“This promises to be one of the fiercest election battles in recent history, decided over narrowly divided battleground states …”

Sound familiar? This has been the theme of choice for the political press corps this election season. According to a Lexis-Nexis search, in just the last four days there have been 920 references to either “battleground” or “swing” states.

Yet, there seems to be no consensus on what constitutes a battleground state and exactly how many states deserve to be classified as such.

In the January/February 2004 Atlantic Joshua Green laid out this map:

All told, twelve states in the previous presidential election were decided by fewer than five percentage points. Along with two or three other states where demographic changes portend a similar closeness, they make up the battleground this year. The most significant states are scattered across the Pacific Northwest (Oregon, Washington), the Southwest (Arizona, Nevada, New Mexico), and the Rust Belt (Ohio, Pennsylvania, West Virginia), with outliers on the East Coast (Florida and New Hampshire) and others along a lengthy stretch of the Mississippi River, from Minnesota and Wisconsin down to Arkansas and Missouri. The next Democratic campaign will closely follow this map.

Then in March, the campaigns’ advertising strategies began to define the number of battleground states in play.

The Republicans were the first to help the media draw a map when they launched an ad campaign in 17 swing states on March 4, two days after Kerry effectively secured the nomination. Then less than a week later, the Democrats responded with a “parallel campaign” in 17 states, as reported in the Washington Post.

By March 11, the Bush campaign had upped the number of battleground states to 18 by adding one to their advertising blitz.

However, not everyone has gone along with the conventional wisdom.

A Newark Star-Ledger article from Friday included a comment from an expert saying that this election hinges on “voters in 10 or 12 states that will decide the election.”

This is low compared to the 17 or 18 states usually cited as battleground states. Hence, a report from the Wisonsin Advertising Project reported Thursday in the Wisconsin State Journal that suggested the “2004 election is being waged … over fewer than 20 states.”

But, that was old news by Friday, when the Los Angeles Times raised the bar. The Times described “a long general election campaign, one in which about 20 states are potentially up for grabs.”

“About 20” could mean 18 states, but it also suggests that more than 20 states are in play.

If this thing keeps growing, there won’t be many states left that someone, somewhere, has not defined as “a battleground.”

Thomas Lang

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Thomas Lang was a writer at CJR Daily.