Ad spending indicates that President Barack Obama and Mitt Romney are seriously competing in eight states, which together will absorb the bulk of the campaign’s manpower and cash, including the roughly $600 million in ads that are expected to run between now and Election Day.
The states — Ohio, Florida, Virginia, Colorado, Iowa, Nevada, Wisconsin, and New Hampshire — account for 95 of the 270 electoral college votes needed to win the election.
But just because a state is a battleground doesn’t mean the whole state swings. Within each of these states, the presidential race will likely be decided by a small number of counties — local campaign war zones that, in a very tight race, have the potential to determine the next President.
In each of the eight swing states, we’ve identified one county that went to George W. Bush in 2004, swung to Obama in 2008, and could now make or break the 2012 election for either candidate. We’ve broken down the list here, along with the voting patterns, economic conditions, and other key factors that could decide how each county swings this November.
Hillsborough County, Florida
Voting Record: Hillsborough County has sided with the statewide winner in every presidential election since 1960, with the exception of one, making it the swingy-est county in the country’s biggest swing state. In 2008, Obama beat John McCain in here, 53 percent to 46 percent, besting John Kerry’s 2004 results by seven percentage points. Kerry lost Hillsborough to George W. Bush, 53 percent to 45.7 percent.
County Snapshot: Home to Tampa, Hillsborough is one of five counties in Florida’s I-4 corridor, the swing area that has become the biggest battlefront in the 2012 campaign. Demographically, the county remains a toss-up: 75 percent of residents are white, and the suburbs tend to vote Republican; but the county’s Hispanic and African Americans communities have grown over the past decade, to 25 percent and 17 percent of the population, respectively, and the county’s urban areas now lean Democratic.
In 2008, the Obama campaign won Hillsborough by turning out minority and independent voters with a massive ground organization that never really left the county after the election. This time around, the Obama campaign has set up 77 field offices in Florida, compared to Romney’s 47. But Republicans made inroads by hosting its national convention in Tampa, and the powerful Florida state GOP has built up field operations to rival the Obama campaign.
Local Economy: Terrible. The I-4 corridor has been decimated by the collapse of Florida’s housing industry, and the Tampa area recorded the highest foreclosure rate in the country — 47 percent — for the first half of 2012. Unemployment was 9.2 percent in Hillsborough County in July, well above the state’s 8.8 percent jobless rate.
X-Factor: Money. Obama outspent McCain three-to-one in the Tampa market in 2008, but is unlikely to have that advantage again this year. Republican outside spending groups — including the pro-Romney SuperPAC Restore Our Future — spent millions flooding Florida’s expensive airwaves to help Romney in the Republican primary, and will likely do it again to take down Obama this fall.
Wood County, Ohio
Voting Record: Wood County voters don’t pick parties, they pick winners. Residents of this suburban Toledo County have voted for the eventual winner in every presidential election since at least 1980. In 2004, Bush won the county over John Kerry, 53 percent to 47 percent; in 2008, Obama beat John McCain 52 percent to 46 percent, mirroring the national margin.
County Snapshot: When the candidates talk about saving the “middle class,” they are talking about Wood County. Median income in the county is $53,298, slightly higher than the $52,000 national average, and just over half of adults have some type of college education. Wood County is 95 percent white, which puts Obama at a demographic disadvantage, but recent polls indicate he could make up the gap by turning out female voters.
Local Economy: A gradual economic upswing and voter support for the 2009 auto bailout could give Obama a much-needed boost in this bellwether. The largest private-sector employer in the county is Chrysler, which plans to add 1,100 jobs at its Jeep plant in Perrysburg next year. Wood County’s unemployment rate was 7.3 percent in July, down from 8.8 percent in June 2011.
X-Factor: Message. In a county where independents outnumber registered party voters 2-to-1, the race will go to the candidate with the most convincing argument.
Henrico County, Virginia
Obama campaigns in Richmond, Va.
Voting Record: A longtime bastion of Southern conservatism, Henrico County has morphed into the state’s swing-y-est county over the last decade. Bush won the county by 8 points in 2004; in 2008, Obama beat McCain here by a 56 percent to 44 percent margin, becoming the first Democratic presidential candidate to win Henrico since Lyndon B. Johnson. The county swung back to red in 2009, though, supporting Republican Bob McDonnell in Virginia’s gubernatorial race.
County Snapshot: Henrico’s electoral shift is primarily due to demographic changes and population growth in this once-predominantly white, exurban Richmond county. African-Americans now make up 30 percent of the population, up from less than 25 percent in 2000; the county’s Latino population has exploded 132 percent since 2000; and Asians now make up 6.3 percent of the county’s population, up from 3.6 percent in 2000. CNN’s Peter Hamby points out that the result is a county that looks like a cross-section of the entire state, with a mix of moderates, liberals, social conservatives, and suburban swing voters.
As a result, voter turnout is crucial to winning Henrico County. The Obama team has the advantage of experience here, but Republicans have stepped up their game since 2008. And half of the county lies in the district of House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, who will be under a lot of pressure to deliver for the GOP.
Local Economy: The unemployment rate was 5.8 percent in July, far below the national average.
X-Factor: The Senate race. Former Virginia Democratic Gov. Tim Kaine and former Republican Gov. George Allen, are locked in one of the tightest contests in the country, and strong Henrico County turnout for either candidate could affect the outcome of the presidential race there. Both candidates have won Henrico in previous elections, but Kaine, the former mayor of Richmond, probably has the advantage.
Brown County, Wisconsin
Voting Record: Brown County, home to Green Bay, is one of Wisconsin’s most purple counties. Brown voters voted for Obama over McCain, 54 percent to 45 percent in 2008 after backing Bush in 2000 and 2004. But the county flipped back again in Wisconsin’s 2010 gubernatorial election, giving Republican Scott Walker 56 percent of the vote. And in June, an astounding 75 percent of Brown voters turned out for the gubernatorial recall election, giving Walker a 20-point win in the county.
County Snapshot: Brown County is ground-zero for Walker-Obama voters. The blue-collar county is 90 percent white, with a median household income of $52,553, just above the national average. About 25 percent of voters have college degrees.
It is not yet clear where the Obama-Walker voter’s loyalties will lie in 2012. National polls show that Obama has lost support among non-college-educated white voters, but also indicate that these voters aren’t totally sold on Romney either.
Local Economy: Could be worse. Like many parts of the industrial Midwest, Brown County struggled with the decline in manufacturing, but has seen gradual improvement over the past several years. The regional economy has also become increasingly diversified, with growing healthcare and insurance industries. The county’s July unemployment rate was 6.8 percent, lower than the statewide average.
X-Factor: The vice presidents. Neither Obama nor Romney is particularly good at relating to the “everyman” voter, and the campaigns are already dispatching their No. 2s to Green Bay. Vice President Joe Biden is usually Obama’s secret weapon with Catholic, blue-collar voters, but it is unclear if he will be any match for native son Paul Ryan, a Packers fan from Janesville.
Jefferson County, Colorado
Voting Record: Most of Colorado is either deep red or deep blue, so elections often come down to a cluster of independent voters living in just three Denver counties — Jefferson, Arapahoe, and Larimer. Of the three, Jefferson County is the biggest and the swing-y-est. Bush beat Kerry here in 2004 by a margin of 52 percent to 47 percent. In 2008, Obama won the county with 54 percent of the vote.
County Snapshot: Jeffco is all about the ladies. Both Bush and Obama won the county with the support of female voters, who tend to be moderately conservative, but reject statewide candidates with extreme positions on either end of the political spectrum. So far, polls show Obama has the advantage among Colorado’s female voters, and his campaign is going into overdrive to lock up the support, launching new attack ads against Romney’s record on women’s health and parading Sandra Fluke around Denver.
But the Denver Post points out an opening for Romney: While Obama’s lead is strong with high-income and low-income women, it shrinks with middle-class women. If Romney can close that gap, and keep his lead with male voters, he has a good chance at taking back Jefferson County.
Local Economy: The major employers in Jefferson County are the federal government and Lockheed Martin. Although the economy has been gradually improving, poverty levels have risen sharply, and the economy remains the top concern among voters. The July unemployment rate was 7.8 percent.
X-Factor: Sequestration. The possibility of massive military and defense budget cuts could be a wild card for Obama in JeffCo, especially if Lockheed Martin threatens layoffs in the area.
Washoe County, Nevada
Voting Record: Once a reliable Republican stronghold, Obama won Washoe by 12 points in 2008, becoming the first Democratic candidate to win the county since Johnson. Washoe is now the only real swing county in Nevada. Veteran Nevada political journalist Jon Ralston points out that Democrats can win Nevada without winning Washoe County. But if Romney closes in on Obama’s margins in Democratic Clark County — home to Las Vegas and 70 percent of the Nevada’s population — the race could come down to Washoe.
County Snapshot: Situated along the Nevada’s northwestern border, Washoe County includes Reno and Sparks, but is otherwise mostly rural, so campaigns tend to hinge on ground organization. In 2008, the Obama campaign won the county largely on the strength of its aggressive voter turnout strategy. But local Republicans, with the help of conservative Tea Party groups like Americans for Prosperity and FreedomWorks, have stepped up their mobilization efforts this cycle.
Local Economy: Awful. The county has had more than 40 straight months of double-digit unemployment, and the jobless rate now stands at 12.1 percent. Nevada also had the second-worst foreclosure rating in the country in the first half of 2012, and Reno-Sparks ranks among the top 50 metro areas in foreclosures. These have seeded a strong anti-Establishment, anti-incumbent streak among Washoe voters, which does not bode well for Obama.
The X-Factor: Mormons. The importance of Nevada’s “Mormon vote” for Romney has probably been over-hyped — Mormons account for 6.7 percent of the state’s population, and tend to vote Republican anyway. But members of the LDS Church could provide Romney, a fellow Mormon, with an established and very reliable grassroots organization that could help close the gap with Obama in the field.
Cedar County, Iowa
A Romney campaign volunteer fires a tee-shirt gun at an Iowa rally.
Voting Record: In Iowa, the whole state swings, so it seems less likely that the race will come down to one nail biting county. Republicans, Democrats, and Independents each make up about one-third of registered voters, and the three groups are spread out relatively evenly across the state.
But if you want to see how the election is playing out in Iowa, Cedar County is the place to look. The vote there has exactly mirrored the statewide margin in each of the last three presidential races. (The Des Moines Register’s Craig Johnson has also put together a list of 11 other counties that are in play in Iowa.)
County Snapshot: Cedar County is a tiny exurb of Iowa City, with a population of just 18,500, of which 98 percent is white. Voters in Cedar County tend to be moderately conservative. The county generally votes for Republicans in local elections, but statewide races, and the presidential, are tossups.
Local Economy: The unemployment rate in Cedar County was 4.5 percent in July, far lower than the national average. Like the rest of the state, Cedar County has mostly been spared from the economic slump, due in large part to Iowa’s thriving clean-energy manufacturing sector. Cedar County is home to the Acciona wind turbine factory, one of Iowa’s major wind-power plants, so Romney’s opposition to wind-power tax credits could hurt him here.
X-Factor: The drought. It is not yet clear how the election will be impacted by the devastating drought that ravaged the Corn Belt this summer, but Johnson points out that the drought has made Iowa farmers increasingly likely to reject any candidate who seems even a little weak on farm subsidies or the federal farm insurance program.
Hillsborough County, New Hampshire
Joe Biden campaigns in Manchester, N.H.
Voting Record: In a close match-up, the fate of New Hampshire’s four electoral college votes would likely depend on Hillsborough, a swing county that’s home to 30 percent of the state’s voters. With the help of Ralph Nader, Bush narrowly won Hillsborough in 2000, and again in 2004, but Obama swung the county blue in 2008, beating McCain 51 percent to 47.5 percent.
County Snapshot: Located near the Massachusetts border, Hillsborough County is home to about 30 percent of New Hampshire’s voters. The region is split between urban voters in Manchester and Nashua, who tend to be balanced out in elections by Republican voters in towns near the Massachusetts border.
Demographic shifts favor Obama in Hillsborough: The county is still 89 percent white, but the Hispanic and black populations have grown by more than 50 percent over the last decade. But New Hampshire has shifted to the right since 2008, and the GOP’s message of fiscal discipline resonates with voters there. Romney also owns a summer house in the state.
Local Economy: Better than most. The unemployment rate in Hillsborough County is at 6 percent, far lower than the national average. Between 2008 and 2011, New Hampshire’s GDP grew by 3.89 percent, making it one of the top 10 states in terms of GDP growth.
X-Factor: The map. Given that New Hampshire only has four electoral college votes, t’s highly unlikely that Hillsborough County will cast the deciding votes in the 2012 presidential race. But anything can happen — if Al Gore had won New Hampshire, he wouldn’t have needed Florida.