Key Takeaways

  • Because of California’s senate race between two Democratic candidates, all other states are more competitive. States with small populations and close margins, like New Hampshire, are several orders of magnitude more competitive.

  • UC students from Nevada could have the most impact on their state’s results because the state has close polling margins, relatively small population and more students relative to other states.

  • Differences in polling margins between Democratic and Republican candidates in the presidential and Senate races mean students could potentially tip only one race one way without significantly affecting the other.

↓ Jump to visualization

Students at the University of California have many choices to make on Election Day. Aside from the presidency, California has an open Senate seat, 17 statewide ballot measures and numerous county and municipal propositions. However, for out-of-state students, where they vote could matter just as much as what they vote for.

If you come from a competitive state like Nevada or Florida, your vote could make more of a difference in deciding who becomes president, or which party controls the Senate in January.

Here’s why:

The way the United States elects its president is not through a majority of the national popular vote, but rather with a majority in the Electoral College. The Electoral College assigns votes to states rather than people, which is problematic in its own ways, but let’s not deal with that now. The 50 states and the District of Columbia get an equal number of votes as their representation in Congress: the number of seats in the House of Representatives, and two more for each senator.

California has voted Democratic in every election since 1992 by increasingly wider margins. In 2012, President Barack Obama won the state by 24 percentage points over Republican nominee Mitt Romney. No number of additional votes would have increased Obama’s electoral vote from California, and Romney had no way of overcoming his nearly 3 million vote deficit. In short, California is uncompetitive both in its size and actual party vote distribution.

However, several states, called swing states, are often close during elections. They often swing back and forth to determine the winner, so presidential candidates spend most of their time campaigning in states like Florida, Ohio or Nevada.

Because of their close margins, swing states are the key to winning elections. In 2000, George W. Bush won the presidency by winning Florida by about 500 votes.

The combination of a state’s voting population and margin between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton can show how much more competitive a state is than California. States with smaller populations are more competitive than larger states with similar margins because each small-state voter adds more percentage-wise. One vote out of 18.2 million in California is proportionally less than one vote out of 900,000 in New Hampshire.

As such, students from the following states might have more of a chance to shape the election if they vote from home:

Swing State Statistics

The first table shows states, UC students from those states broken down by campus, FiveThirtyEight Margin in percentages and the percentage of the vote each person contributes. The number of UC students for California adds up the total from the 10 other states to show how all students voting collectively in California compares to voting in their respective states.

These states have relatively close margins between Trump and Clinton according to FiveThirtyEight’s polls-plus forecast, which aggregates polls from many different sources and adjusts the averages to account for variables like the economy. Some of these states also have competitive races for U.S. Senate, which could decide which party controls Congress.

Nonresident students who vote in their home state can impact party control of the U.S. Senate because of California’s top-two primary system. Last June, two democrats, Attorney General Kamala Harris and Rep. Loretta Sanchez, advanced to the general election, ensuring Sen. Barbara Boxer’s seat stays with the Democratic Party this cycle.

However, consider Nevada. As of Friday, FiveThirtyEight had Democrat Catherine Cortez Masto up only 0.4 percent above Rep. Joe Heck. Based on expected turnout, this translates to about 4,000 votes. That’s smaller than an average graduating class at UCLA or UC Berkeley.

This post aims to quantify competitiveness between states in the Electoral College. To make it more tangible, the Bruin has compiled the number of out-of-state students from six UC campuses to see how much of an impact they would have on the race for president.

Competitiveness of States Compared to California

The second chart shows relative competitiveness of the presidential race in each state compared to California. This is based on both closeness of the margin and population of a state. States with small populations and close margins are many times more competitive than California, which is both populous and favors one party.

Impact of UC Students’ Vote

The third graph calculates the impact UC students would have if they collectively voted in their respective home states.


  • All data came from secretaries of state for states listed, except for North Carolina, whose board of elections operates its elections.
  • I couldn’t find current voter registration numbers for Ohio and Missouri, so I took 2012 registered voters as percentage of population and scaled it up to 2016 population to account for growth.
  • Nevada’s 2008 turnout was based on adding up total votes cast for president divided by number of active registered voters by election day.
  • Media relations for UC San Diego and Santa Barbara didn’t respond after multiple follow-up attempts. UC Santa Cruz asked the Bruin to file a California Public Records Act Request, which would have taken 90 days after receipt of payment for data that other campuses provided for free.

Story by Ryan Leou. Graphics by Chang Liu.