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When swing states stop swinging

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This commentary originally appeared on The Hill.

Swing states do not swing forever.

Some states will oscillate between elections for decades. Other states, will become solidly red or blue in just a few election cycles. Connecticut switched between parties in presidential elections five time between 1932 until it become solidly Democratic after 1992. Likewise, New Jersey, California, Oregon and Washington all swung four times between 1932 and 1992, then each became a Democratic state.

Arkansas and Louisiana, unlike most other southern states, were still swingable into the 1990's before becoming uncompetitive Republican spectators to the national electoral drama.

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By "swing states," I am referring to the nine or ten perennial campaign battleground states that have, since 1988, been decided by less than five percentage points in the majority of elections, are usually bellwethers mirroring the national vote in those elections, and which have flipped between Democrat and Republican victories.

Colorado, Florida, Iowa, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Mexico, North Carolina, Ohio and Virginia stand as swing states today.

Recently, the most remarkable swing state to stop swinging was Missouri – the ultimate bellwether of the nation for most of the 20th century. It was competitive 24 out of 26 elections from 1904 to 2008. McCain in 2008 barely won the state, and after Mitt Romney won the state in 2012 by 10 percent. Missouri has shown no signs of swinging again.

Trump now leads there by double digits. In several ways Missouri gives some clues about the formula for shifting a swing state into a red state. What happened?

Missouri's proportions of urban and rural, black and white, Catholic and Protestant, liberal and conservative values was a microcosm of the U.S. during the 20th century. But as the Missouri's rural population began to grow in the 1990s, the Democratic Party became increasingly liberal and focused on issues important to people of color and urban dwellers.

Republican campaigns became far more effective at identifying and mobilizing suburban voters and especially white evangelicals. By 2012 white evangelicals made up about 37 percent of the electorate, and three-quarters of them voted for Romney. The result was that suburban and rural voters tilted strongly enough to neutralize the Democrats' advantages in urban areas.

Missouri's changes might be starting to occur in that battleground of all battlegrounds — Ohio.

"Recently, the most remarkable swing state to stop swinging was Missouri – the ultimate bellwether of the nation for most of the 20th century."

The Buckeye state has swung seven out of the last fourteen elections, and has been decided by less than five percentage points in five of the last seven elections. But this year the polls have usually tilted toward Trump. Although Ohio has a long history as a bellwether, is it possible that it is following Missouri's pattern? Obama won the state narrowly in 2008 and 2012, but white evangelicals in Ohio are beginning to turnout and vote increasingly like Missouri's.

As in Missouri, rural and suburban voters in Ohio were over 75 percent of the electorate in 2012. They too overwhelmingly voted for Romney, though not as strongly as they did in Missouri. Ohio's percentage of white voters is even larger than Missouri's, and they tilted more strongly to Romney in 2012 than they did in Missouri.

In both Missouri and Ohio, black and Latino voters were less likely to vote in 2012 than they were in 2008. Current polling in Ohio by Remington research this week suggests that minorities once again may have lower turnout than 2008 compared to whites. It will come down to which campaign can turn out their voters most effectively on election day and in years to come.

Just as Ohio seems to be trending toward the Republicans, swing states Virginia, Colorado and New Hampshire are starting to look like solid Democratic states. These are states that are changing very differently than Missouri. For example, Virginia's rate of urbanization since 1970s was double the national rate, as its suburbs gained ethnic diversity.

Virginia along with North Carolina and New Hampshire, is one of the top states in net migration gains from other states. Not only is Virginia gaining younger minority voters, but also whites who are non-evangelicals and more likely to be Democratic-leaning independents. In 2012 Obama won the state by less than four percent.

In 2016, however, not a single poll in this election cycle has shown Donald Trump in the lead in Virginia. Although Clinton is no longer leading there by double digits, the realclearpolitics.com average of recent polls still has Clinton with over a five-point lead – certainly competitive, but a comfortable lead.

Virginia is rapidly urbanizing and its balance between white and minority, and evangelic versus non-evangelical, is beginning to match the national demographic trends. Just when political experts got used to Virginia as a swing state, it already appears to be swinging out of the swing state club.

Will the purple hues of Virginia change into solid blue? Will Ohio become redder? If they continue to follow the pathways of other former swing states, yes, eventually. Maybe sooner than we expect.

Commentary by Scott McLean, professor of Political Science at Quinnipiac University. He is a contributing author in Presidential Swing States: Why Only Ten Matter, edited by Stacy Hunter Hecht and David Schultz (Lexington Books,2015).

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