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Ghosts of elections past: The Swingers, Ohio and Florida

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As Election Day approaches and only one more debate awaits, the focus is intensifying on the all-important group of "swing" states (Ohio, Florida, etc.) that will decide the election. Dividing the states along "red" and "blue" lines has been a way of tracking elections for several cycles now and it's fascinating to watch the trends over just 48 years of voting. It's easier to be an amateur Nate Silver and try our best to tease out trends given the basic info offered here and that's what I'll be doing over the next few weeks leading up to election day, beginning today with a brief look at the historical swing states of Ohio and Florida.

Ohio's history of swinging is pretty evident looking at the results. While some states have remained steadfastly one way or another (Utah and Idaho permanently red, Minnesota blue every year but 1972), The Buckeye State has swung back and forth, going blue five times and red seven times since 1964. Florida, the subject of so much fighting over hanging chads in 2000 has also had its swings. It, too, has swung back and forth by election with the exception of the Republican-dominated stretch in the 80s. In the 12 presidential elections between 1964 and 2008, Florida has gone blue four times and red eight times. But remove that Reagan/Bush era of dominance and it's four times blue, five times red. And in those same nine elections (again excluding the Reagan/Bush years), the margin of victory for the winning party in the state was "narrow" (between one and five percent) five times.

But what about the actual numbers by election? Well, there have surprisingly only been a handful of legitimately close elections (in terms of the electoral college) since 1964. But these two states factored in to all three of those. In 1976, Jimmy Carter won both Ohio and Florida by narrow margins (Ohio by less only 11,000 votes), amassing 35 electoral votes in the process, enough to edge Gerald Ford. We all know about the aforementioned importance of Florida in the 2000 election. (For what it's worth, four other states that Bush won by narrow margins - Missouri, Nevada, Tennessee, and, yes, Ohio - would have been enough to swing the election for Gore, but Florida was the closest margin of victory for Bush.) And in 2004, of the four states in which Bush took "narrow" wins over Kerry (by less than five percent) only Ohio and its 20 electoral votes would have been enough to swing the election.

Ohio has seen its stature rise even as its electoral college vote total has fallen. Since 1944, Ohio has gone for the eventual winner in every presidential election with the exception of 1960 when it went for Nixon instead of Kennedy. And, as seen above, the state has maintained its importance as a swing state despite its electoral vote total dropping from 26 votes in 1964 to just 18 votes this year. One recent profile of the state noted how the geographic and political diversity of Ohio mirrors the nation as a whole, something Ohio's history as an election bellwether seems to echo. Strong union communities, particularly in urban areas like Cleveland and Cincinnati, are the weighted Democratic center though the growth of suburbs has given new rise to more conservative hamlets.

The state is also wedged in a strange place geographically, the connector of the Midwest, Southeast, and Northeast. Any influx or exodus of voters from or to these states would play a bigger role than they would in a more politically stable state like New York or Texas. Ohio borders typically blue states Michigan and Pennsylvania while also bordering typically red states like Indiana and Kentucky. (Its fifth neighbor, West Virginia, has flitted back and forth over the last 48 years.) So these influences can't be discounted either, helping to influence Ohio as a red-blue swirl (perhaps one of those "purple" states Obama referred to in his oft-cited 2004 DNC speech).

Florida is an equally diverse state, but one whose population demographics play a larger role than in the predominantly white Ohio. The largest population issue for the state is its transient nature, a melting pot of Jewish, Hispanic, Haitian, and other groups that make the state one whose demographics are constantly in flux. An overwhelming majority of the state's population wasn't born in the state. A large number of retirees also influences the state's voting record as its juxtaposed against the very young voter population in the state. And one final factor is that whatever changes in population may occur, the state is already close in terms of registered voters: according to a report earlier this year, 41 percent of the state's registered voters are registered as Democrat while 35 percent are registered as Republican.

Like Ohio, Florida's urban centers are more blue while suburban areas find themselves leaning further to the right, something reflected in 2008 results. Almost a third of the state's registered Democrats alone live in the southeast portion of the state, the Miami-Dade County, Broward County and Palm Beach County corridor. It's no surprise that the GOP picked Tampa for their convention this year, as Nate Silver points out, because that was the weakest urban performance for Obama in 2008. Not surprising for such a transient state, voter registration is a huge issue in the state and looks to have an impact on the election this year.

For what it's worth, Silver currently has Ohio as leaning blue and Florida leaning red in 2012.

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Next week, in part two, I'll look at a deeper look at Illinois' dissonant trends, from Daley's Machine to the Republican dominance in the governor's mansion, to true blue state.

And then, in part three, I'll take a look at how voters respond to presidential elections at the mid-term elections.

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