What Is A Swing County?

October 3, 2012

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Every election cycle, we hear about swing states.  The majority of states are already decided long before election day – a heavy majority of voters on one side or the other makes it almost impossible for the opposing candidate to win that state’s electoral votes.  A handful of states can swuing either way, and ultimately determine the presidential election.

This time around, there is a lot of focus on “swing counties” – tightly contested counties within battleground states.  In some cases, the counties have voted for the winners in the vast majority of presidential elections for several decades.  The logic seems to be that focuses a lot of resources on these counties will ensure a candidate’s success in November.

This logic, of course, is utter crap.

Let’s use a sports example (just because I love sports).  Let’s take a person with average golf ability.  Not overly talented, but not an embarrassment, either.  I get this golfer a swing coach and have him practice for hours every day.  At the end of the year, the golfer has improved his score considerably.

Let’s spell out the analogy:


Golf Politics
Golfer Swing county
Swing coach Influx of political ads
Golf score improvement Leans more toward your party


Is everyone still with us?

OK, the golfer used to be average.  That is, representative of a broader sample.  Now that the golfer is considerably better, one of two things can be true:

  1. The population as a whole has improved to match our golfer
  2. The golfer is no longer representative of the broader population

I’d bet that the second case is far more likely.  Want to bet against me?  I don’t blame you.  Why, then, do political strategists think that dumping lots of money into Swing county is going to make Swing State vote for the candidate?  What you’ve really accomplished is throwing off the natural dynamics of the county.  Where it once was evenly balanced and would ride the prevalent tide the state, it’s now in the middle of an active tug-of-war.  The result is that the “swing county” is going to become a worse predictor of the state as a whole – because it’s being exposed to stimuli that the entire state isn’t.  Basically, the control sample is being turned into the experimental sample.

There’s a lot of danger in placing too much emphasis on a small portion of the state.  While the presidential election is winner-take-all at the state level, that’s not the case at the local level.  There are no bonus points for winning a county.  If you win 49 states + DC by one vote each and get beaten by 5 million votes in one state, you’ll win an electoral landslide.  However, if you win 50 counties by one vote each and lose a single county by 500 votes, you lose the state.  Campaigns need to focus their efforts on the states where they can swing the outcome into their favor – not wasting money one states that are in the bag or ones that have no shot at.  But once a campaign is actively trying to win a state, every single vote counts the same.  Firing up an extra one hundred supporters in your stronghold or getting one hundred to crawl out of the woodwork in your opponent’s stomping ground – the votes count equal. 

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3 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Squeaky
    Oct 03, 2012 @ 12:02:04

    Interesting Kosmo. I hadn’t ever thought of the swing county before and hadn’t heard it mentioned. I like it though, it makes sense. I’m not sure how likely it is, but for some states like Illinois, Cook County is probably one of those counties that makes the difference in winning a state.

    Now I’m going to be paying attention to swing counties. Good stuff!


  2. kosmo
    Oct 03, 2012 @ 15:00:15

    Cook isn’t a true swing county, because the GOP has absolutely no shot of winning the county.

    Can they nab an extra 10,000 votes by hammering Cook county with ads. Yes, absolutely. Go after votes where they are cheapest (votes per advertising dollar … not direct bribes).

    In some parts of the country, you can actually buy someone’s vote for $2. My time is worth far more than $2 (not the mention the fact that I’ll make my own choice on whom to vote for).


  3. Martin Kelly
    Oct 03, 2012 @ 19:43:11

    Wouldn’t it be nice if it was a direct payment? Both candidates send money and you still get to choose who you want. The benefit is two fold, you get money and you don’t have to be bombarded by the commercials. 🙂

    Disclaimer – I am in no way advocating the buying of votes.


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