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Presidential Battleground States by the Numbers Since 1968

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Wisconsin and Pennsylvania lead the way with nine races decided by single-digits over the last 11 presidential election cycles; Missouri and Oregon are next with eight

The number of tightly-contested states in U.S. presidential elections has varied wildly through the years, with 2008 being one of the least competitive in the modern political era.

Only 15 states were decided by single digits in 2008 - the third lowest tally since 1968 - greater than only the GOP landslide elections of 1972 (five states) and 1984 (eight states).

But across the changing political tides of the last few generations, two states stand above all others - earning themselves the designation of the most highly competitive in presidential elections over the last 40 years.

A Smart Politics analysis finds that Wisconsin and Pennsylvania lead the country with the largest number of presidential contests decided by single-digits over the last 11 election cycles dating back to 1968 - with nine each.

Wisconsin in particular has been the quintessential battleground state as seven of these nine races were decided by less than five points: Nixon's victory in 1968 (3.6 points), Carter in 1976 (1.7), Reagan in 1980 (4.7), Dukakis in 1988 (3.6), Clinton in 1992 (4.4), Gore in 2000 (0.2), and Kerry in 2004 (0.4).

Meanwhile, five of Pennsylvania's races were decided by less than five points: Humphrey's victory in 1968 (3.6 points), Carter in 1976 (2.7), Bush in 1988 (2.3), Gore in 2000 (4.2), and Kerry in 2004 (2.5).

Overall, Democratic presidential nominees won six of these nine hotly-contested races in Pennsylvania and five in Wisconsin.

While Missouri's 'bellwether state' status may have ended with Obama's loss there in 2008, the Show Me State is tied for third with Oregon for the next largest tally of presidential races decided by single digits with eight.

Unlike Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, however, the GOP has carried Missouri in the majority of these close races: in 1968 (by 1.1 points), 1980 (6.8), 1988 (4.0), 2000 (3.3), 2004 (7.2), and 2008 (0.1).

Four other states have tallied seven single-digit margin of victories in presidential elections since 1968: Colorado, Florida, Michigan, and Ohio.

Interestingly, although Ohio and Michigan are frequently grouped together as classic Midwestern battleground states, Ohio has seen far more nail-biters than the Wolverine State.

Six of Ohio's presidential contests saw margin of victories of less than five points (1968, 1976, 1992, 2000, 2004, 2008) compared to just one for Michigan (2004).

Ohio (with six) is second only to Wisconsin (with seven) for hosting the largest number of these very competitive races. Pennsylvania, Missouri, Nevada, and Tennessee each have recorded five presidential elections decided by less than five points since 1968.

The only other states with a majority of presidential elections decided by single-digits during the past 40 years are Iowa, Minnesota, Montana, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Mexico, South Dakota, and Virginia with six each.

Montana, South Dakota, and Virginia are particularly noteworthy in that Republicans carried 16 of these 18 competitive races - all but Montana in 1992 and Virginia in 2008.

Of course, the ability to define or determine a 'battleground state' in any given presidential election cycle, is highly fluid and sometimes not knowable until after all ballots are counted.

For example, in 2008, Wisconsin was considered a battleground state, but it gave Obama a margin of victory (13.9 points) nearly three times that of McCain's win in the deep red state of Georgia (5.2 points). However, with the recent GOP surge over the last two years few expect Georgia to be 'in play' at this stage of the 2012 presidential election cycle.

Additionally, in elections with strong third party candidates, the number of states with single-digit margin of victories tends to be greater, such as in the elections of 1968 (George Wallace, 28 states), 1980 (John Anderson, 24 states), 1992 (Ross Perot, 33 states) and 1996 (Perot, 24 states).

Number of States Decided by Single Digits in Presidential Elections, 1968-2008

Year
< 5 points
5 - 9.9 points
Total
1968
13
15
28
1972
0
5
5
1976
20
11
31
1980
16
8
24
1984
3
5
8
1988
11
9
20
1992
17
16
33
1996
11
13
24
2000
12
10
22
2004
11
9
20
2008
6
9
15
Total
120
110
230
Data compiled by Smart Politics.

Forty years is certainly at least a few lifetimes in politics, so perhaps it is appropriate to examine those states that have consistently served up competitive races over the past two decades.

Five states lead the way with five consecutive presidential elections decided by single-digits, from 1992 through 2008: Colorado, Florida, New Hampshire, Ohio, and Virginia.

Of these, Ohio has been the most competitive with four of these contests decided by less than five points: 1992 (1.8 points), 2000 (3.5), 2004 (2.1), and 2008 (4.6).

Missouri has the next longest streak with four consecutive competitive races followed by Iowa with three.

These are the only seven states decided by single digits in both the 2004 and 2008 presidential contests.

And what are the states with the weakest battleground credentials?

Three states, along with the District of Columbia, have not had a single contest decided by less than 10 points since 1968: Idaho, Nebraska, and Utah.

Republican presidential nominees have dominated these states across the last 40 years. (Note: All three had competitive races in 1964, with Lyndon Johnson carrying each by single digits, so their current streak of double-digit contests stands at 11).

Overall, Republican presidential candidates have survived a much larger number of close shaves than have Democrats.

GOP nominees have eked out 135 of the 230 presidential contests decided by single-digits since 1968, or 58.7 percent. Democratic nominees have won 94 or 40.9 percent with third party candidates winning one.

(Republicans have also won the White House in seven of these eleven cycles during this 40-year stretch).

Presidential Elections Decided by Single Digits by State, 1968-2008

State
< 5
5-10
Total
Cycles
Wisconsin
7
2
9
1968, 1972, 1976, 1980, 1984, 1988, 1992, 2000, 2004
Pennsylvania
5
4
9
1968, 1976, 1980, 1984, 1988, 1992, 1996, 2000, 2004
Missouri
5
3
8
1968, 1976, 1980, 1988, 1996, 2000, 2004, 2008
Oregon
4
4
8
1968, 1976, 1980, 1988, 1992, 1996, 2000, 2004
Ohio
6
1
7
1968, 1976, 1992, 1996, 2000, 2004, 2008
Colorado
3
4
7
1968, 1988, 1992, 1996, 2000, 2004, 2008
Florida
3
4
7
1968, 1976, 1992, 1996, 2000, 2004, 2008
Michigan
1
6
7
1968, 1976, 1980, 1988, 1992, 2000, 2004
Nevada
5
1
6
1968, 1976, 1992, 1996, 2000, 2004
Minnesota
4
2
6
1972, 1980, 1984, 1988, 2000, 2004
Iowa
3
3
6
1976, 1984, 1992, 2000, 2004, 2008
Montana
3
3
6
1976, 1980, 1988, 1992, 1996, 2008
New Hampshire
3
3
6
1968, 1992, 1996, 2000, 2004, 2008
New Mexico
3
3
6
1976, 1988, 1992, 1996, 2000, 2004
South Dakota
3
3
6
1972, 1976, 1988, 1992, 1996, 2008
Virginia
3
3
6
1976, 1992, 1996, 2000, 2004, 2008
Tennessee
5
0
5
1968, 1980, 1992, 1996, 2000
North Carolina
4
1
5
1968, 1980, 1992, 1996, 2008
Kentucky
3
2
5
1968, 1976, 1980, 1992, 1996
Maryland
3
2
5
1968, 1976, 1980, 1984, 1988
New York
3
2
5
1968, 1976, 1980, 1984, 1988
Washington
3
2
5
1968, 1976, 1988, 2000, 2004
Delaware
2
3
5
1968, 1976, 1980, 1992, 2004
Maine
2
3
5
1976, 1980, 1992, 2000, 2004
South Carolina
1
4
5
1968, 1980, 1992, 1996, 2008
Connecticut
0
5
5
1968, 1976, 1980, 1988, 1992
Texas
4
0
4
1968, 1976, 1992, 1996
Illinois
3
1
4
1968, 1976, 1980, 1988
New Jersey
3
1
4
1968, 1976, 1992, 2004
Arizona
2
2
4
1992, 1996, 2000, 2008
Hawaii
2
2
4
1976, 1980, 1988, 2004
Massachusetts
2
2
4
1972, 1980, 1984, 1988
Mississippi
2
2
4
1976, 1980, 1992, 1996
West Virginia
2
2
4
1968, 1980, 1988, 2000
Arkansas
1
3
4
1968, 1980, 2000, 2004
Indiana
1
3
4
1976, 1992, 1996, 2008
Louisiana
1
3
4
1976, 1980, 1992, 2000
Vermont
1
3
4
1968, 1980, 1988, 2000
California
3
0
3
1968, 1976, 1988
Georgia
2
1
3
1992, 1996, 2008
Alabama
1
2
3
1980, 1992, 1996
Oklahoma
1
2
3
1976, 1992, 1996
North Dakota
0
3
3
1976, 1996, 2008
Alaska
1
1
2
1968, 1992
Rhode Island
1
1
2
1972, 1984
Kansas
0
2
2
1976, 1992
Wyoming
0
1
1
1992
District of Columbia
0
0
0
 
Idaho
0
0
0
 
Nebraska
0
0
0
 
Utah
0
0
0
 
Total
120
110
230
 
Data compiled by Smart Politics.

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1 Comment


  • Is it possible to get this information for 2012?
    Thanks

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