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Battleground States of the Century: Missouri, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin

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Only seven states have had more than half of their presidential election contests decided by single digits over the last 100 years: Missouri, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Ohio, New Hampshire, Delaware, and Oregon

missouriseal10.gifWith the general election matchup between Mitt Romney and Barack Obama all but official at this point, media outlets and political prognosticators continue to unveil their lists of key states to watch this cycle.

Whether they are called "battleground," "swing," "purple," or "toss-ups" states, the criteria is essentially the same - highlighting the states up for grabs in 2012 that will likely be the most hard fought for and narrowly decided contests across the country.

And while delegate-rich states like Ohio and Florida have made the cut for this designation during the last few elections cycles - and receive a lot of ink as a result - neither has been the most consistently competitive state in the nation over the decades.

A Smart Politics analysis of presidential election data finds that the states consistently generating the most competitive races over the last 100 years are Missouri, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania, with contests in each state decided by single digits in 16 of 26 cycles since 1908, or more than 60 percent of the time.

The latest polls in these three states find Romney with a +3 advantage in Missouri (Rasmussen, April 17) and Obama up +4 in Wisconsin (Rasmussen, May 8), and Obama ahead by +8 in Pennsylvania (Quinnipiac, April 25-May 1).

Missouri has fallen off some battleground state lists for 2012 in what many analysts feel is a shift to the right in presidential politics.

Still, the Show Me State gets a slight edge over Wisconsin and Pennsylvania for the designation of "Battleground State of the Century," for also claiming the most cycles in the nation of presidential contests decided by less than five points since 1908 with 12.

Missouri was decided by such a margin in 1908 (0.1 points), 1916 (3.7 points), 1940 (4.8 points), 1944 (2.9 points), 1952 (1.6 points), 1956 (0.2 points), 1960 (0.5 points), 1968 (1.1 points), 1976 (3.6 points), 1988 (4.0 points), 2000 (3.3 points), and 2008 (0.1 points).

Missouri has been frequently known as the 'Bellwether State' of the last century - a status lost to Ohio and Nevada after the 2008 election.

Wisconsin owns the next most cycles decided by less than five points with 11, followed by Ohio with 10, Pennsylvania with nine, and New Hampshire with eight.

Aside from Missouri, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania, the only other states which have had more than half of their presidential contests over the last century decided by single digits are Delaware, New Hampshire, Ohio, and Oregon at 14 cycles each.

Rounding out the Top 15 are Kentucky, Minnesota, Michigan, and Connecticut with 13 cycles decided by single digits and Tennessee, Massachusetts, Montana, and Colorado with 12 cycles.

Looking at a much narrower window of the last 40 years, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania have claimed the most cycles decided by less than 10 points with nine followed by Oregon and Missouri with eight.

Wisconsin also leads the nation with the most cycles decided by less than five points during this 40-year span with seven, followed by Ohio with six and Missouri, Nevada, and Pennsylvania with five.

The states with the longest active streaks of competitive presidential races are Colorado, Florida, New Hampshire, Ohio, and Virginia with five dating back to the Election of 1988 and Missouri with four.

And how valuable is this historical 100-year cheat sheet for the 2012 cycle?

Most, but not each of the Top 15 most competitive states over the last 100 years are considered states to watch this November, with Connecticut, Delaware, Kentucky, Massachusetts, and Tennessee slated to be the least competitive of the bunch.

Meanwhile, very few states on the back end of this list are likely to be competitive this November.

The 19 states with less than one-third of their contests decided by single digits over the last 100 years are:

· Maine and North Dakota with eight.
· Arizona, California, Oklahoma, South Carolina, and Texas with seven.
· Arkansas, Idaho, Rhode Island and Vermont with six.
· Louisiana, Mississippi, Utah, and Wyoming with five.
· Alabama and Georgia with four.
· Alaska and Nebraska with three.

While various media outlets and prognosticators differ as to the definition of a battleground state (and thus which states are defined by that category), the only states listed above that have been remotely mentioned as being competitive this cycle are Arizona (due to the state's rising Hispanic population) and Maine (due to its independent streak and affinity for moderate Republicans).

It should be noted that, on occasion, blow-out elections can cause otherwise non-competitive states to end up being battleground or 'toss-up' states - though they are meaningless given the lopsided electoral vote outcome.

For example, in 1984 Ronald Reagan carried Massachusetts by 2.8 points as part of his 49-state rout.

Or, in 1932, Franklin Roosevelt won New Hampshire by 1.8 points as he crushed Republican nominee Alf Landon by over 500 Electoral College votes.

In that sense, there can sometimes be a disconnect in what the media designates as battleground or 'toss-up' states and the states that are ultimately the most competitively decided.

For, as unlikely as it seems, if Barack Obama loses Georgia by 5.2 points again in 2012 as he did four years ago, that probably means many of the 'battleground states' will be in the president's column by double-digits in November.

The Most Competitive Cycles

Although the Election of 2000 was the most narrowly decided contest of the last 100 years from the perspective of Electoral College votes, it was a far cry from the most competitive within the states.

The most competitive cycle over the last 100 years was Election of 1960, in which the Kennedy-Nixon contest was decided by single digits in an astounding 34 states, or more than two-thirds of the country, including 20 states by less than five points.

By contrast, the Bush vs. Gore matchup saw winners carry just 22 states by single digits and only a dozen by less than five points.

The strong third party candidacy of Ross Perot in 1992 helped prompt that cycle to claim the second largest number of states decided by single digits in the last century with 33, followed by Carter vs. Ford in 1976 with 31, Dewey vs. Truman in 1948 with 28, Humphrey vs. Nixon vs. Wallace in 1968 with 28, and Dewey vs. FDR in 1944 with 25.

Although the Regan-Mondale battle of 1984 was one of the biggest blowouts in U.S. history, it still produced eight closely decided state races, which is twice as many as the Warren Harding vs. James Cox matchup of 1920 (three) and the FDR vs. Alf Landon mismatch of 1936 (four).

Overall, including the District of Columbia, 469 of the 1,284 statewide presidential contests since 1908 have been decided by single digits, or 36.5 percent.

Of these, 253 were decided by less than five points (19.7 percent) with another 216 decided by at least five but less than 10 points (16.8 percent).

Republican nominees have eked out slightly more close shaves than their Democratic counterparts.

GOP presidential candidates have won 241 races by single digits compared to 221 by Democrats and another seven by third parties.

Number of Competitive Presidential Election Contests by State, 1908-2008

State
< 5
5-10
Total
% Cycles
Years
Missouri
12
4
16
61.5
1908, 1916, 1924, 1940, 1944, 1952, 1956, 1960, 1968, 1976, 1980, 1988, 1996, 2000, 2004, 2008
Wisconsin
11
5
16
61.5
1912, 1916, 1928, 1940, 1944, 1948, 1960, 1968, 1972, 1976, 1980, 1984, 1988, 1992, 2000, 2004
Pennsylvania
9
7
16
61.5
1912, 1932, 1940, 1944, 1948, 1952, 1960, 1968, 1976, 1980, 1984, 1988, 1992, 1996, 2000, 2004
Ohio
10
4
14
53.8
1908, 1916, 1932, 1940, 1944, 1948, 1960, 1968, 1976, 1992, 1996, 2000, 2004, 2008
New Hampshire
8
6
14
53.8
1912, 1916, 1932, 1936, 1940, 1944, 1948, 1960, 1968, 1992, 1996, 2000, 2004, 2008
Oregon
7
7
14
53.8
1912, 1916, 1940, 1944, 1948, 1960, 1968, 1976, 1980, 1988, 1992, 1996, 2000, 2004
Kentucky
7
6
13
50.0
1908, 1916, 1920, 1924, 1944, 1952, 1956, 1960, 1968, 1976, 1980, 1992, 1996
Minnesota
7
6
13
50.0
1912, 1916, 1924, 1940, 1944, 1956, 1960, 1972, 1980, 1984, 1988, 2000, 2004
Michigan
5
8
13
50.0
1916, 1932, 1940, 1944, 1948, 1960, 1968, 1976, 1980, 1988, 1992, 2000, 2004
Connecticut
4
9
13
50.0
1912, 1916, 1928, 1932, 1940, 1944, 1948, 1960, 1968, 1976, 1980, 1988, 1992
Tennessee
8
4
12
46.2
1908, 1920, 1924, 1928, 1952, 1956, 1960, 1968, 1980, 1992, 1996, 2000
Massachusetts
7
5
12
46.2
1912, 1916, 1928, 1932, 1936, 1940, 1944, 1952, 1972, 1980, 1984, 1988
Montana
6
6
12
46.2
1908, 1912, 1924, 1944, 1948, 1960, 1976, 1980, 1988, 1992, 1996, 2008
Colorado
5
7
12
46.2
1908, 1940, 1944, 1948, 1960, 1968, 1988, 1992, 1996, 2000, 2004, 2008
Illinois
8
3
11
42.3
1912, 1916, 1940, 1944, 1948, 1952, 1960, 1968, 1976, 1980, 1988
Nevada
8
3
11
42.3
1908, 1924, 1944, 1948, 1960, 1968, 1976, 1992, 1996, 2000, 2004
Maryland
7
4
11
42.3
1908, 1916, 1924, 1944, 1948, 1960, 1968, 1976, 1980, 1984, 1988
New York
6
5
11
42.3
1916, 1928, 1940, 1944, 1948, 1960, 1968, 1976, 1980, 1984, 1988
New Mexico
5
6
11
42.3
1912, 1916, 1924, 1944, 1960, 1976, 1988, 1992, 1996, 2000, 2004
Washington
5
6
11
42.3
1912, 1916, 1948, 1952, 1956, 1960, 1968, 1976, 1988, 2000, 2004
New Jersey
8
2
10
38.5
1912, 1932, 1940, 1944, 1948, 1960, 1968, 1976, 1992, 2004
Iowa
7
3
10
38.5
1912, 1940, 1944, 1948, 1976, 1984, 1992, 2000, 2004, 2008
North Carolina
6
4
10
38.5
1908, 1928, 1952, 1956, 1960, 1968, 1980, 1992, 1996, 2008
Virginia
3
7
10
38.5
1928, 1948, 1960, 1964, 1976, 1992, 1996, 2000, 2004, 2008
Hawaii
3
2
5
38.5
1960, 1976, 1980, 1988, 2004
Florida
5
4
9
34.6
1960, 1964, 1968, 1976, 1992, 1996, 2000, 2004, 2008
Indiana
5
4
9
34.6
1908, 1916, 1940, 1944, 1948, 1976, 1992, 1996, 2008
South Dakota
5
4
9
34.6
1912, 1916, 1948, 1972, 1976, 1988, 1992, 1996, 2008
West Virginia
4
5
9
34.6
1916, 1924, 1952, 1956, 1960, 1968, 1980, 1988, 2000
Kansas
0
9
9
34.6
1908, 1912, 1916, 1932, 1936, 1948, 1964, 1976, 1992
Maine
5
3
8
30.8
1912, 1916, 1940, 1976, 1980, 1992, 2000, 2004
North Dakota
3
5
8
30.8
1912, 1916, 1924, 1944, 1948, 1976, 1996, 2008
Arizona
3
4
7
28.0
1924, 1948, 1964, 1992, 1996, 2000, 2008
California
7
0
7
26.9
1912, 1916, 1948, 1960, 1968, 1976, 1988
Texas
6
1
7
26.9
1928, 1952, 1960, 1968, 1976, 1992, 1996
South Carolina
3
4
7
26.9
1952, 1960, 1968, 1980, 1992, 1996, 2008
Oklahoma
2
5
7
26.9
1908, 1920, 1924, 1952, 1976, 1992, 1996
Idaho
4
2
6
23.1
1912, 1940, 1944, 1948, 1960, 1964
Rhode Island
4
2
6
23.1
1912, 1916, 1928, 1952, 1972, 1984
Alaska
2
1
3
23.1
1960, 1968, 1992
Vermont
2
4
6
23.1
1912, 1940, 1968, 1980, 1988, 2000
Arkansas
1
5
6
23.1
1956, 1960, 1968, 1980, 2000, 2004
Mississippi
3
2
5
19.2
1960, 1976, 1980, 1992, 1996
Wyoming
3
2
5
19.2
1912, 1940, 1944, 1948, 1992
Louisiana
1
4
5
19.2
1952, 1976, 1980, 1992, 2000
Utah
1
4
5
19.2
1912, 1928, 1940, 1960, 1964
Alabama
2
2
4
15.4
1928, 1980, 1992, 1996
Georgia
2
2
4
15.4
1964, 1992, 1996, 2008
Nebraska
1
2
3
11.5
1908, 1948, 1964
D.C.
0
0
0
0.0
(none)
Data compiled by Smart Politics.

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