A dozen swing states will determine the outcome of the presidential election. That’s a given. But within these so-called purple states, not all areas are swing. In Ohio, for instance, Cuyahoga County — home to Cleveland — would vote for a Democrat regardless of the candidate, while mostly rural Shelby County will vote Republican no matter what. The formula is simple: win the swing counties, win the swing states and win the presidency. That’s what President Obama did in 2008 and, for that matter, what George W. Bush did in 2004. Now, Mitt Romney will need to be competitive in these areas in order to unseat the president. Here’s a closer look at some of the larger counties where the Romney campaign will be fighting its battles this fall.
10. Forsyth County, N.C. Population: 350,670 Largest city: Winston-Salem
Forsyth is like a county-sized version of North Carolina. Its racial demographics are very close to the state average. It has Wake Forest University, so there’s the presence of liberal-leaning academic whites like in the Raleigh-Durham area. Winston-Salem has a large amount of urban Republican neighborhoods like in Charlotte. And it has rural precincts on the outskirts of the county that are heavily Republican like the rest of rural North Carolina.
Past results: Bush won here in 2004 with 54 percent of the vote. Obama took it in 2008 with 55 percent.
9. Hillsborough County, N.H. Population: 400,721 Largest city: Manchester
Most of New Hampshire’s population is close to the Massachusetts state line, which Hillsborough County straddles. It contains a vital grouping of towns and cities including Manchester and Nashua, the two largest cities in the state. Both are swing communities, in the electoral sense.
Past results: Bush edged Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass) here in 2004 with 51 percent, but it flipped to Obama in 2008.
8. Prince William County, Va. Population: 402,002 Largest community: Dale City
Prince William County is an exurban county about 25 miles southwest of Washington D.C. It’s on the edge between the traditional, conservative Virginia, and the more progressive suburbs outside the capital. Prince William has become very diverse in recent years, particularly in the I-95 corridor. A hard swing towards Obama was key for him winning Virginia.
Past results: Bush took 53 percent of the vote here in 2004, but Obama bettered that total (58 percent) in his 2008 win.
7. Chester County, Pa. Population: 498,886 Largest city: West Chester
Of the four suburban Philadelphia counties, Chester was the only one that Bush won in 2004. The tail end of the prestigious Main Line is in the county, but so is the disadvantaged city of Coatesville. In between, there are plenty of middle-class suburbs, and even still some farmland. This is one of the few counties in Pennsylvania showing substantial population growth, so its importance is increasing.
Past results: Bush won here with 52 percent. Obama, in 2008, took it with 55 percent
6. Jefferson County, Colo. Population: 534,543 Largest city: Lakewood
Colorado is a heavily polarized state divided between very liberal Democrats in Denver and Boulder, and very conservative Republicans in Colorado Springs and the rural areas. The balance of power is held by the handful of counties in suburban Denver. Jefferson County to the west of the city is truly a purple county closely mirroring Colorado’s overall results in the last two presidential contests.
Past results: In 2004, Bush edged Kerry here 53-47. Obama won in 2008 with 55 percent.
5. Arapahoe County, Colo. Population: 572,003 Largest city: Aurora
Arapahoe County is to the southeast of Denver and, like Jefferson, it’s a purple county that determines which party wins Colorado. It contains most of Aurora, the second biggest city in the Denver area. The county, and Aurora in particular, has seen a major increase in its Hispanic population in the past decade. This development has made the county a bit more Democratic than its neighbors.
Past results: Bush took it with 52 percent of the vote. Obama did better – winning it with 57 percent in 2008.
4. Hamilton County, Ohio Population: 802,374 Largest city: Cincinnati
Cincinnati is one of the most Republican metro areas outside of the South, but the central city county of Hamilton is a swing county. Hamilton County is worth watching, in part, because African-American turnout will be crucial. Sustaining high African-American turnout can make or break Obama’s reelection hopes.
Past results: Bush won it with 53 percent in 2004. Four years later, Obama mirrored his result – the first Democrat since Lyndon Johnson to carry the county.
3. Wake County, N.C. Population: 900,993 Largest city: Raleigh
In the Raleigh-Durham area, Durham and Orange counties (Chapel Hill) are overwhelmingly Democratic, with a mixture of African Americans and academia-based white liberals. But Wake County (Raleigh and its suburbs) is much more competitive. Suburban communities like Cary are much more akin to the northern middle-of-the-road suburbs around Philadelphia and New York than the heavily Republican Sun Belt suburbs.
Past results: Bush edged Kerry here by two points. Obama took it in 2008 with 57 percent of the vote.
2. Pinellas County, Fla. Population: 916,542 Largest city: St. Petersburg
The top-two counties are both part of Florida’s I-4 Corridor, which runs through the Daytona Beach, Orlando and Tampa areas. The I-4 Corridor is the most important region in this presidential election. In Pinellas County, St. Petersburg has some neighborhoods that are solidly Democratic, but most of the territory is split 50/50. Every precinct could make the difference between winning and losing.
Past results: Bush was in a virtual tie with Kerry here while Obama bested Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) 54-46.
1. Hillsborough County, Fla. Population: 1,229,226 Largest city: Tampa
The most crucial county this fall is on the other side of Tampa Bay from Pinellas, the runner-up. Hillsborough County, which includes Tampa and its immediate suburbs, is the only county listed with more than one million residents. Still, it’s a fairly accurate small-scale version of America. It has a solidly Democratic central city that includes large African-American and Hispanic populations, and some outlying areas that are heavily Republican. The immediate suburbs are closely split. Whoever wins Hillsborough County in November is most likely the next occupant of the White House.
Past results: Bush won here with 53 percent while Obama finished a point better in 2008.
Chris Palko works as an assistant media analyst at Smart Media Group, a Republican political media buying agency in Alexandria, Va. He is a graduate of American University and George Washington University’s Graduate School of Political Management.
A version of this post was also published on Campaign & Election’s blog, Campaign Insider .