Swing, Bellwether, and Red and Blue States: Demographics and the 2008 U.S. Presidential Election

(October 2008) Hardly a day has gone by over the past few months without a national poll tracking how this year’s U.S. presidential race is going. However, the U.S. presidential election actually is a series of 51 contests (50 states and the District of Columbia). Nearly all of these contests have a “winner take all” rule: A candidate who wins a particular state is entitled to all of that state’s electoral votes—the equivalent of that state’s total number of senators and representatives.1 There are two exceptions: In Maine and Nebraska, the winning candidate statewide gains two electoral votes, with the remainder determined by which candidate wins each congressional district.

With three electoral votes awarded to the District of Columbia, presidential candidates vie for a total of 538 electoral votes. With 270 votes needed for an electoral victory, a candidate theoretically need only win the country’s 11 most populous states—California, Texas, New York, Florida, Illinois, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, New Jersey, Georgia, and North Carolina—to get elected.

However, a single candidate is unlikely to sweep all of these states because of regional differences in voting patterns. Indeed, historical trends indicate that some states tend to be reliably Democratic or Republican.

The Reddest and the Bluest

PRB looked at the results from the last five elections (from 1988 through 2004) and identified 20 states that have been reliably Republican, with another 18 (plus the District of Columbia) that have been reliably Democratic.2 As the map shows, these states follow regional patterns: Republican states tended to be in the South, Great Plains, and Mountain West, while Democratic states tended to be in the Northeast, Great Lakes, and on the West Coast.

State Typologies Based on 1988-2004 Presidential Elections

Source: PRB analysis of data from National Archives and Records Administration, Electoral College website.

Many of the reliably Republican and Democratic states have had such patterns extend beyond the past two decades (see box). For example, Jimmy Carter carried Alabama, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Texas in 1976, but no Democrat has won any of these states since. And 11 other states (Alaska, Idaho, Indiana, Kansas, Nebraska, North Dakota, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Utah, Virginia, and Wyoming) haven’t gone for a Democratic presidential candidate since Lyndon Johnson’s landslide 1964 victory.

On the Democratic side, there’s the District of Columbia, which has never gone for a Republican since the 23rd Amendment in 1961 allowed its residents to vote in presidential elections. Minnesota has gone with the Democratic candidate every year since 1976, and except for the Republican landslide victories of 1972 and 1984, Hawaii and Rhode Island have voted Democratic in every election since 1960.

The Swing States As Bellwethers

Because of the historical voting patterns in many states, major-party presidential candidates tend to focus their campaigns on “swing states”—states where polls show a competitive race. Prior to the most recent trends, many of the largest states fit that category. Most of the 12 swing states identified by voting patterns over the last five elections can also be called “bellwethers” for their ability to vote reliably for the presidential winner. In recent years, the victorious candidate usually has won such states as Florida, Ohio, and Missouri.3

In fact, Ohio has voted for the winning candidate in every presidential election since 1964, and no Republican candidate has ever been elected without winning the state. Winning presidential candidates have also carried Missouri in every election since 1960, Kentucky and Tennessee since 1964, and Arkansas and Louisiana since 1972.

But the bellwether states do not always go with the winning candidate. While New Mexico has gone with the winning presidential candidate in all but two elections since its 1912 statehood, Al Gore carried the state in 2000.

Why Recent History May Not Hold in 2008

While these historical trends are useful in analyzing the outcome of the upcoming election, news reports and state polls in recent weeks have suggested that changes might be in play for 2008. Several states that have been reliably Republican over the past 20 to 40 years are considered swing (or “battleground”) states this time around. This list includes Colorado, North Carolina, and Virginia.

Three post-2000 demographic trends emerge when examining these new swing states:

  • Each state has a higher voting-age population (VAP) growth rate than the national average (9 percent).
  • The Hispanic rate of growth in voting population has been especially high.
  • Much of the growth has occurred among minority groups and in suburban, exurban, and urban areas (see table).

Florida, long considered a swing state, shares the same trends but to an even greater degree. These trends may have reshaped the political map as we have come to know it over the past couple of election cycles.

Change in Voting-Age Population (VAP), 2000-2007: Selected Battleground States in 2008

State Total VAP Increase Hispanic VAP Increase
Share of Total VAP Increase
Selected Racial/Ethnic Groups Metropolitan Areas
Traditionally Republican States
Colorado 15% 32% Hispanics: 32% 47% in Denver
North Carolina 12% 53% African Americans: 23% Hispanics: 18% 29% in Raleigh-Durham 25% in Charlotte
Virginia 10% 51% Hispanics: 21% African Americans: 21% Asian Americans: 15% 47% in Northern Virginia (including exurbs)
Traditionally Democratic States
Pennsylvania 3% 44% Hispanics: 38% African Americans: 24% Asian Americans: 20% 40% in Philadelphia suburbs
Swing States
Florida 15% 40% Hispanics: 42% African Americans: 19% 19% in Miami-Fort Lauderdale 16% in Orlando 14% in Tampa-St. Petersburg
Missouri 7% 48% African Americans: 15% Hispanics: 13% 35% in St. Louis 20% in Kansas City 15% in Springfield
Ohio 3% 34% African Americans: 26% Hispanics: 18% Asian Americans: 14% 43% in Columbus 34% in Cincinnati

Note: Data for African Americans and Asian Americans are for non-Hispanic members of these groups who did not identify with another racial group
Sources: Population Reference Bureau, analysis of data from U.S. Census Bureau, “Annual State Population Estimates with Sex, 6 Race Groups (5 Race Alone Groups and One Group with Two or more Race Groups) and Hispanic Origin: April 1, 2000 to July 1, 2007,” accessed online at on May 31, 2008; and “Annual Estimates of the Resident Population by Selected Age Groups and Sex for Counties: April 1, 2000 to July 1, 2007,” accessed online at, on Aug. 31, 2008.

Even states such as Pennsylvania, which has trended Democratic in recent elections but is still considered a political battleground, and the swing states of Missouri and Ohio exhibit similar trends. In each state, although the VAP growth rate was lower than the national average, the Hispanic VAP has grown faster than the national average and both minorities (at least in Pennsylvania and Ohio) and major metropolitan areas have accounted for most of the states’ VAP growth.

Registration and Voting Patterns

Demographic changes in the voting-age population mean little if the affected groups don’t turn out to vote. An examination of Census Bureau data from the 2004 presidential election show little difference in voting turnout between the Republican, Democratic, and swing states.4 For example, 60 percent of adults in the swing states reported having voted in the election, compared with 58 percent in the Democratic states and 57 percent in the Republican states.

Women were slightly more likely to vote than men in 2004: 60 percent versus 56 percent. The biggest differences, however, were among the age and racial/ethnic subgroups. While more than two-thirds of adults ages 45 and older reported voting in 2004, barely half (52 percent) of persons ages 25 to 44, and just over two-fifths (42 percent) of 18-to-24-year-olds voted. (Registration rates among the two latter groups were lower than the turnout rates among their older counterparts.) As for the racial groups, 66 percent of non-Hispanic whites, 56 percent of non-Hispanic blacks, and just 28 percent of Hispanics (a testament to Hispanics’ citizenship rates of 61 percent) voted in the 2004 election. (Among U.S. citizens, the respective rates were 67 percent for non-Hispanic whites, 60 percent for non-Hispanic blacks, and 47 percent for Hispanics.) Indeed, the lower citizenship rates of Hispanics will likely blunt their demographic growth for now (Hispanics’ 61 percent citizenship rate in 2007, compared with the 95 percent rate for non-Hispanic blacks and the 98 percent rate for non-Hispanic whites).5

Although the historical and demographic trends outlined here can help us examine possible voting patterns in 2008, other factors will also come into play as they do in every election. The troubled U.S. economy has emerged as the dominant campaign issue. The presence on this year’s ballot of both an African American major-party presidential candidate and a female major-party vice presidential candidate has generated interest among both voters and political analysts. And record voter registration numbers in many (if not most) states serve to make Nov. 4 a significant day in American history—regardless of the final outcome.

Kelvin Pollard is a senior demographer at PRB.


  1. For example, California has 55 electoral votes in the 2008 presidential election—one for the state’s two senators and 53 representatives, a number determined as a result of the 2000 census apportionment.
  2. Reliably Republican or Democratic states were defined as having voted with their respective party’s candidate in at least four of the last five elections, including 2004.
  3. Bellwether states were defined as states that went with the winning candidate in at least four of the last five elections, including 2004. Although Florida has also gone Republican in four of the last five elections, its current active streak of going for the winner (1996, 2000, and 2004) exceeds its active streak of going Republican (2000 and 2004). As a result, it was placed in the bellwether category.
  4. U.S. Census Bureau, “Voting and Registration in the Election of November 2004,” detailed tables accessed online at on Aug. 29, 2008. PRB used the 2004 election data rather than the 2006 election data because voter registration and turnout rates are considerably lower in mid-term election years.
  5. Population Reference Bureau analysis of data from U.S. Census Bureau, 2007 American Community Survey, Public Use Microdata Sample.

See also: Historical Presidential Election Typologies (PDF: 89KB)