US elections 2012: the swing states

By Thomas Oakey & Tom Phillips, MSN News John Moore/Getty Images
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The eternal swing state, Ohio is once again crucial to the battle for the White House. No Republican has ever won the presidential race without winning Ohio, and that looks likely to continue this year. If Mitt Romney fails to take the state, which Barack Obama won in 2008, he will need shock results elsewhere to have any hope of becoming president.

Combining the sprawling metropolitan areas of Columbus, Cincinnati and Cleveland - complete with their pockets of poverty and growing affluent suburbs - with rugged and rural plateaus, 312 miles of Lake Erie coastline and the wetlands of the Great Black Swamp, it’s no wonder the mid-western state of Ohio is described as a slice of everything American.

Politically, Ohio has always shared a unique relationship with the United States presidency; seven of its sons have been sent to the White House, earning the state the nickname the “mother of presidents”.

In terms of party support, the state does have ties with the Republicans; the seven Ohio presidents were Republican candidates and current senator John Kasich is Republican. That said, the Grand Old Party only leads the Democrats 8-5 in electoral triumphs over last 13 elections, and neither party has been able to retain support for more than two consecutive elections; so the political allegiances of the Ohio electorate are highly variable.

Back in 2008, Obama won the state’s sizeable 18 Electoral College votes with a majority of 51.38% - a margin of just 4.59% - and we can expect to see a similar close-run race this year. Currently, the polls suggest that Obama will win Ohio once more - and with it, quite probably, the White House.

Quirky fact: The state of Ohio has produced seven US presidents: Ulysses S. Grant, Rutherford B. Hayes, James A. Garfield, Benjamin Harrison, William McKinley, William Howard Taft, and Warren G. Harding. The list of famous American faces doesn’t stop there. Other well-known Ohioans include Neil Armstrong, Steven Spielberg, Paul Newman, Annie Oakley, and Clark Gable.

State: Ohio
Electoral College votes: 18
2008 result: Obama 51.5%, McCain 46.91%
Governor: John Kasich (Republican)
Population (2010 Census): 11,536,504
Nickname: Buckeye State
Motto: With God, all things are possible

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Another perennial swing state - albeit one with a slight Republican bias - Florida became internationally infamous when it was the centre of the recount controversy in the 2000 presidential election, with the state eventually being declared for George W. Bush by only 0.0092% after the Supreme Court stopped a full recount. It's still not known to this day whether Bush or Al Gore would have won Florida (and with it the White House) had a full recount been carried out.

Home to everything from the party town of Miami to the vast alligator-filled wetlands of the Everglades, from the tourist hotspot of Disney World to the spaceflight centres of Cape Canaveral and the Kennedy Space Center, Florida is one of America's most varied and reliably odd states.

Demographically, Florida is also one of the most diverse states - encompassing everything from large urban populations to deeply conservative rural areas that resemble their neighbours in the deep south. The historic importance of two major groups in Florida - right-leaning Cuban exiles and white retirees - has lessened somewhat as the populations of African-Americans and non-Cuban Hispanics has grown in some areas, and has shifted the state very slightly towards the Democratic party, although it still tends to lean Republican.

This year, polls suggest that Florida may be the closest of all states, with Mitt Romney marginally the favourite to take it - but only just. A Romney victory in Florida would not guarantee him the White House, but it's pretty certain that if he can't take the Sunshine State the Republican can abandon any hopes of winning the election.

Quirky fact: Florida has two rivers both called the Withlacoochee River - one in the north and one in the south. Apart from both being called Withlacoochee, they don't appear to have anything to do with each other.

State: Florida
Electoral College votes: 29
2008 result: Obama 51.03%, McCain 48.22%
Governor: Rick Scott (Republican)
Population (2010 Census): 18,801,310
Nickname: Sunshine State
Motto: In God We Trust

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Established as the first New World English colony in 1607, the “Old Dominion” of Virginia is home to over eight million Americans, and its geography is marked by Chesapeake Bay to the east, and the Blue Ridge Mountains to the west.

Much like nearby Ohio, the state of Virginia has a remarkable relationship with the US presidency; four of the first five presidents hailed from the east coast state (George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and James Monroe), while four more have followed since 1913, making it the most prolific president-producer in the history of the US.

Politically, in the first half of the 20th century, the state ardently supported the Democratic Party. However, following Dwight Eisenhower’s watershed victory in 1952, Virginians have voted almost exclusively for the Republican Party. In fact, only Lyndon B. Johnson’s landslide in 1964 and Barack Obama in 2008 have managed to buck that trend.

The 2008 election, the first Democrat victory in Virginia in over 40 years, was aided by changing demographics within the region; a dramatic increase in the Hispanic and Asian population put the state’s 13 electoral votes in to play, and gave Obama a 7% margin of victory over John McCain. This sudden shift in its from its long-term political allegiances in the last election means Virginia is a swing state to watch - and currently, the polls suggest Obama might narrowly repeat his 2008 victory there, although it will be close.

Quirky fact: Along with the eight US leaders born there, seven presidents are also buried in Virginia (Washington, Jefferson, Madison, Monroe, Tyler, Taft and Kennedy), while the wives of six leaders can also call Virginia their home (Martha Washington, Martha Jefferson, Rachel Jackson, Letitia Tyler, Ellen Arthur, Edith Wilson).

State: Virginia
Electoral College votes: 13
2008 result: Obama 52.63%, McCain 46.33%
Governor: Bob McDonnell (Republican)
Population (2010 Census): 8,001,024
Nickname: The Old Dominion
Motto: Sic semper tyrannis (Thus always to tyrants)

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Colorado was where the wheels threatened to come off Barack Obama's re-election efforts - his sleepy performance in the first debate in Denver looked for a while like it might have become the tipping point of the entire election. And the state also looks likely to be one of the closest-fought races in this presidential election.

That's something relatively new for the Centennial State; until very recently, it was a reliably Republican state, only voting Democrat twice in the past 50 years. But a the growth of the high-tech industry - bringing with it an influx of young, educated voters - along with an increasing Hispanic population has shifted the straight-sided state firmly into "swing" territory.

With a stunning landscape that mixes the Rocky Mountains with high plains, canyons and large rivers, Colorado sits near the middle of the USA. A large part of its population is centred around the cities of Denver and Boulder and their suburbs, and the rest sparsely scattered through the vast rural areas. This mix of liberal-leaning urbanites and traditional rural voters makes it very much the kind of middle America battleground that the candidates are fighting for. Currently, polls suggest that the race will be very close - although Barack Obama is narrowly the favourite.

Quirky fact: Denver, Colorado is the only city ever to have turned down hosting the Olympic Games. They were awarded the 1976 Winter Olympics, but in 1972 - concerned by the rising costs of staging the event -  the city's population overwhelmingly voted to reject the Games. They were eventually hosted by Innsbruck, Austria instead.

State: Colorado
Electoral College votes: 9
2008 result: Obama 53.66%, McCain 44.71%
Governor: John Hickenlooper (Democratic)
Population (2010 Census): 5,029,196
Nickname: Centennial State 
Motto: Nil sine numine (Nothing without the Deity)

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North Carolina

With an economy founded on tobacco and furniture, which diversified to include engineering, finance and bioscience sectors, North Carolina is now the 10th most populous state in the US with over nine million citizens; and can boast the great Appalachian mountain range to its west, and the Atlantic ocean to its east.

Politically, like a number of the other southern states, North Carolina was a constant supporter of the Democratic party in the first 60 years of the 20th century, before shifting to the Republicans following the 1964 presidential election.

In fact, the employment of a "southern strategy" by the Republican Party saw them triumph in the Tar Heel State in every election after 1968, bar Jimmy Carter’s election in 1976, and Barack Obama’s victory over John McCain in 2008.

Democratic support in 2008 was centred in North Carolina’s increasingly densely populated, urban communities, though the Republicans have retained a strong influence in the region's more rural areas. These conflicts led to President Obama’s very narrow 49.7% to 49.4% success, the second smallest margin of victory (behind Missouri) of the whole 2008 presidential election. Polls suggest North Carolina may be Mitt Romney's best bet of winning a swing state in this election; if he can't turn it back to the Republican column, he has no hope of victory.

Quirky fact: The state of North Carolina is often considered as the birthplace of human aviation. In 1903, the Wright Brothers made the famous first successful controlled, powered and sustained heavier-than-air human flight at Kill Devil Hill, near Kitty Hawk. The Wright Memorial now stands at Kitty Hawk to mark their momentous achievement.

State: North Carolina
Electoral College votes: 15
2008 result: Obama 49.69%, McCain 49.36%
Governor: Bev Perdue (Democratic)
Population (2010 Census): 9,535,483
Nickname: Tar Heel State
Motto: Esse quam videri (To be, rather than to seem)

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New Hampshire

Part of the New England region in north eastern America, New Hampshire was the first of the British North American colonies to break away from Great Britain in the 17th century, and is internationally famous as the state to hold the first of America’s nationwide series of party primary elections.

When it comes to political allegiances, though the state borders the traditionally Democrat-siding states of Maine, Vermont, Massachusetts and New York, New Hampshire is general considered in most election cycles to be one of America’s swing states. That said, the "Granite State" has followed its blue neighbours in recent years; opting for the Democrat candidate in four of the last five presidential elections. This includes handing Barack Obama a 9.6% victory over John McCain in 2008.

However, the strongly independent character of New Hampshire residents means that there is no certainty as to destination of the state’s four Electoral College votes come November. Polls suggest that Obama will replicate his 2008 victory, but it will likely be close.

Quirky fact: New Hampshire holds the honour of being the only state ever to host the formal conclusion of a foreign war. In 1905, a treaty to end the Russo-Japanese war was signed in the city of Portsmouth, NH. 

State: New Hampshire
Electoral College votes: 4
2008 result: Obama 54.13%, McCain 44.52%
Governor: John Lynch (Democratic)
Population (2010 Census): 1,316,470
Nickname: Granite State
Motto: Live Free or Die

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Iowa may only have a few electoral college votes - six, to be exact - but its long-standing nature as a swing state makes them very much worth competing for. Since the Hawkeye State turned from a largely farming-based population that historically favoured the Republicans to a more diverse economy, it's become something of a bellwether - a state that shows which way the election is going. It voted for Barack Obama in 2008, George W. Bush in 2004, Bill Clinton in the 1990s and Ronald Reagan in the 1980s.

Home to large, flat prairies, with over half the state covered by crops, Iowa has little in the way of large cities - Des Moines, with a population of just over 200,000, is the largest. Unlike many other swing states, Iowa isn't terribly racially diverse - almost 90% of the population is white - and doesn't neatly divide into Republican and Democratic areas. Since the growth in jobs in the financial sector, high-tech manufacturing and biotechnology brought in a well-educated population, the state has become almost evenly split in terms of registered Democrats and Republicans, plus a lot of undecided voters. Hence its swing state status.

Currently, the polls suggest that Barack Obama is on course to repeat his 2008 victory in Iowa; if he loses here, it'll be a strong sign that an upset is likely.

Quirky fact: Riverside, Iowa is - as the picture above shows - the fictional birthplace of Star Trek's Captain James T. Kirk. He won't be born there for another 221 years, though.

State: Iowa
Electoral College votes: 6
2008 result: Obama 53.93%, McCain 44.39%
Governor: Terry Branstad (Republican)
Population (2010 Census): 3,046,355
Nickname: Hawkeye State
Motto: Our liberties we prize and our rights we will maintain

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With the iconic neon lights of the Las Vegas Strip, the harsh desert landscapes and the snow-capped Sierra Nevada mountain range, there’s no doubt that Nevada is one of the most eye-catching and recognisable states in America. Though founded on silver mining, Nevada flourished in the early 20th century after its adoption of libertarian attitudes towards gambling and prostitution, followed by divorce and gay marriage, in an attempt to attract settlers and tourists from surrounding states.

Politically, the "Silver State" is guaranteed to be a swing state, ensuring the race for Nevada's six electoral college votes will be a close one. It’s also considered a bit of a bellwether; excluding the 1976 election, Nevada has backed the winner of every presidential race since 1912.

When it comes to the voters, the Republican Party held a tight grip on the region between the late 1960s and late 1980s, with Nevadans opting for the Republican candidate on every occasion between 1969 and 1988. However, a population increase induced the state’s ‘swing’ status, and prompted Nevada to back Bill Clinton and Barack Obama either side of the Bush Jr. administration, with Obama victorious by a margin of 55% to 43%. Polls (and early voting patterns) suggest that Obama is a strong favourite to win Nevada once more.

Quirky fact: With Las Vegas as its largest city, Nevada is the spiritual home of gambling. Back in 1960, there were 16,067 slots in in the state. By 1999, that number had risen to 205,726, one for every 10 residents.

State: Nevada
Electoral College votes: 6
2008 result: Obama 55.15%, McCain 42.65%
Governor: Brian Sandoval (Republican)
Population (2010 Census): 2,700,551
Nickname: Silver State
Motto: All For Our Country and Battle Born

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With vast forests that cover over 45% of land, thousands of open glacial waters, and the great lakes of Superior and Michigan to its north and east; the Midwestern state of Wisconsin can certainly match any of its rival regions in the natural beauty stakes.

When it comes to politics, the 10 electoral college votes available for Wisconsin have gone to the Democratic candidate in each of the last five general elections, and Barack Obama won comfortably by 13.9% in 2008. But it’s not quite the straightforward Democrat stronghold as these results would suggest. Historically the state has strong Republican ties; after giving birth to the name "Republican" for the party, it supported the Republicans during the American civil war, and gave the world the infamous communist-hunting Republican senator Joseph McCarthy. The last two years have witnessed a resurgence in the Grand Old Party’s support in Wisconsin too. Republican Scott Walker was elected senator in January 2011, his support underlined when he comfortably survived a recall in March 2011, the first governor to do so in the history of the US (although he faces a tough battle to be re-elected again this year).

Moreover, Mitt Romney's vice-presidential candidate Paul Ryan is a popular congressman from Wisconsin - the Romney campaign had high hopes that his personal popularity would help them win not just Wisconsin, but other swing states in the Mid-West as well. Polls currently suggest, however, that the plan has failed, and Wisconsin will vote Democrat once more.

Quirky fact: Wisconsin is home to the National Football League’s Green Bay Packers, who hold the record for the most NFL titles, winning 13 since joining the league in its second season in 1921. This has earned the city the nickname “Titletown USA”.

State: Wisconsin
Electoral College votes: 10
2008 result: Obama 56.22%, McCain 42.31%
Governor: Scott Walker (Republican)
Population (2010 Census): 5,686,986
Nickname: Badger State
Motto: Forward