November 3rd, 2008
11:42 AM ET

These 6 swing counties could decide the election

[cnn-photo-caption image=http://i2.cdn.turner.com/cnn/2008/images/11/03/art.swingcounties.jpg caption="John McCain holds a campaign rally in Ohio on Friday, part of a two-day bus tour through the crucial swing state. "]

John P. Avlon
AC360° contributor

"All elections are about how independent voters break," attests Andrew Kohut, president of the Pew Research Center. And with less than 4 days left in election '08, all eyes are on these swing voters in the swing states – they hold the key to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue in their hands.

But where do they live – what are the swing counties in the swing states and how have those areas been trending? Armed with 20 years of presidential election data, I set out to nerd-ishly answer that question and found the top 6 swing counties in the top 6 swing states. Each of these states have multiple counties with close votes – I've chosen the swing county with the most votes. Think of it as an election night cheat sheet, moving from east to west, as the polls close and the next president gets elected.

Florida – Pinellas County:

With the scars of 2000 still fresh in Democrats' minds, Florida remains the biggest swing state, with 2.3 million independent voters and 27 electoral votes – equal to Virginia, New Hampshire, Nevada and New Mexico combined.

There are 3 counties in the sunshine state where Bush and Kerry split the vote 49/49 – Monroe, Orange and Pinellas. But the largest of these is Pinellas, which split the vote 225,686 to 225,460 – giving a 226 vote edge to Kerry. By comparison, across Tampa Bay, CentCom's home of Hillsborough County went 53 to 46 percent for Bush. Gore won Pinellas by 4% in 2000, and Clinton cleaned up with a 9-point lead in '96. But when Perot ran in 1992, he got 24%, leaving Bush 1 and Clinton almost tied at 37% each. It was a fall from grace for Poppy, who beat Dukakis by 14% just 4 years before. Pinellas has been represented by Republican Bill Young since 1970, making him the most senior GOP member of the House. The verdict: even with the aging population of St. Pete and its popular pragmatic conservative mayor Rick Baker, the county's been moving away from the GOP tortoise-like for the past 20 years. With Florida housing prices in free-fall and the Tampa Bay Rays losing the World Series to the Phillies, there is little patience for the status quo in St. Pete: it's advantage Obama.

Virginia – Prince William County:

The fact that the Old Dominion is even on this list of swing states is remarkable. That it's taken the place of Michigan, whose Macomb County has been the subject of countless studies of Reagan Democrats, is a bad sign for the McCain campaign. The Obama campaign had the audacity of hope to target Virginia early, beginning voter registration drives before the primary, which he won decisively, beating Hillary by 2 to 1 among self-identified Independents (VA does not register voters by party). The prime swing county in Virginia is Prince William, on the southern edge of Northern Virginia – or, "communist country" as McCain's brother described it. This is the battlefront where north meets south, white meets black and increasingly Latino. It's the 9th wealthiest county in the country, with a population of 360,000, in a state that hasn't voted Democrat since LBJ. It's still got a lot of military folks, but college students now outnumber white senior citizens 2 to 1. And while Bush carried Prince William County by 52% in 2000 and 53% in 2004, it's swung toward Democratic Governor Tim Kaine and Senator Jim Webb in '05 and '06. With the second highest number of new voters registered in the state, and the down-ticket bump from radical centrist Mark Warner should help Obama narrowly win this Civil War battleground. Advantage: Obama.

Pennsylvania – Northampton County:

McCain has been playing hard for Pennsylvania and is closing the gap enough so that Governor Ed Rendell asked the Obama team to come back and campaign. No Republican has won the Keystone State since 1988, but it's been reliably close. Conservative Senator Rick Santorum was tossed out in '06 in favor of centrist Democrat Bob Casey. Philadelphia votes reliably Democrat and the western part of the state tends Republican. The fighting ground is the Philly suburbs and exburbs, where neighboring Monroe and Northampton counties are. Monroe split its vote 49.6 to 49.6 in 2004, giving Bush a 4 vote edge when all was counted. The more populous Northampton gave Kerry a 1% and 1,000 vote edge. Gore won Northampton by 5.5% and Clinton with 9% in '96. But Perot got 20% in '92 and Bush 1 beat the Duke by 4 points in 1988. Represented by centrist Republican Charlie Dent in the 15th District, seems to have been trending Republican. This is a rare bright swing county for the GOP – advantage McCain.

Ohio – Stark County:

No Republican has won the White House without winning Ohio. It's the heartland, "the home of presidents" from Hayes to Harding. It's littered with swing districts from the Mahoning Valley to Hamilton to Montgomery County. It's also the home of the Football Hall of Fame, in Canton, and it's there in Stark County that we find the biggest swing county with the narrowest margins in the Buckeye State (and the home county of Karl Rove's second favorite president, William McKinley). In 2000, it barely broke for Kerry, 50.5 to 49% – 95k to 93k. But Bush beat Gore there by 1% in 2000. Clinton carried it by 8% in '96 and 5 in '92, but Poppy clobbered Dukakis by 11% in 1988. It's in the 16th District of Ohio, represented by Republican Ralph Regula since the Nixon landslide of 1972. But in 2006, Governor Ted Strickland and Senator Sherrod Brown won the county with 64% and 57% respectively. With manufacturing feeling an even deeper squeeze with the economic freefall, and declining GOP margins, it's advantage Obama.

Missouri – Jefferson County:

Home of Harry Truman, the "Show Me" state is a center-right bell-weather in the center of the country. Democrats put a lot into it in 2004 only to come up short as Republican Congressman Roy Blunt's son was elected governor. Now the junior Blunt is not running for re-election, and the state is a true toss-up. The RealClear Politics poll of polls gives Obama a .2% advantage – the closest in the nation. In 2000, Missouri's Clay County symbolized the nation, when a single vote split Bush v. Gore – 39,083 to 39,084. In 2004, three counties split the Bush/Kerry vote 49/49 – Boone, Pemiscot and Jefferson – and the largest of these is Jefferson, on the outskirts of St. Louis. Back in 1980, it was the geographic center of the country in terms of population. It is also the most conservative county in the state's 3rd District, represented by Dick Gephardt for decades and now by the son of a former governor and senator, Russ Carnahan.
In 2004, Bush won the county closely, 46,624 to 46,057. The county edged 2% for Gore in 2000 and 12% for Clinton in '96. But in 1992 it gave then-President Bush one his worst defeats with 28% of the vote, down from 51% four years earlier. Carnahan will likely run ahead of Obama in 2008, but this will be a squeeker – it's a toss-up.

Colorado – Arapahoe County:

Well, it's come to this – a western conservative ticket fighting for the Rocky Mountain State. The reason? Independent voters passed Republicans and Democrats as the leading registration in Colorado earlier this summer. There are now over 1 million independents, up from 645,000 in 1992, making 34.6% of the total vote.

This shift helped bring in a Democratic governor and senator in recent years. And the key swing district to watch is Arapahoe – southeast of Denver, where liberal Congresswoman Diana Degette's district slams up against the departing conservative Tom Tancredo's. Historically Republican-leaning going back to Wilkie in 1940, Arapahoe is a now the chief battleground county in this battleground-state. While the population has grown nearly 10% since the 2000 census, the GOP has been losing its registration edge, down from 37% in 2004 (when Bush won the county) to 33% today, while Democrats increased from 29% to 34% – the remaining third is independent. "The upscale neighborhoods and the surburbanite folks with a good education who used to be the backbone of the Republican Party are now moving toward the Democrats and so are their children," says Colorado College political science professor Bob Loevy. "You are seeing that in Arapahoe."

So is there an overall trend that's evident in looking at these swing counties in swing states across the nation? Yes, they've been trending steadily less Republican since the GOP high-water mark of Reagan's 49-state win in 1984. Clinton's centrism swayed them while Bush has divided them.

There is evidence of a slow-moving realignment. And this should be troubling for Republicans because the less rural and more populated these areas get, the more diverse and urban they become, the less likely they are to vote Republican. That is not to say that an excessively liberal congress would not push them back toward the GOP, especially on tax-and-spend issues, but it does say that the Sarah Palin formulation of basing the future on appeals to white, small town America is a long-term loser.

Filed under: 2008 Election • 360° Radar • Barack Obama • John McCain • John P. Avlon
soundoff (63 Responses)
  1. Heather PW county VA

    I do not consider myself a democrat but there was no doubt in my mind that once Obama was elected that he had my vote. I am waiting at home with my baby for my husband to get back from voting so I can head out. He has been in line for over 2 hours now. This just shows that VA is having a great turn out and we mughtf just go Blue finally! Yeah

    November 4, 2008 at 8:14 am |
  2. Mike (Fairfax, VA)

    I have been getting door knocks and phonecalls from Obama supporters at least twice a day since the end of September to the point of harrassment, not sure why I keep getting talked too. It is all politics I guess. Vote for the individual you predict will be the best leader for the next for years. Remember, there are five choices for president in 2008....not just the two "major party" candidates that get all the media attention. I am not about to vote on party lines or follow the polls just because most others are, I read and evaluate each candidates positions then pick my candidate for each elected office. Take it seriously and be informed. Cast a knowledgable vote.

    November 4, 2008 at 7:50 am |
  3. bonnie

    Please inform your audience especially, Republicans, Gov. Palin and Sen. McCain-for the last eight years we lived in a totalitarian country and the nerve of them to label Sen. Obama, a socialist. Once upon a time, America was a lucrative country until Reganomics, Bush, Greed, and Selfishness destroyed IT. Also, Senator Obama is more than qualified to run this Country.

    In addition we are all guilt by association.......................

    November 4, 2008 at 7:43 am |
  4. daw

    Vote Obama for better future

    Still the Reps using their fear mongering tactics, and personal attacks, but Americans are not so stupid we know better, for sure we do not want to repeat the last eight years of our history where our ideology of capitalism is almost knocked down we don’t need to
    – Continue tax incentives to the rich and to companies that ship out jobs.
    – Broken health care system:
    – throw everybody to the mercy of insurance companies.
    – Rising economic insecurity
    – Rising costs and stagnant wages
    – destroy our and the world economy

    We know better.

    Vote Obama for better future

    Obama is the One for change,
    don't be fouled or misguided by the misleading Ads

    November 4, 2008 at 7:30 am |
  5. Kalu

    I can not agree less with all the opinion polls that Obama would win.
    Am anciously waiting for the final announcement.
    Indeed, it is a test of character and sincereity for America that preaches transparency to developing nations.

    November 4, 2008 at 6:40 am |
  6. Michael Bush (Kungälv, Sweden)

    I have been a solid supporter of the GOP since I was a kid. Handing out candidate literature, going door to door on election days to get out the vote, fundraisers...you name it. We (the GOP and myself) didn't always see eye to eye on some issues. But I always had faith in the ticket.
    This time I was undecided, until McCain chose Palin as a running mate. Why Palin? Wasn't the Christian Right already a lock? Gov. Palin strongly represents many of the things that I always disagreed with in the GOP. All McCain succeeded in doing was pushing away the Moderate Right. And away I went.
    I voted for Obama 3 weeks ago by absentee ballot. This wasn't a choice of the "lesser of two evils". I simply believe he is the best man for the job.

    November 4, 2008 at 6:33 am |
  7. Michael

    I do not see any reason to believe that McCain will win this election. He lost the election the he said that economy was in good shape. He also lost most of the independent voters when he chosed Gov. Sarah. Most people, including me do not believe that she is ready to be president. Obviously, McCain would have performed much more better had he chose Romney.

    November 4, 2008 at 5:38 am |
  8. Denise

    God bless you Barack Obama!

    November 4, 2008 at 5:23 am |
  9. George Wirnkar

    The US media but fN has been grossly biased against McCain/Palin. The polls are only a sampling and in an election with too many immeasurable parameters, the Obama/Biden supporters should hold their horses a little while before celebrating a victory that may never be. Not only am I supporting McCain Palin, I am slso praying for their campaign. God Bless America and the world she influences so much.

    November 4, 2008 at 5:09 am |
  10. Mark - Malta

    As a person who likes politics, it is a must that a person who has vision, pride and accepts that he can make mistakes is a better leader. I have watched and see all what they had to say and the outcome is that if I had to vote, Obama / Biden would have been my choice.

    November 4, 2008 at 4:52 am |
  11. J.V.Hodgson

    All very interesting, but the deciders this time will be Virginia, North Carolina and Ohio.
    If Obama takes all those, he can lose all the rest of the toss up states, including Colorado,Nevada and New Mexico, which have been traditionally red.
    The only glitch here is Pensylvania.
    I look at your electoral map and MCcain has to take all 90 toss ups and still need 23 to win, it not only looks a major Mountain but virtually impossible, if the polls mean anything at all.
    As usual, voters decide thank god!!

    November 4, 2008 at 4:16 am |
  12. Beyordanos T.

    America see the truth! What more could you expect from the Bush's ?McCain showed us how ignorant he is by selecting Palin,For An obviuous political scum of getting women voters.The World Watch you and your Democracy.This time an intelegent person is at your helm.
    This is your test,your success is in your hand.

    OBAMA '08

    November 4, 2008 at 3:47 am |
  13. Fred Bass

    Let us thank the those people on Wall Street and in the financial sector who have so clearly demonstrated that unregulated greed doesn't work.

    And let us accept the challenge from Obama to set fear aside in re-building our community and our nation and instead rely on our own bravery and compassion!

    November 4, 2008 at 3:43 am |
1 2