“But I Don’t Live in a Swing State”

I guess there’s no better morning to write this, is there?

When I write about elections, I almost invariably get U.S. voters telling me that, sure, they agree with what I have to say, but they don’t live in a swing state1. Why do they tell me this? They say this when they’re justifying to themselves and trying to justify to me voting for an outcome they don’t want.

  • Sure, our presidential election is between a highly effective politician with some bad decisions under her belt and an ignorant, impulsive fascist, but I don’t live in a swing state.
  • Sure, women, people of color, sexual minorities, immigrants, etc. are in deep trouble if this election goes the wrong way, but I don’t live in a swing state.
  • Sure, the ascendance of the far right wing in Europe is an international crisis we need to not contribute to, but I don’t live in a swing state.

You get the idea.

Map of the U.S., showing only Minnesota, Georgia, West Virginia, Maryland, DC, Rhode Island, and Hawaii in blue.
Via Wikimedia Commons.

What I usually tell people is that I lived in Minnesota in 1980, which means I understand like few do that there is no such thing as a state that isn’t a swing state.2 Look at that electoral college map. Look at those “safe” Democratic states. Look at blue Minnesota and understand that our current Democratic governor is the first since the early 1990s. Look at Georgia, part of that Republican South.

Strangely enough, that feeling that certain states are always and forever going to vote a particular way has roots in this election. This was the election that led huge chunks of the Democratic Party to give up hope on a progressive agenda. It’s a trend that didn’t start with this election, and calling Carter’s resounding defeat a referendum on progressivism is quite a stretch. Still, it happened. It’s hard to look at election results like this without feeling they must mean doom for something. Progressivism it was.

So I tell people there’s no such thing as a state that isn’t a swing state because it’s true. Elections go to the people who turn out and cast their vote. Elections go to the people who change their vote because they think the world can change.

I tell people there’s no such thing as a state that isn’t a swing state because one election influences the next. Progressives didn’t believe they could win in Reagan’s America. That meant they didn’t run. The Republicans in my “safe” Democratic city don’t bother to put real, competent candidates on the ballot. Sometimes they don’t run any candidate in a city race. They would if the vote were closer.3

Now I can also tell people that we’re terrible at evaluating what a swing state is in any given election. Unfortunately for the UK, I’ll be pointing to their vote yesterday to leave the European Union. Why?

In a sense, the E.U. referendum joins a pretty long list of election forecasting errors. But this one was a bit different: It was not a cataclysmic polling failure.

The polls consistently indicated that there was a very real chance that Britain would vote to leave. Polling averages even showed “Leave” with a lead for most of the last month; over all, 17 of the 35 surveys conducted in June showed the Leave side with the edge, while just 15 showed Remain ahead.

Yet at the same time, betting markets indicated that Remain was a clear favorite. The arguments for making Remain a favorite were understandable, but in retrospect, some look more like wishful thinking than a fair-minded assessment of the data:

There were polls saying the UK would vote to leave the EU. That wasn’t what prognosticators said, though. Then there were late, even election-day polls saying people had voted to stay. These were close enough that social desirability bias should be a concern in an election many people said was about racism, but they were reported straight.

Belief far too often won out over data in what the public was told. As you can see from the tweet at the top of this post, that means people felt safe to vote for the outcome they didn’t want.

We can see that happening here and now, as well. Trump was never supposed to become the Republican nominee. It wasn’t just early polling that pundits have ignored. At nearly every step through the primary path, Jeb Bush or Ted Cruz or Marco Rubio was supposed to pull out some miracle. It didn’t happen. There are still people telling us with breathless certainty that a Republican Party in disarray will do something to guarantee that Trump isn’t their candidate.

Some people believe them, even though there’s no solid information to base that on. People want to believe that, because the alternative is unthinkable to them.

The problem with the unthinkably bad outcome is that it sometimes happens anyway. We have to think about it to stop it, and we don’t. We won’t. We find ways to tell ourselves that our actions don’t matter instead. We say our votes don’t count. We say the outcome is predetermined despite a history and a present that tell us otherwise.

Sometimes that means saying, “…but I don’t live in a swing state.” This election in particular–these stakes, these risks–I’m not letting that slide. This is a lesson we have to learn. Don’t be one of those voters who chooses an outcome they don’t want and wakes up to a world like this.


  1. Or a safe district or a party town, but I’ll stick with one level of political election for simplicity here. 
  2. I should have looked at the results, because I wasn’t old enough to vote at the time and remembered the results as being slightly more dramatic than they were. 
  3. No, parties really don’t look at “protest votes”. Sorry about that. It’s pragmatism, though. You’ve seen all the progressive people this election yelling about how they’ll never ever ever vote for the corrupt Democrats? They mean it. The party knows that. You have to be a winnable demographic to shift the agenda of a political party. 
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“But I Don’t Live in a Swing State”

17 thoughts on ““But I Don’t Live in a Swing State”

  1. 4

    Except when people say they don’t live in a swing state, so they’ll vote Stein because they aren’t allowed to vote for Sanders, they aren’t voting for an outcome they don’t want… they’re voting for an outcome they do want, but that is made exceedingly unlikely for them by the failings of First Past The Post elections.

    The two most hated candidates in the history of unfavorability metrics are Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, in that order. Ask yourself how a “democratic” process produces such a result. Or at least when people say they don’t want either one of those people anywhere near the white house, believe them.

  2. 5

    Oh, I completely believe them. I also believe people want the things they pray for. Wanting it just doesn’t make prayer or abstaining from the real decision at hand work.

  3. 6

    If we didn’t have a winner-take-all system, you’d have a point. However, even discounting many of the factors that affect voter turnout, the way the system is set up does ultimately mean that if you don’t live in a swing state, your vote will indeed not make a difference. Especially not if you live somewhere delegates aren’t even required to cast their votes in line with the general populace. Most would be better off paying attention to local elections, where their votes would have far more power.

  4. 8

    I just came to say Jimmy Carter won Georgia because he’s from Georgia and Loyalty is a conservative value.

    But that’s not even a quibble — I love this post. If the Brexit vote doesn’t cause us to sit up and take notice, nothing will.

  5. 9

    I don’t think I live in a swing state, but I’m voting deep blue anyhow. What not believing I live in a swing state means to me is that I’m phone banking in other states to GoTV and every nickel I can spare goes to races that look close but winnable for Democrats.

    I suppose that’s not the usual meaning. I was a bigger fan of Bernie on policy terms than I was of Clinton, but now that’s OVER, and it’s time to do the hard work required to win in November.

    To be brutally honest, cishet white dudes in the computing industry like me are not going to be hit all that hard right away if Trump wins. My relative security doesn’t make me OK with having other people brutalized and killed, which they most assuredly will be as a consequence of a Trump victory.

  6. 10

    Okay. After telling minorities that they’re ‘hostage-takers’ for not voting how you want them to vote regardless of whether or not it’s in their best interests, after pushing people fighting for the protection of people of color down for the sake of theoretically protecting your white cis feminism, after refusing a slightly more progressive candidate because he wasn’t enough of a politician, after berating people who vote ‘on principle’ even though you are very very very likely to get to vote for your candidate purely on prinicple no matter much you pretend, and after gleefully declaring yourself impure while attacking anyone who dares even make an ATTEMPT at cleaning up, you’re actually going to chide people for not voting the way you want in safe states by coming up with a demographically impossible nonsense argument designed to scare people with data that’s no longer relevant? Fuck off.
    Over the past few months you have done every single fucking thing you can to put responsibility on absolutely anyone but yourself and the things you want. Are you going to help the Greens grow into a proper leftist political party like you encouraged them to do? Of course not. You’re just going to concern troll them so you can look good. (And I’m sure the second the Greens manage to do what you want you will instantly scream ‘spoiler party’.) Are you going to push for voting reform so the swing state thing isn’t as much as an issue? Maybe you will. It would be nice. If you’ve already done so, I’ve unfortunately missed it. But if you’re NOT going to do that, maybe you should consider not berating people who are hurt and angry for trying to do something more than vote for the lesser evil.
    Every chance you’ve been given over the past few months to be more supportive of minority rights than ‘white cis feminist’, you’ve not just refused, but happily pushed down. Yet you still expect people, such as trans women like me, to accept your cruel politik. You happily redefine purity around yourself by declaring yourself the perfect amount of ‘impure’ and are completely fine with getting blood on your hands as long as you yourself don’t choke on it, no matter who else dies. And if anyone even tries to clean up their own blood, even a little bit, you declare them trying too hard to be ‘pure’. Somehow, we’re impure for caring. Somehow, we’re hostage-takers for sticking up for ourselves against a party that has used us for decades and the people who tell us to let them beat us lest the other guy beat us more. I’m tired of being mistreated, I’m tired of being talked down to, I’m tired of watching fascism return because we refuse to do anything more but delay them with moderation, and I’m tired of being your puppet to defend you from Republicans while you tell me to wait my turn for another four years. I just want you to take even the TINIEST amount of responsibility for the things you believe in, when you’re so willing to demand everyone else around you do exactly what you want. Will you?

    (Oh, if you want to talk Brexit, there are a lot of people mad that Labour dropped the ball on supporting Remain. Maybe keep the possibility of your own beliefs in mind before you find someone to point fingers at.)

  7. 11

    Colleen, I don’t think I’m doing any of that. To take one example, “hostage-takers” comes from here, where I am specifically talking about people threatening others with President Trump. I don’t see how President Trump is in any minority’s interest.

    What I do think I’m doing is reminding people that there’s a difference between what they want their actions to accomplish and what they actually will accomplish. I think I’m educating people about how this Byzantine system works and where people need to push if they want to change it. No one is impure for caring, but we’re all susceptible to caring so much that we’re paralyzed or ineffectual when it comes to action.

    I do work on voting reform to the extent I can. In some ways I’m limited in what I can do with that because I live in Minneapolis, where we have local IRV and statewide policies that result in turnout that’s usually the highest in the nation and a relatively robust Green Party because people already understand acting locally. But I do campaign to protect those and push to expand them. One of the issues that makes me care who gets the presidency is the fact that letting our Supreme Court drift rightward has eroded the Voting Rights Act. We can’t afford to have a Republican appointing justices if we want everyone to have access to the voting booth. I don’t talk about it as much as some other issues because it’s really hard to explain to people that they need to vote to protect everyone’s right to vote.

    But that’s what I think I’m doing. Obviously you think differently. I’m listening. What is it you’re looking for?

  8. 13

    Thank you for the reply. I’m sorry for my anger.

    I agree that President Trump would be completely terrible. I absolutely don’t want him in office or anywhere near it. I don’t even want him in his own office in Trump Tower. He would be absolutely awful for everyone, especially minorities, especially especially people of color. But that doesn’t mean that a President Clinton would be automatically acceptable, especially in a year when we had a chance to vote for someone who stood a chance of being at least decent.

    Regarding hostage takers, I was thinking more of the earlier piece you quoted from:

    How many coat-hanger abortions and arrests for miscarriages are you willing to condone in order to feel pure when you won’t vote because our president didn’t call people to account for torture? Where is that balance?

    How many people can be sold into dangerous prisons while you feel virtuous for abstaining from the party of the mayor who brought us the cover-up of a police shooting? How many Syrian refugees can remain in danger while you righteously declare “a pox on both their houses” over decisions from two wars ago? How many people will be denied access to their hospitalized partner while you point fingers at the Democrats who participated in obstructing same-sex marriage for a time? How many people can go hungry and ill now while you beat your chest about events of the 1990s? Just how bad can income inequality get while you lovingly stroke your conscience over Wall Street?

    This is focused on abstainers, but could easily just as well apply to people who might vote for a ‘spoiler’ candidate or otherwise try to do something that risks Democratic seats in the hope of stronger change. And a significant number of the examples you give ignore or elide the complicity of the Democratic party in creating and perpetuating these problems. (The first one also uncomfortably pushes a divide between first world women and foreign PoC, which is uncomfortable after so many terrible white feminist dogwhistles.)

    As such, when you talk about people ‘determined’ to bring about a Republican president (people who might not necessarily actively vote for a Republican as well) being ‘hostage-takers’, it hurts me as one of the ‘hostages’ you’re concerned about. I feel like I’ve been taken hostage already by the Democratic party, and cis liberals supporting them, for years. I’m told to wait my turn time after time, else I’m gonna get hurt, like a protection racket. Then I get hurt anyway. Maybe not as badly as I get hurt by Republicans, but it still hurts anyway. And then when I ask to be treated maybe a bit nicer, by voting Sanders or Stein or trying other actions, I get yelled at by the people who claim to be supporting me.

    Then it hurts more for you to talk about how you’re okay with your own personal level of complicity and accuse us of trying to be pure because we’re willing to ask for more. I know nobody’s ‘pure’. (I don’t believe anyone’s ‘impure’ either.) I know that neither Sanders nor Stein would magically fix everything (which is why earlier I talked about being treated a bit nicer, rather than not be hurt at all). But even that seems to be too much for you and other Clinton supporters, and it’s hard to believe that you don’t consider any deviation from the status quo a new form of impurity. As long as it’s not Trump hurting us because Trump can hurt you, any progressive change is too much too fast or something.

    And after this, it’s uncomfortable to hear you argue that not voting for Clinton in a safe state is still bad. Even the smallest attempts at making my voice heard are now ‘potentially dangerous’. Even though you live in Minnesota, a state that has reliably voted Democratic for decades, and I live in Illinois, a state that could only love Clinton more if she switched her last name to ‘Obama’. Sure every state can theoretically be a swing state but realistically that’s so unlikely it’s fearmongering. If Clinton absolutely needs my vote to secure Illinois, I will accept it and vote for her. But that’s incredibly unlikely, and demographically speaking, if that happens she’s lost the general election anyway.

    For this same reason, you have the luxury of voting for Clinton ‘in principle’ just as much as I have, even though you happily chide me for considering voting in principle otherwise. I don’t want to vote for another middle-right candidate for the sake of defeating a far-right candidate. It’s only resulted in the whole country going farther and farther right. I want to push for a true modern leftism and I don’t think I can do that with this vote. As such, it seems best used in protest. It’s not the only thing I should do, not even close. But it’s still something important.

    What am I looking for? A sense that this election will lead to something more to a bandaid on a festering sore of fascism. I want to see a growing, vibrant Left that can stand for itself without needing to go ‘we’re still better than the other guy’. At the moment I’d be okay with a coalition between Greens and Democrats or socialists and left-liberals and so on. But I’m not actually sure how to make any of that happen. It looks like the only choices right now are to either go back into the neoliberal fold and hope we don’t end up with a choice between two fascists in eight years, or to leave that behind and hope I’m not torn down by people who wonder if I’m in it to attract hot Berniebros or to vote against my Oedipal image of my mother.

    Maybe I just ended up using you as a lightning rod for all my frustrations. Again, I’m sorry. But I really am hurt by a lot of what’s happened in this election, including some of the stuff you’ve said. I hate that after years of fighting against brocialism I’m lumped in with shitty Berniebros for my politics, while a lot of Clinton supporters get to be cruel and look nice doing so because they’re winning. It feels way too much like how whites, men, Christians, etc get to look nice compared to their ‘angrier’ respective minority groups. I guess that’s another thing I’m looking for: a way to deal with that hurt safely and fairly. (That isn’t meant to be a request that you personally be the one to do that. That’s absolutely not a job you have to do or should ever be expected to do.)

  9. 14

    Hillary Clinton can’t win New York without my vote? It won’t be because I’m a crappy voter. It’ll be because she’s a crappy candidate. Your stance is political victim blaming. We got drunk on a yearning that politics doesn’t have to be a wholly owned subsidiary of the corporatocracy, and look what happened to us. What did we expect?

  10. 15

    Well this is just kind of bewildering, so I’ll just respond and see what you have to say. A safe state is any state where the outcome, by the time you get to election day, is all but determined. This is most states. The strategy is useful to those who will seek to support a candidate/political party other than the major two, but who want one of the major two to win.

    If one is confused about whether or not they live in a safe state, there’s no need to decide now. If it is not immediately obvious, my suggestion is to watch the professional polling (minding the +- margin of error) up to the latest ones before election day. Also be aware of any possible late coming political wave and also the closeness of the election nationally. If the election in your state is within the margin of error or otherwise close enough to go either way in your estimation, and your state could potentially swing the election, then vote major party. (Since this is The Orbit, I assume this is pretty much a discussion of whether or not to vote for Clinton or Stein, so I will say Clinton for when I mean major party candidate and Stein when I mean your preferred minor party vote.) If the national election is clearly going to be a wipeout one way or the other, go ahead and vote Stein whether or not your state is close, especially if your state has few electors.

    To suggest that there’s no such thing as a state that isn’t a swing state is kind of incomprehensible. Do you think the District of Columbia could go either way if people just got out and voted? Wyoming? No one thinks this. If you don’t want to argue with a blog commenter argue with the political professionals who routinely pull resources from one state to another up until election day in presidential elections because they know certain states are too far gone (or solidly in their pocket) for them to win/lose. My state, Michigan, played this role in 2008 when the Republican side decided to pull out weeks before the campaign when they knew they had no chance. Sarah Palin wanted to continue to campaign here, and said so on national tv, which was a contributing factor to the campaign pros dismissing her out of hand (see: Game Change).

    So why vote for Stein at all if you want Clinton to win? Ramifications after the fact. The Green Party has increased it’s presidential vote total each time since 2004, and if it goes down now it will be noticed and discussed. The spin almost certainly will be that there’s no call for those kind of values, candidates or politics and the end result will be to pull the whole game over to the right. What you referring to (I think) when you said that looking at election results meant doom for progressives could be a positive spin for Green Party politics/values. Someone new is going to be inaugurated in January whether they win by a huge margin or a couple of electoral votes. But the after-the-fact analysis will carry weight for many facets of politics, and minor party strength is one of them. Also, if you are someone who wants the Greens to continue to carry on so that they can be on the map, field candidates and afford a choice to American voters it behooves you to help increase their vote totals where possible. Quite often whether or not they even have a ballot line will depend how well they do in a major election. The Democratic Party does not need to build credibility; they have it. The Greens have to, and I think it would be a shame if they went backwards simply because people did not properly study their options.

    Yes, some don’t think before they vote or do not properly study what they’re voting on. This is an on-going problem in the US – just read any number of newspaper interviews with people who thought that “I’d like to have a beer with him” or “I listened to him/her on the radio and liked something they said about schools.” This is why I’m against mandatory suffrage; uneducated ill-informed people voting can do damage to the whole and even to what they hold dear whether or not they realize it. But this is what we are both trying to correct. Educate people on options, analysis and what is at stake in the big picture and you can make the best choice for you.

  11. 16

    I tell people there’s no such thing as a state that isn’t a swing state because one election influences the next.

    Hmm: “one election influences the next”. Do you think that might possibly factor into the thinking of at least some people who vote Green, despite being sure their candidate won’t win, because a good showing in this election could influence the next? A good showing in a national election might even influence votes for the proverbial local dog-catcher (yes, I know you don’t actually vote for actual dog-catchers).

    I just don’t think it’s true that there’s no state that isn’t a swing state. If Trump comes anywhere near winning Massachusetts, or Clinton anywhere near winning Oklahoma, the overall result is known beyond a reasonable doubt. In such states, why shouldn’t someone who actually wants Stein to win – despite being sure she won’t – express that wish in the polling booth?* That’s quite different, ethically and strategically, from voting “Leave” as a “protest vote” when you actually want “Remain” to win, as a significant number of irresponsible fools appear to have done in our referendum.

    *Just to be clear, if I was American, and lived in such a state, that’s what I’d do. If living in most states, I’d vote for Clinton – and work to get the vote out, too. I’d probably even donate to Clinton’s campaign while voting Green in Oklahoma.

  12. 17

    Ah, yes, 1980. That was my very first election. I was 18, and I burned with passion for third-party candidate John Anderson. I canvassed door-to-door for him. I agreed with him on every issue, and he was going to burn down the two-party system. Besides, I thought there wasn’t the slightest bit of difference between Carter and Reagan.

    I was young and stupid. With every awful thing that Reagan did the next decade, and on into the decade after that as well while the consequences continued to be felt, I knew that he was partly my responsibility. I regret that vote now to my core.

    Don’t be stupid like me, ok?

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