mean?

    At a minimum, we need a democratic revolution for a new constitution here in the USA. There is a reason the Right stands four-square for the 225 year old Constitution of 1789. They are correct to declare “This is a Republic, not a Democracy” (sorry, Robert A. Dahl). It keeps them in the game. But that constitution is not only manifestly un- to anti-democratic, it is now also manifestly dysfunctional. As in Manifest Destiny. Donald Trump is simply the latest and greatest rendition of this as fact.

    1. Jim Haygood

      ‘the Senate itself was designed as an inherently anti-democratic institution’

      Actually the Senate was designed as a federal institution, so that sovereign states could exercise control over the federal government to which they had delegated limited powers.

      Amendment XVII destroyed the federal structure of the US government. Now states are nothing more than voting precincts for senatorial elections.

      Predictably, this produced a centralized monolith which isn’t amenable to democratic control because it’s just too big and too distant.

    2. TruNorth

      ” But that constitution is not only manifestly un- to anti-democratic, it is now also manifestly dysfunctional. As in Manifest Destiny. Donald Trump is simply the latest and greatest rendition of this as fact”.

      AMEN and AMEN to this!!!!

  7. geoff

    It’s concerning that this article gets important geographical details wrong. However I can confirm that the information about Florida, by far the largest swing state in terms of electoral votes, is correct. Hard to believe our national fate rests (yet again!) on the craziest state in the country.

    1. Jim Haygood

      Whereas winning Wisconsin is easy — just serve free beer at campaign rallies.

      VUI (Voting Under the Influence) is no crime. :-)

  8. Antipope

    I’ve spent a lot of time in two of the four Pennsylvania counties mentioned in the article: born and raised in Chester Country and grandparents lived in Luzerne County. Folks in Chester County tend to be well off (median income of 90k), suburban, and racially homogeneous. Lots of retired folks as well. It goes red in presidential elections, but its more of a libertarian right (lots of Ron/Rand Paul and Gary Johnson signs) rather than a religious one. Clinton is essentially the republican candidate they’ve always voted for and, while I’m sure they aren’t happy about it, I can see a lot of people in Chester County voting for her. Will be a close one though.

    Luzerne County, however, is definitely going to go Trump. My grandfather was a Catholic New Deal Democrat but he, like many of the other New Deal Democrats from that area, is dead. Their children only saw the decline of the coal industry and the few who have stayed in the area are surrounded by poverty and opioid addiction. Corruption, embezzlement and a rent extracting healthcare system have decimated the hopes of the population and the powers that be have made sure that a lot of the built up anger is directed towards the Latino/Hispanic population migrating to the area from New York. I would be really surprised if Trump didn’t win the county.

  9. Crazy Horse

    I trust those 20 key counties all have Diebold machines— the kind that any teenage hacker can control? Well, they better be simple if CrackBerry Hillary’s team is going to manipulate them, given her level of digital sophistication. During the last presidential electoral cycles only the Repugs have been smart enough to use the tools at hand to produce results like Bush’s Ohio victory where the vote count miraculously shifted ten whole percentage points from exit polls in the final hour or so of voting.

    Ain’t democracy wonderful?

  10. MyLessThanPrimeBeef

    I am trying to write a fiction and need the following information:

    How much money does it take to set up ‘temporary job centers’ in those 20 swing counties, in order to move your voters – sorry, workers – there (numerically sufficient to move the election your way)?

    After November, you can then transfer your workers back to their native states.

  11. Gaylord

    No, the “election” already has been decided. This is all a big fake show to make you believe we have a democracy.

  12. TheCatSaid

    I have a bad feeling about the upcoming “elections”. More of the public are aware of the extent of the rigging–even though pundits continue to analyze by using past fake election “results”. Clinton’s health is not good. Either main party candidate could be killed. Both main party VP candidates are worse than the horrible candidates themselves.

    To top it off, I recently heard that the election will probably be cencelled due to a terrorist / false flag event. When I heard this, it rang true. It explained why I keep sensing a “non-result” when I think of the upcoming election.

    Stormy weather ahead. Batten down the hatches. Get to know your neighbors.

  13. Tom

    As Colorado has been a swing state for a while, I’ve watched political operators concentrate their efforts on bellwether counties. It always makes me laugh to see huge resources poured into getting an extra half a percentage point in a swing suburban county when the largest population centers have more voters of either party. Losing by a slightly smaller margin or winning a slightly larger blowout should be the battleground when you’re dealing with percentages of a million people, instead of eking out a couple extra hundred.

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