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What is a Battleground State?

By Ken Black
Updated May 17, 2024
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In U.S. politics, a battleground state is a state where the political race between a Republican and Democrat, usually presidential candidates, is extremely close. Due to the way that presidential elections are run in the United States, the popular vote is not as important as the the individual tally of the states. This allows campaigns to pursue a state-by-state strategy in order to win an election, which makes those states where the race is close very important.

Traditionally, states that have voted for Republicans have been marked in red, and those that have voted Democrat are marked in blue. A battleground state is often referred to as a purple state: a mixture of red and blue.

Further, with the state-by-state emphasis on presidential elections, any state where there are voters are closely divided between candidates is critical. Every state is given a certain number of votes in the electoral college, based on its population. It takes 270 electoral votes to win a presidential election. Due to the fact that most states devote all their electoral votes toward the winning candidate, no matter how close the vote is, every state that seems like it might go either way has the ability to make a difference in an extremely close election.

Determining whether a state is a battleground state is usually done through political polling. This polling will show, in general terms, how competitive a potential state may be between two candidates. If a state is within the margin of error in the polling, or if it has demonstrated wide swings between candidates, then it may be declared a battleground.

This designation is more beneficial for the media and the general public than the campaigns. Each campaign knows what it needs to be successful and will put together a strategy based on states the campaign feels it can win. This will be determined through past history, geographical considerations, and its own internal polling numbers. As such, the campaigns will already have identified those states identified as battlegrounds.

The campaigns will target all battleground states through a number of different strategies. First, media buys, such as television, radio, and newspaper ads will be a huge part of any plan. Direct mailings and campaign staff will also be centered on those states. In addition, each candidate will likely make more personal visits to the state in an effort to get free media coverage and reach as many voters as possible on a personal level.

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Discussion Comments
By anon996930 — On Oct 27, 2016

Why not put a (none of the above) box on the ballots this year.

Neither candidate is worth voting for.

By runner101 — On Jul 18, 2011

@alFredo - I just came from a visit to your home state of Kentucky. It has quite a few historical locations. I thought it was quite ironic and interesting that both the president of the confederacy, Jefferson Davis and the president of the United States, Abraham Lincoln at that time were born in Kentucky.

And like battleground states are split, Kentucky was split during the Civil War with which side to join. So I find that it interesting that it was a split state back then and you think it continues to be a split state, or battleground state in elections.

I wonder if this is true for any of the other states that were undecided for the Civil War, if they continue to be a battleground state today.

By Moldova — On Jul 17, 2011

@Cupcake15 - I agree and I wanted to say that I think that the media also hypes this notion of a battleground state game in order to get higher ratings because if the states were all predictable then no one would watch the election coverage leading up to the election.

People would already have an idea of who would win and would not need to tune in. I don’t think that the next election is going to be close. I really believe that it is going to be similar to the 1980 presidential election in which President Reagan won by a landslide and picked up all but Jimmy Carter’s home state of Georgia.

There are a lot of parallels with the state of the economy in the presidential election of 1980 and today which is why I think that people will vote with their pocketbooks. However, if you listen to some presidential polling data they say that it will be a close race. I guess we will have to see who is right, but a lot of these pollsters have been wrong before.

By aLFredo — On Jul 17, 2011

Although it does not have a lot of electoral votes, so it doesn't get too much hype, I think of my home state of Kentucky a battleground state. It has voted both for a republican and democrat candidate over the past 20 years.

Just like another comment mentioned that politics are campaigned differently in their state, I wonder how much attention is paid to smaller electorates even if they were battleground states as opposed to a state that is likely to vote one way.

By cupcake15 — On Jul 16, 2011

@Sneakers41 - I agree and I think that the whole perception that there are some battleground states is in part true because many of these states usually have moderate viewpoints and can go either way.

There are states that traditionally vote either Republican straight down the ticket or Democrat straight down the ticket, but there are times when the right candidate comes along and changes the political landscape.

For example, New Jersey is considered a state that traditionally votes Democrat, yet they elected a Republican Governor who beat an incumbent Democrat. Not only that but Governor Christie’s approval rating is almost as high as his counterpart in New York.

So I think that if the right person comes along it really does not matter what party they are from because it their ideas and character that matter.

By sneakers41 — On Jul 16, 2011

@Cafe41 - I think election polling is important to the candidates, but I think the polls should be strictly internal. I realize that polling data does have some entertainment value because people want to know who is leading the horse race, but I think that presidential polls can be manipulated if the sample in one party is weighted higher than the sample of the other party. This happens a lot which is why I take presidential polls with a grain of salt.

I also wanted to add that exit polling in elections can also give erroneous data. For example, in the 2004 presidential election of President Bush vs John Kerry, the exit polling data indicated that John Kerry would win the election by a margin of 5% points. This clearly did not happen and President Bush got reelected by that margin.

This is why the only poll I worry about is the one on election day when the votes are finally counted.

By cafe41 — On Jul 15, 2011

Kat919 - I think that election polling does leave a lot of states out of the loop. I remember that the historic 2000 presidential election with President Bush vs Al Gore had a lot of problems, and it had to do with the battleground state of Florida.

Part of the problem with that election was that the polls were still open when the state of Florida was called for Al Gore. People in Pensacola were still voting. Apparently a lot of people in the media forgot that this part of Florida was not in the Eastern time zone like the rest of the state so it did cause problems.

Who knows how many people actually came out to vote for President Bush but gave up when they heard these media reports that later were proved wrong.

By strawCake — On Jul 14, 2011

@Monika - The constant campaigning can be annoying, I agree. But some people get really into politics and actually enjoy that kind of stuff.

Also, I think it might be nice to hear some of the candidates speak live. However, it seems like if you don't live in a battleground state the likelihood of that happening is pretty slim!

By Monika — On Jul 14, 2011

I had no idea campaigning was done differently in different area. I live in a solidly blue state and I don't think I remember hearing much of anything during the last election. I guess this is why.

Honestly I'm kind of glad. I'm not that into politics and I don't need to be getting random phone calls every hour! When I want to know about the candidates I seek out information for myself on the internet and in magazine. I also watch the debates on TV.

In my opinion there's not that much you can learn from all the local campaigning anyway.

By Kat919 — On Jul 13, 2011

@jholcomb - I agree with you. The problem with just electing the president by the popular vote is that then the candidates might focus just on big cities and population centers. I think a nice solution might be the way Maine, I think, has it--where the electoral votes are divided up according to the popular vote. Maybe it could be done by congressional district--you get one electoral vote for each district you win, plus two more if you win the whole state.

A lot of people don't realize this, but in the 2000 election, Al Gore had actually won the popular vote. But he lost the election because when the dust settled from the battleground state of Florida, the Bush ticket had more electoral votes.

By jholcomb — On Jul 12, 2011

It just doesn't seem right to me that the only certain states wind up being the target of the campaigns. Once, I moved from Missouri to Georgia during the presidential election. We went from hearing lots of presidential ads to none at all. Missouri is a traditional battleground state, while Georgia was solidly Republican. Then during the 2008 election, we took a trip to Virginia. Again, we'd been hearing nothing in Georgia. You would hardly know there was an election on. But my mom back home was getting robocalls every hour and a half! Because Virginia was a battleground state and Georgia wasn't in play.

It just seems like everyone should get a chance to hear from the candidates to decide who they want to vote for--and, more importantly, should get a chance for the candidates to listen to their state and local needs.

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