One of my students was trying to tell me about this the other day before I came across it and I thought it sounded like some journalistic hokum of just trying to create a story out of nothing by creating a new term. Alas, it was actually a really interesting piece by Nate Silver about how we should think about swing states in very different ways depending upon the nature of the state’s electorate. In short, some states are probably much more susceptible to major shifts in candidate support then others because they have a lot of voters without particularly strong partisan ties (i.e., swing voters). Other states, in contrast, e.g., North Carolina, have lots of voters who by virtue of demographic characteristics, i.e., African-American, evangelical Christian, are quite likely locked into their vote regardless of the nature of the campaign. Silver explains:
An inelastic state, by contrast, is one which is relatively insensitive to these changes. In an inelastic state, a five-percentage-point change in the national environment might only affect Mr. Obama’s numbers by three percentage points instead.
Elastic states are those which have a lot of swing voters — that is, voters who could plausibly vote for either party’s candidate…
A good example of an inelastic state is North Carolina. It has quite a few African-American voters, who are almost sure to vote for Mr. Obama. But it also has plenty of rural white Southerners, many of them evangelical conservatives, who almost certainly won’t. To a lesser extent, it also has some highly educated and very liberal white voters in the Research Triangle [hey, that sounds familiar], who are also quite likely to be Obama voters. That doesn’t leave very many voters left over. North Carolina is a swing state (or at least it was in 2008), because the coalition of Democratic base voters was quite close in size to the coalition of Republican base voters. But it wasn’t a state with a lot of persuadablevoters: it’s the kind of place where elections mostly boil down to turnout, and Mr. Obama — with his considerably stronger ground game — was able to edge out a win there in 2008.
Thus, while elastic swing states may come down to which candidate can persuade the most of the persuadable voters, an inelastic swing state like NC is all about organization and getting your side’s voters to the polls. Silver has a number of cool charts you should check out, but I like this where he makes a matrix of states by type:
Anyway, I think the idea is pretty cool and definitely suggests that the campaigns should be approaching their strategies in the various swing states according to different principles.