Word Routes

Exploring the pathways of our lexicon

Swinging in the Battleground States

In a recent interview on the Voice of America radio program Wordmaster (a show that seeks to explain the vagaries of American English to an international audience), I was asked about a number of terms relating to the U.S. presidential campaign. We talked about red states (leaning Republican), blue states (leaning Democratic), and purple states (somewhere in between), a topic I discussed on Word Routes after the untimely passing of Tim Russert, who helped to popularize the terms in the 2000 election. But we also covered some earlier American expressions to describe "toss-up" states that predate the red/blue/purple color scheme: battleground states and swing states. Here's some extra historical background that I wasn't able to include in the brief interview.

The term battleground state goes all the way back to the eve of the Civil War. Before the real battles between North and South broke out, squabbling between the states was occurring on a more symbolic level, primarily over the issue of slavery. In a letter dated May 18, 1860, Schuyler Colfax, then a congressman from Indiana (and later vice-president under Ulysses S. Grant), wrote the following to Abraham Lincoln, who was locked in a struggle for the Republican Party's presidential nomination with several other candidates:

I have been for a year, as perhaps you may know, for Mr. [Edward] Bates' nomination. But next to him, I have had no doubt that your name was the most hopeful, around which to rally in the doubtful battle ground States. Your being born in Kentucky is, of itself, a great point in Your favor.

The battleground states, in this case, were the ones where the fight over the abolition of slavery was being waged. A scholarly article from 1928 explained the situation in more detail, explaining that in 1860 "neither Abolition nor aggressive 'anti-slavery' sentiment was predominant or prevalent" in the Northern states. Those who were the most up in the air on the slavery issue were "the people of 'the battleground states,' as the parlance of the day put it — Iowa, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Connecticut, and possibly Rhode Island."

By the early twentieth century, the label of battleground states was applied to states where Republicans and Democrats were deadlocked in advance of the general presidential election. In the 1900 race between William McKinley and William Jennings Bryan, newspapers referred to the Midwestern states of Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Michigan as the battleground states. More than a century later, we find many of these states to be toss-ups again in the 2008 race (except for Illinois, of course, where Senator Obama enjoys home-field advantage).

Swing states came later, preceded by swing voters. Safire's Political Dictionary defines swing voter as "one who votes for the person, not the party; the independent vote that often swings elections one way or the other." The earliest example I've found so far for swing voter actually refers to elections held in Australia and New Zealand. An Associated Press wire story appearing in the Nov. 30, 1949 News-Journal of Mansfield, Ohio reported, "Candidates are directing their campaign at the middle class 'swing' voters. These are the people who vote either way, and really decide who will govern."

By the time of the 1952 presidential race, the states were the ones doing the swinging. Washington Post political columnists Joseph and Stewart Alsop wrote on June 30 of that year that Dwight D. Eisenhower had the advantage in securing the Republican nomination, because "the Republicans in the vital swing States unanimously oppose the [Robert] Taft candidacy." And as the general election between Eisenhower and his Democratic opponent Adlai Stevenson neared, a writer for the Hartford Courant had this to say about Connecticut on Oct. 19, 1952: "For this state is a test-tube state for the nation; it is a swing state, still basically Republican, but now close enough to either way at any time."

The metaphors of military arenas and swinging pendulums stay with us, even if now political commentators may opt for the more colorful image of "purple" states vacillating between Republican red and Democratic blue. Pundits love to have as many metaphors in their arsenal as they can, though they should be careful not to mix them: no one wants to hear about swinging purple battlegrounds.

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Ben Zimmer is language columnist for The Wall Street Journal and former language columnist for The Boston Globe and The New York Times Magazine. He has worked as editor for American dictionaries at Oxford University Press and as a consultant to the Oxford English Dictionary. In addition to his regular "Word Routes" column here, he contributes to the group weblog Language Log. He is also the chair of the New Words Committee of the American Dialect Society. Click here to read more articles by Ben Zimmer.

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