Swing States or Swing Nation?

Image courtesy of the NY Times

There is a really cool graphic in today’s 538 blog at the NY TImes that is making its way around the internet.  The graphic is creative and awfully pretty, but the focus on individual states as independent entities, “swinging” in response to individual presidential candidacies, is almost certainly wrong.

As Jim Stimson showed a decade ago in Tides of Consent, and Ben Page and Bob Shapiro (find me in the acknowledgements!) showed two decades ago in The Rational Public, the nation as a whole has swung in fairly consistent patterns between liberal and conservative policy positions.

Image courtesy of the Policy Mood project at UNC

What’s revealing to me in the Times figure is which states maintain a position consistently in the middle of the distribution, the consistent swing states, but also those states that move most in response to individual candidacies.

The ability to mouse over and view a state’s trajectory is very instructive.  I can imagine every state politics instructor today is showing this to his students.

But let’s not overstate the independent movement of individual states, as the authors do at the start:

The latest FiveThirtyEight forecast shows many states shifting to the right. Florida, North Carolina and Indiana are more likely than not to shift back to Republicans.

The nation as a whole is shifting slightly back to Romney.  We only pay attention to Florida, North Carolina, and Indiana because they are on the cusp.

I don’t want to suggest that there are not unique, idiosyncratic policy issues and ideological responses tied to a states history or political culture, but what I see primarily in the graphic is a reflection of policy mood, not states swinging back and forth on individual trajectories.