By Published: March 1, 2016

U.S. map

A recent CU-Boulder graduate and political junkie from Germany travels America in a beat-up Saab trying to understand the places where presidential elections are decided.

The T-shirt’s biting irony caught my attention.

“Is there a bale of hay I can interview you next to?” it blared.

This was at Raygun, a store in Des Moines, Iowa, offering a mishmash of quaint election paraphernalia. Its product lineup includes a lot of T-shirts, like the one I was staring at, taking humorous aim at the presidential campaign circus that had once again descended upon the state.

It was July 2015 and I was part of the circus: I’d come to Iowa to report on the election, along with a horde of journalists from all over the country. The state was my first stop on a three-month cross-country reporting trip for the University of Colorado Boulder’s explanatory journalism project CU News Corps (CUNC), a part of the College of Media, Communication and Information.

CUNC had hired me, a recent master’s graduate, as its assistant director and lead reporter. With another presidential election looming, we had decided to pursue a project called “States in Play.” The mission was straightforward, if not simple: I would travel to every presidential battleground state and try to explain, through anecdotes and campaign trail tales, what gives these pivotal states their de-facto tie-breaker status in presidential elections and what they reveal about presidential politics in America. I had also vowed to break with the pack habit of simply trailing the candidates.

At Raygun I met 20-somethings Jennifer Leatherby and Lauren Matysik. They were both designers there.

After some polite chitchat, the conversation shifted, of course, to politics. They both dreaded it. But, like so many good Iowans do during presidential election cycles, they agreed to talk to yet another reporter.

“We may disagree on the issues,” Matysik said of her fellow Iowans. “But afterward we still have pie together.” 

“Iowa Nice” is a real thing.

The issues Matysik mentioned included, little surprise, farming, particularly ethanol production. But Des Moines, the state capital, is also shaping up as a major insurance hub. And its up-and-coming downtown area, speckled with a young, artsy culture, is far removed from the charming solitude of the state’s corn fields. There’s a lot more to Iowa than farms.

Yet, in the eyes of the rest of the country, Iowa is all about the next available bale of hay. Hence the snarky T-shirt. It’s this often unnoticed local diversity — the rift between the hyper-conservatism around Sioux City in the agricultural northwest and the fertile ground for progressive ideas around Des Moines — that helps make Iowa a presidential swing state. It was the perfect starting point for my roadtrip.

To understand swing states, you have to go beyond labels like north and south, Hispanic and white, and learn about subgroups' preferences.

Before I resume the tale, here’s a brief Swing State 101: Swing states, or states in play, are the handful of states, about 10 in all, where the Democratic and Republican presidential nominees each have a real shot at winning. Most of these states have about equal numbers of Democratic and Republican voters. Since in many states the voting bloc of “undecideds” is fast-growing, they make the difference. Colorado, with its liberal-leaning, populous Front Range and mostly conservative Eastern Plains and Western Slope, is the perfect example. A plurality of Colorado’s registered voters — about 37 percent — are formally unaffiliated with either major party. They’re up for grabs.

Many other factors can make a state swingy. In Wisconsin, Republican Gov. Scott Walker’s actions to curtail the influence of labor unions has helped polarize (and incite) voters on both sides. North Carolina’s “research triangle” — the highly educated Chapel Hill-Raleigh-Durham area — balances the conservatism of the rest of the state. And Ohio is often called a “microcosm of the U.S.,” thanks to a geographic and demographic makeup that resembles a sort of national average. The Buckeye State is also a pretty solid predictor of an election’s eventual winner: More than nine out of 10 times since 1896, the Ohio winner moved into the Oval Office.
Iowa Store
I wanted to visit all these swing states. So, over 82 days starting July 26, I pushed my geriatric ’98 Saab over 15,000-plus miles of open road. I crisscrossed huge swaths of America, from Colorado to Iowa, from Ohio and Wisconsin to Pennsylvania and New Hampshire and on into the South. I pit-stopped in Washington, D.C., then pushed into Virginia, North Carolina and Florida. At the end, I squeezed in an epic two-day drive from Tallahassee, Fla., to Las Vegas.

“What is wrong with you?” University of North Florida political scientist Michael Binder asked me after learning the scope of my journey.

I get it; the trip was grueling. But also a fun challenge: Never before had a reporter — much less one from Germany; I come from near Hamburg — portrayed the few states that ultimately decide who becomes president of the United States in one deep, coherent narrative. We at CU News Corps hoped it would illuminate something meaningful about American presidential politics.

About 350 miles down the road from Professor Binder’s Jacksonville office, I had another defining encounter. 

One night I sat in on the broadcast of conservative talk show host Colonel Matias Farias (only to listen and observe, we had agreed). But within five minutes I found myself with a microphone under my nose. Without any warning, he began grilling me over Germany’s response to Europe’s refugee crisis and its refusal to close its border. Then there was the on-air dismissal of them pot-lovin’ Colorado scallywags. (Our state’s marijuana laws are a universal conversation starter.) 

On paper, Florida’s large Hispanic population is a boon for Democrats. But among the many Cubans who have left their home country’s socialist regime to live in and around Miami, there are in fact plenty of Republicans. They’re the perfect example of what makes Florida so unpredictable. Not all Hispanics are Democrats. To understand swing states, you have to go beyond the labels of North and South, Hispanic and White to learn more about the preferences of subgroups, in this case Cuban Americans. 

And even the Cuban American community is politically divided. Many people I talked to told me how young Cuban-Americans here (like young Americans in general) tend to be more open to progressive ideas than their elders. A generation or more removed from the sorrows their parents or grandparents experienced at home, they often have their own point of view. They represent a layer of complexity.

So, what’s rule number one if you want to understand swing states? Say goodbye to preconceived generalizations and try to understand the local culture.

That’s what the states in play are all about.

Illustration by Josh Cochran; photo courtesy Lars Gesing