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In US Politics, what is a Purple State?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 17, 2024
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A purple state is a state with a vote which is typically closely divided between Democratic and Republican candidates at election time. As a result, such states can become important areas for electoral contests, with candidates fighting to get the majority of the vote so that they can win. The “purple” in the name is a reference to the fact that as election results come in, states are typically colored red or blue to indicate a win by a Republican or Democratic candidate, and purple is a blend of these two colors.

You may also hear a purple state called a swing state, because the vote can swing either way, or as a battleground state, in a reference to the fact that candidates sink serious resources into purple states, often long before the election. The outcome of the vote in such states can become crucial, with most candidates relying on a base of states which vote in a dependable way, and focusing on the purple states to fight for the win.

Swing states have become an issue thanks to the electoral college system in the United States, which awards the Presidency on the basis of a winner-take-all system in individual states. For example, if a candidate wins 40% of the vote in Idaho while two other candidates split the remaining 60%, he or she takes all of the electoral votes for that state. Thanks to the electoral college, candidates may win the election without winning the popular vote, and they have no real incentive to increase the number of voters in any given state beyond the majority needed to win.

At issue in a purple state is the fact that the citizens have very mixed values. Often, a county by county analysis of a purple state reveals pockets of political sentiment, with some counties being decidedly Republican or Democratic, and in a sense canceling each other out in a vote. The goal of a politician when dealing with a purple state is to draw people who are undecided about the candidate they want to support, in the hopes of getting just enough of a majority to take the state.

Various states have fluxed in and out of purple state status. As a general rule, people look at the history of elections in an individual state to determine whether or not it is a swing state. Florida is perhaps one of the most notorious swing states of the 21st century, thanks to the heavy influence Florida's closely split vote had on the outcome of the 2000 Presidential election, but other swing states include Ohio, New Mexico, New Hampshire, Nevada, Arkansas, Virginia, and Missouri, among others.

Typically, a purple state will see a lot of campaign advertising in advance of the election, and politicians will make an effort to visit early and often to connect with voters. This can leave residents of so-called “safe states” feeling a bit left-out, and irritated by the presumption of candidates who assume that these states will go to them.

America Explained is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a America Explained researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By anon307075 — On Dec 03, 2012

Don't you feel foolish now with your conspiracy paranoid talk of Republicans stealing elections considering that Obama won both terms? Seriously guy, you gotta get out and educate yourself more.

By anon18532 — On Sep 24, 2008

Please circulate and get the word out; stealing votes is going on as we write this! Send to everyone you know! (Here goes another election to be stolen by the Republicans...when is enough enough!!!)

The story is all over Progressive Talk Radio today about the McCain campaign sending absentee ballot applications to registered democrats or people that have donated to Obama's campaign. These ballots are deliberately misleading and have postage paid return addresses that are for an election clerk that is outside of your city or town. What this will end up doing is either having your vote not counted, or if you return one of these, they will cite you for election fraud, saying that you already voted absentee.

These ballots are only being sent out in 'purple states' and this is a big deal.. This is called voter caging, and is a huge problem.

The McCain campaign is stealing this election as we speak. Please get this information out to as many people as you can, and tell anyone you know who has received one of these ballots that they need to contact their city election clerk or the supervisor of elections immediately.

Also call the local media and let them know what is going on. The main stream media is never going to cover this so we have to depend on our ground campaign to get the word out to our voters.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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