How Swing States Gain Disproportionate Power in Washington, D.C.

Most presidential aspirants strive to be elected, and most incumbents already in Washington, D.C., strive to be reelected. Inevitably, the electoral system exercises a strong influence over a presidential candidate’s or incumbent’s policy proposals. Under the current Electoral College, whereby presidents are elected indirectly by electors from each state, most states determine electors on a winner-takes-all basis.

What this means in practice is that many states, which are either heavily Republican or heavily Democratic, are uncompetitive in a presidential election. Whichever party is assured the popular vote win in that state will take home all its electoral votes.

The corollary to this system is that a small number of competitive states (so-called swing states) exercise a disproportionate influence in choosing the presidential victor. And winning over the voters in these crucial swing states is the main objective of each presidential candidate.

Presidential policymaking, and thus federal policymaking, is influenced by swing state constituents. U.S. policy toward Cuba, for example, has been shaped in no small part by the anti-Castro views of the large Cuban American community in the swing state of Florida. U.S. trade policy has been influenced by generally free trade–skeptical union votes in rustbelt swing states like Ohio.

Nothing is inherently wrong or insidious about interest groups affecting U.S. policy. Policymaking is a vibrant and inclusive process. The Electoral College system simply encourages the presidential candidates to pay additional attention to certain interest groups whose strategic location gives them greater electoral significance than they would otherwise enjoy.

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