How presidential battleground states have changed over the years

An early look at the Fox News 2024 Presidential Power Rankings predicts Georgia and Arizona to be among the closest contests. Those states were once thought to be Republican strongholds. Nevada, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania have all shifted between red and blue over the years, making it difficult to determine which nominee voters there will pick in 2024.

‘These were the closest last time around,’ said Jessica Taylor, the Senate and governors editor for the Cook Political Report. Florida is ‘what 2000 came down to.’

Twenty-four years and six elections ago, Florida was a presidential battleground state, along with current solid Republican states like Missouri, Tennessee and West Virginia, and now-solid Democrat states like Washington, Oregon and New Mexico.

‘Both [Texas Gov. George W. Bush and Vice President Al Gore] used these different campaign tactics and campaign memorabilia to kind of speak to certain voters,’ Museum of Democracy Chair Austin Wright said.

The Museum of Democracy in New York holds more than 1.25 million objects in its collection. Wright said in the 2000 election in Florida, Gore used a Gore-Lieberman yarmulke to cater to Florida’s large Jewish population. Bush campaigned by trying to sway more rural Florida voters with his Texas roots. 

‘Some of these pictures of Bush in his Texas campaign gear … we think that contributed to the more rural Panhandle,’ Wright said.

Bush won Florida by a narrow margin in 2000, prompting a recount. Without the state of Florida decided, Gore had 266 electoral votes and Bush had 246. The recount, certification process and legal battle lasted more than a month. The results eventually showed Bush won Florida with a tight 537-vote advantage over Gore.

‘I am thankful for America and thankful that we were able to resolve our electoral differences in a peaceful way,’ Bush said after the results were finalized.

Since 2000, Florida’s population has changed. The Cuban and Venezuelan populations are growing. In many cases, they fled their countries because of socialism and now tend to lean Republican.

‘I think there’s a misconception out there and just popular culture that there’s this monolithic Hispanic community,’ said Gerhard Peters, co-director of the American Presidency Project at UC Santa Barbara. ‘Cuban Americans in South Florida have historically been very reliable Republican voters.’

There has also been an increase in retirees in Florida. Former President Trump won among voters 65 and older in the state by 11 points in 2020.

‘To me, does Biden even play there?’ Taylor said. ‘It’s just very hard to imagine that being very competitive when you look at just the trends.’

Florida voters last favored the Democrat nominee in 2012, when President Barack Obama ran for reelection against former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney.  

‘I still consider Florida to be a battleground state,’ Peters said. ‘I think it’s a very fluid state in a lot of ways. We’ve seen a lot of migration to Florida from other states.’

Colorado is another state that has experienced population changes over the years. In 2000 and 2004, Bush won the state. During the Obama years, it was a swing state. Now, Colorado is in the solid-blue category.

‘Colorado is a great example of how the demographics changed,’ Wright said. ‘I think Obama’s ‘hope and change’ sentiment really contributed to that. I think that artwork really made an imprint on giving young people this hope that the country could be a better, different place.’

Denver grew by 20% between 2010 and 2020, with mostly minorities moving to the city. A lot of voters in the suburbs are wealthier and college-educated. Suburban voters have tended to lean Democrat since Trump became the standard-bearer of the GOP. 

‘A lot of suburban voters would have voted Republican in the past because they were thinking about their pocketbook issues,’ Peters said. ‘A lot of those voters, especially educated women voters, have moved away from the Republican Party.’

Suburban voters are also impacting presidential preference in other states.

‘Colorado to me is what possibly maybe Arizona could be in a couple of years if we see sort of the same trends,’ Taylor said. ‘I think Arizona right now is firmly in the toss-up column because you do still have a significant number of Republicans there.’

Arizona holds the nation’s largest county and largest suburb. The Hispanic vote has also been growing, with the majority leaning Democrat.

‘These campaigns have directed not only a number of ads that speak solely in Spanish, but we’ve seen a number of buttons and a number of posters that really touch on these different groups,’ Wright said.

Another western state is also in the battleground state column.

‘We’re doing a heck of a lot in the state of Nevada,’ President Biden said during a recent campaign stop in the swing state.

Nevada trended red in the 1980s. Since 2008, the majority of voters there have picked the Democrat nominee. Similar to Arizona, the state has seen an increase in Hispanic voters.

Minorities are also helping Democrats in Georgia. Republican presidential candidates won the state from 1996 until 2020. Atlanta’s thriving job market has brought in younger, more diverse voters and is now home to nearly half of the state’s population.

‘The digital side of it has really changed the way people campaign. And so I think that in places like Georgia … targeting young people in particular has kind of changed that whole dynamic,’ Wright said.

‘We weren’t even thinking about Arizona and Georgia a couple of presidential cycles ago. But when you look at the migration into the states – more diverse, more college-educated, that has put those on the map. Whereas Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, you have so many White working-class voters,’ Taylor said. ‘A place like Wisconsin that was more reliably Democratic, it’s now come on the map.’ 

The White working-class vote swung right as Trump gained traction in the Republican Party.

‘Pennsylvania is one of the most important battleground states in the nation,’ Trump said at a National Rifle Association event in Harrisburg.

Some political scientists say Hillary Clinton lost the 2016 election because she fell short in the Rust Belt states.

‘I think the key for the Democrats and for Joe Biden is No. 1 to show up, to campaign in those states, to not take them for granted,’ Peters said.

Pennsylvania and Wisconsin are still competitive because of the large number of suburban and minority voters.

‘Right now, every one of those general election polls show you … in Wisconsin, Trump doesn’t beat Biden. I win Wisconsin by 15 points,’ Republican presidential candidate Nikki Haley told reporters after a rally in Elgin, South Carolina. ‘Why would I do anything other than continue to fight and let the American people who don’t want this to be Trump and Biden, let them have a voice and be heard?’

While changing demographics have had an impact on many swing states, political preferences are also changing across the country.

‘The coalitions of people that make up the political parties change. And I think we’re in the midst of that right now. Political scientists will debate what is the Republican Party? Or, what is the Democratic Party? Who are the people that make up those coalitions? And I think we’re seeing that change right before our eyes,’ Peters said.

The battleground states could change again in coming years. Minnesota is trending in the direction of Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, with the shift being driven by farmers and agricultural workers who tend to not like Democrat messaging on environmental issues and gun policy.

Texas could go the other direction. Republicans have been winning by narrower margins in recent elections. Hispanic and young voters aren’t the only group moving to the state. Liberal voters from other states like California are also migrating in increasing numbers.

North Carolina could become a swing state once again after trending red in recent years. Many wealthy, urban voters moved to the state during the 2020 pandemic, whereas dozens of deep-red rural counties saw populations decline.

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