Chart of the day: Tipping point states

By Jonathan Bradley in Sydney, Australia

22 May 2012


This chart from Nate Silver is a bit old in Internet time (i.e. a few weeks), but it's still great:

A chart by Nate Silver showing cumulative electoral vote totals

Silver explains:

The most rigorous way to define this is to sort the states in order of the most Democratic to the least Democratic, or most Republican to least Republican. Then count up the number of votes the candidate accumulates as he wins successively more difficult states. The state that provides him with the 270th electoral vote, clinching an Electoral College majority, is the swingiest state — the specific term I use for it is the “tipping point state.”

From Barack Obama’s perspective in 2008, for instance, his easiest three electoral votes were in the District of Columbia. The next-easiest were the four electoral votes in Hawaii, giving him seven total. Repeat this process and you find that Colorado was the tipping point state in 2008, putting him over the top with 278 electoral votes. (Although, winning Iowa but not Colorado would have sufficed to give Mr. Obama 269 electoral votes, an exact tie in the Electoral College.)

Australian politics buffs might recognise this as being similar in concept to the pendulum graphs you see around election time here. The idea is that since swings tend to be fairly uniform in nature, you can pinpoint the most important seats in any given race by locating the tipping point — the spot where a victory gives one side or another the requisite numbers for victory. In 2008, as the graphic shows, it was Obama's victory in Colorado that secured him the presidency. Interestingly, the more famed swing state of Ohio was actually just gravy.

Naturally, the tipping point changes over time. According to Silver, in 1984 it was Michigan. In 2008, Michigan only took Obama to 184 electoral college votes — he had to add on another 86 to win.

Tags: Charts, Election 2008, Election 2012, Electoral College, Nate Silver

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