A Guide to the 2012 Electoral Vote

Posted on March 9, 2012 by Paul Maslin
Given the unprecedented nature of the Republican nominating process this year, I took a few minutes post-Super Tuesday to reflect on the likely outcomes, opportunities and challenges that this cycle presents to us as Democrats which I’d like to share with you.

A Guide to the 2012 Electoral Vote

It Still Could Be Close. A Surprisingly Small Number of States Will Be in Play. Among The Most Important are “New Economy” States in the Southeast and West. The Ultimate GOP Ticket Will Matter. Watch Out Democrats: Florida Could Well Be Back.

The Republican nomination process may now be exiting a somewhat surprising period where any outcome but the one the consensus had been so confidently predicting for a year seemed possible. Mitt Romney won’t win a quick strike victory with easy glide path to Tampa as has been the case for most nominees in each party since 1980. Rather he should, after his narrow escapes in Michigan and Ohio, win a long slog a la Obama 2008 or Mondale 1984, yet all the while conscious of a potentially game changing late entry from Stage Slightly Right (Christie/Daniels/Jeb Bush) should he stumble. Or Rick Santorum could still galvanize the right wing should Newt Gingrich drop out and, at the very least, force his way on the ticket as a running mate and perhaps more.

And all of it is happening as, for the first time in two years, Barack Obama has begun to reverse his long popularity slide and perhaps offer the nation a resurgent economy. I say perhaps because a) I am not an economist, and b) nor do I possess a crystal ball as to the economy’s performance over the next eight months. And prior to the last month, this election was shaping up as the diametric opposite of the classic 1971 Oklahoma/Nebraska Thanksgiving Day football game-Oklahoma was #1– the Irresistible Force and Nebraska was #2– the Immovable Object. The Republican brand has been in freefall ever since the payroll tax debacle (February’s correction may have come too late) and various Romney opponents rose and fell to his and the establishment’s Whack-A-Mole strategy that was also causing numerous self-inflicted wounds. (“Just a flesh wound” said the knight in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, “just a flesh wound”. Meanwhile Mitt is losing limb after limb) Yet all the while the fundamental national metrics-Obama approval, perceived direction of the country, and, most importantly, various economic indices-suggested until recently at best a very tough fight for the incumbent to retain his job, and at worst a likely defeat in November. Resistible Force, Meet Movable Object.

Is this 2000 all over again-an incredibly close election that may come down to the results of a handful of states or, God forbid, one state such as Florida or Ohio? Is it 2004 where the somewhat embattled incumbent is able to use the weakness of his Massachusetts opponent and win a narrow victory? Or could it still be 1988/1996 where the incumbent party is able to capture an upper hand and win handily? What seems apparent is that it won’t be a big landslide for the incumbent as in 1964, 72 or 84; or a crushing defeat as in 1980 or 1992. And thus the chief peculiarity of our national election system-the Electoral College-comes back into play.

I did this exercise for Salon.com four years ago, noting even as I worked through an analysis of each battleground state that there was certainly a good chance that Obama would win a decisive victory. I wrote that such success could even claim states such as North Carolina, Virginia and Colorado (I did not believe he would win Indiana), rendering all the electoral tactical formulations moot. The collapse of Lehman Brothers pretty much guaranteed that result. But just because a tight finish was averted in 2008 and thus specific state by state assumptions and strategies hardly mattered, or that a close call at the end was also avoided by Bush’s fall push in 2004, doesn’t mean it can’t occur again this year. So let’s examine the map anew, and come to some fairly important conclusions about where the ultimate focus of each campaign might be most intense. And, with the caveat that the map could still change a lot because of a last minute GOP surprise (A Bush nomination would change it; Christie perhaps as well), the number of states truly in play by October could easily dwindle to a half-dozen or fewer.

Each party has a base nearly identical in electoral strength. Obama can reasonably expect to win all of the following states, totaling 182 EVs:

California (55 Votes), Connecticut (7), Delaware (3), D.C. (3), Hawaii (4), Illinois (20), Maryland (10), Massachusetts (11), New Jersey (14), New York (29), Oregon (7), Rhode Island (4), Vermont (3), Washington (12);

A note on New Jersey. It once was, as recently as the Carter-Reagan years, a fairly reliably Republican state. Its Democratic performance consistently trailed behind the national Democratic performance by roughly two percentage points from 1976-88. But beginning in 1992, that all changed. From 1992-2000 the Garden State produced more consistent change in the Democrats’ direction than any other marginal state has moved for either party then or since. Even in his 1992 victory Bill Clinton slipped from Michael Dukakis’ national vote due to the presence of Ross Perot, but he actually gained ground in New Jersey. He then expanded the Jersey advantage by nearly five additional percentage points compared to his national total in 1996, and Al Gore expanded that edge by an additional three points in 2000. A state which had preferred George H.W. Bush by nearly 14 points in 1988 had, just three elections later, swung to a nearly 16 point margin for Al Gore, a stunning net 29 point reversal. No home state candidate bias produced this change, reinforcing its power since it wasn’t just a flash in the pan. One cannot rule out the possibility that Chris Christie at the top of the ticket could put New Jersey back into play. After those three elections of accelerated Democratic vote, New Jersey slipped vs. the national trend in 2004 (Kerry’s margin was 9 pts less than Gore’s) and again slightly in 2008.)

The Republican nominee can reasonably expect to win all of the following states, totaling 179 EVS:

Alabama (9), Alaska (3), Arkansas (6), Georgia (16), Idaho (4), Indiana (11), Kansas (6), Kentucky (8), Louisiana (8), Mississippi (6), Missouri (10), Montana (3), Nebraska (4)*, North Dakota (3), Oklahoma (7), South Carolina (9), South Dakota (3), Tennessee (11), Texas (38), Utah (6), West Virginia (5), Wyoming (3)

  • Nebraska will, of course, almost certainly be won by the GOP nominee. But it and Maine are the two states that award one electoral vote for the outcome on each of their Congressional Districts, and Nebraska District 2 centered in Omaha was carried by Obama in 2008, thus limiting the Republican total to four of Nebraska’s five Electoral Votes.
  • Barack Obama carried Indiana in 2008. If he were to do so again, it would almost certainly be part of another landslide that render the rest of this analysis moot. I’m assuming a much closer election in 2012.

THE STATES THAT MATTER

Now we have to start making somewhat more difficult assumptions.

I start by assuming that Barack Obama’s share of the vote will drop at least three and no more than five percentage points from his total of 52.9% in 2008. (I’m not predicting such a fall, mind you-simply assuming it for purposes of this analysis, thus placing the election into the ECZ: Electoral College Zone) If he loses fewer than three percent, he would win a popular majority and, given the likelihood of minor party candidates siphoning off a small share of the vote, would be guaranteed a majority in the Electoral College and very likely another resounding electoral win as occurred four years ago. If Obama loses more than five percent, his overall share of the vote drops below 48% and, barring some unforeseen minor party strength, the Electoral College majority and White House almost certainly will be won by his Republican opponent. So the magic number for a 2000/1960/1968/1976 photo finish or near photo finish is an Obama decline of four percentage points. We’ll make every individual state projection in the context of that national change from 2008.

There are two, perhaps significant, mitigating factors for Obama’s 2012 performance other than the identity of his opponent and the direction of the economy over the next eight months.

The first is incumbent success rate: 10 of the last 13 incumbent Presidents who stood for reelection have won, and one of the three losers was Gerald Ford, who had been appointed to office and was running in the wake of the scandal that made him President and his pardon of the man who picked him as Vice-President, Richard Nixon. Yet since and including that election (1976) incumbents have fared worse: only three of the past six incumbents have won.

Second, Obama’s share of the vote exceeded all other successful candidates whose election changed partisan control of the White House since Eisenhower: Kennedy, Nixon, Carter, Reagan, Clinton and Bush all either won more narrow victories or were held to 50 percent of the vote (Reagan) by the presence of a 3rd party candidate. Of course there is never a guarantee that the same voters who supported the winning candidate in one election will keep that preference four years later-but it is an impediment that the challenger must overcome. Of the six candidates who received a smaller percentage of the vote than Obama but won, only Jimmy Carter was turned out of office four years later.

Three states remain which each party should carry, though their confidence can’t be so high as to ignore any of them or fail to spend money for advertising, a field program, or other activities.

For the Democrats, they should win:

            Maine (4), Michigan (16) and Pennsylvania (20).

Their total would now be 222 Electoral Votes.

MAINE

Its Democratic performance the past three elections has been:

2000: 49.1 (+.7 better than Gore’s national percentage)

2004: 53.6 (+5.3 over Kerry’s national showing)

2008: 57.7 (+4.8 over Obama nationally)

After a big home region boost for Kerry in 2004, Maine slipped a bit for the Democrats comparatively (Obama’s vote share went up-just not as much as the rest of the country) and might again, particularly if another New Englander, Mitt Romney, is the GOP nominee. But a net change of more than 15 points seems very unlikely: the only real opportunity for the Republicans might be the one vote coming from the Second Congressional District.

MICHIGAN

The three competitive large Industrial states (Illinois used to be a fourth, but had been moving much more to the Democrats even before Obama’s candidacy) have a pretty distinct pecking order. Michigan has generally been a bit stronger for the Ds than Pennsylvania, and Ohio is easily the most Republican of the three.

            2000: 51.3 (+2.9 over Gore national)

            2004: 51.2 (+2.9 over Kerry national)

            2008: 57.3 (+4.4 over Obama national)

Michigan has been a stable performer; the change from 1996-2000 was also nearly identical to the national difference. The question is whether the family lineage of Romney and/or the Catholic populist conservatism of Santorum will overwhelm an improving auto industry with some debt to the bailouts engineered by Obama. Like Maine, for Obama to lose here would require more than a 15 point net change, which seems unlikely. Or to put it another way, if Obama loses Michigan, he will not win Ohio either and may very well lose Pennsylvania too. That would be a devastating triple gut shot and seems quite unlikely though it should be noted that the most damaging Democratic decline in the 2010 midterm defeat occurred in the Industrial and Upper Midwest.

PENNSYLVANIA

Rick Santorum has a much better claim on native son status here than Mitt Romney has in Michigan. But he lost his last statewide race in 2006 and his appeal would likely fall flat in the Philadelphia suburbs where Democrats have made huge gains in the past two decades. A place on a Romney ticket might help the Republican chances some, but Obama’s attempt to help his fortunes by placing Scranton born Joe Biden in 2008 helped only a smidgeon, as most Vice-Presidential choices have done in recent years. The only potential wild card here would seem to be a Santorum presidential nomination, or perhaps the Jersey sensibility of neighbor Chris Christie which might play well in that part of the Keystone State that lies east of the Appalachian Mountains.

            2000: 50.6 (+2.2 over Gore national)

            2004: 50.9 (+2.6 over Kerry national)

            2008: 54.5 (+1.6 over Obama national)

Lots of stability here; always a modest distance between the state’s Democratic showing and the national performance. Again it would seem to take a game-changing development such as either a Santorum or Christie candidacy to change this outcome.

For the Republicans, they should win:

            Arizona (11), North Carolina (15) and Ohio (18)

Their total would now be 223 Electoral Votes.

ARIZONA

Many Democrats will disagree with my assessment of these three states, but again this exercise assumes a very close election and therefore a certain hierarchy for each party’s state-by-state showing. It is entirely possible that Barack Obama will win one or more of these states, but if he does he would almost certainly be reelected. If the GOP is likely to contest Michigan and/or Pennsylvania with substantial resources, Team Obama will trump that effort with a intensive attempt to win any or all of these three states, knowing that a) the Republicans have not ever won a Presidential election without carrying Ohio, and that b) in order to sweep Barack Obama out of office, the GOP must reestablish its primacy in either the Mountain West states or along the Southeast Atlantic seaboard.

The analysis of Arizona must begin with a “post home state” factor-i.e, what happens the next time around after a native son has lost the Presidency. We know even losing nominees generally do much better in their home states than otherwise would have been expected-is there any lingering effect after the loss, or do these states revert to form? There are four somewhat comparable situations to the McCain/Arizona effect from 2008:

Mondale 1980-88: Walter Mondale famously carried just his home state against Ronald Reagan. The change in Democratic performance from 1980-84 there exceeded the national difference by 3.6 points, and then dropped off post-Mondale-comparatively speaking, again-by nearly two points in 1988;

Dukakis 1984-92: Michael Dukakis actually dropped a very slight amount (.3) in his home state Massachusetts compared to his improved national showing in 1988; then in 1992, with 3rd party Ross Perot on the ballot, Bill Clinton dropped much more in comparative terms (3 points);

Dole 1992-2000: Republicans had no difficulty carrying Kansas in either the year of Dole’s candidacy or four years later in Bush-Gore. But Perot send shockwaves in 1992 through the Jayhawk state, depriving Bush “41″ of enough Republican votes to hold his total under 40 percent. Dole thus made the biggest home state gain of all these examples-12 percentage points more than his national improvement; but again the showing slipped for the next nominee, as Bush gained 3.5 pts less in Kansas than he did nationally;

Kerry 2000-08: Our second example from Massachusetts. Kerry ran two points better comparatively than Gore; Obama ran nearly five points worse comparatively than Kerry, but understand the context: all three Democrats won nearly 60 percent of the vote or better.

So the average decline the election after the native son lost the Presidency is about 3 percentage points, but it has been growing (1.9 points post-Mondale; 3.0 points post-Dukakis; 3.5 points post-Dole; 4.7 points post-Kerry).

(NOTE: I didn’t include Al Gore in this analysis for two reasons: First, unlike all these other examples, except Fritz Mondale, he had not served as Tennessee’s direct representative for the eight years prior to his run for the Presidency. It showed-he narrowly lost his home state, trailing his national vote by the exact same margin Bill Clinton trailed his national margin in the Volunteer State in 1996 (Clinton-Gore won in Tennessee because Ross Perot siphoned off sufficient votes from Bob Dole); Second, and I hate to do this, but in terms of the popular vote it is a fact: Gore didn’t lose the 2000 election, at least not at the ballot box. If I had, however, included him in this analysis the average “next time decline” would have jumped to nearly four percentage points, as Kerry fell off nearly 6 percentage points in Tennessee from his national difference)

An average post native son decline would mean that the GOP nominee might still win 54% of the vote in Arizona, since the three point drop would be counteracted by a four point Republican upsurge in the national vote (see my basic assumption about Obama in 2012). But if the trend continues, and the dropoff will be even slightly larger than it was for the Democrats in Kerry’s Massachusetts in 2008, the Republican nominee could be held to more like 52% of the vote in Arizona. Close for the Democrats but no cigar in a national photo finish election.

Someone is probably reading this and exclaiming: “And what about the Hispanic vote? Didn’t McCain’s candidacy forestall the type of pro-Democratic movement that has been evident in the rest of the Mountain West-in states like Colorado, Nevada and New Mexico?” It’s a reasonable theory, with one big hole. The movement in those other states, particularly the first two, has been coming for more than one election. Nevada’s Democratic vote change has exceeded the national difference each of the last three elections, and not by a little– +3.1, +2.0, +2.7-meaning that there has been a net shift to the Democrats in Nevada more than 15 points better than the national net change from 1996-2008. Colorado’s change was rapid in both of the last two elections, producing a nearly 14 net point stronger shift to the Democrats from 2000-08. New Mexico’s was not quite as dramatic, but still exceeded the 2000-08 national Democratic gain by 9 net points.

But Arizona? Arizona actually trended slightly more Republican in both of George W. Bush’s victories- as the Democrat won fewer than 45% of the vote both times. And curiously because of the McCain factor Barack Obama also won just under 45% of the vote here. It is possible that this time Obama could make a quantum leap and carry Arizona-but if he does it’ll likely give him Electoral Votes 330 or 340, not a crucial victory in a razor-thin outcome.

            2000: 44.7 (-3.7 compared to Gore national)

            2004: 44.4 (-3.9 compared to Kerry national)

            2008: 44.9 (-8.0 compared to Obama national)

NORTH CAROLINA

The 2008 Obama campaign boldly targeted two states

of the Old Confederacy that are steadily changing in culture and demographic makeup-and just so happen to have populations which are roughly 20% black. The gambit paid off in two landmark victories. Virginia will be in play no matter what in 2012-but assuming a Republican revival the Tarheel State appears to be much tougher for Obama to score a repeat win. The Democratic pedigree here is simply too weak.

            2000: 43.2 (-5.2 compared to Gore national)

            2004: 43.6 (-4.7 compared to Kerry national)

            2008: 49.7 (-3.2 compared to Obama national)

Yet the changing shape of the white electorate has helped produce a gradual reduction in the difference between the Democrats’ national result and that in North Carolina. It is simply more cosmopolitan in places such as Research Triangle and Charlotte and thus not as culturally conservative as it was when Jesse Helms reigned supreme. A huge turnout of black voters-which may or may not be repeatable-accelerated the difference in 2008. I think North Carolina may be a bellweather of sorts-like Arizona, Obama will win it if he is on his way to a decisive victory a la 2008. But in a tighter finish, the Republicans should reclaim it.

OHIO

In the four closest outcomes of the past 50 years, Ohio always favored the victor, as Republicans Nixon and George W Bush (twice) won Ohio and the Presidency, as did Democrat Jimmy Carter. Republicans do better in Ohio than Michigan or Pennsylvania-they have of course never won the Presidency without claiming the Buckeye State. In two of the last three elections they gained ground here compared to their national trend. Again, I’ll list the Democratic performance, since it is off of Obama’s 2008 showing that all this analysis should be generated:

            2000: 46.5 (-1.9 compared to Gore national)

            2004: 48.7 (+.4 compared to Kerry national)

            2008: 51.4 (-1.5 compared to Obama national)

The state will be carpet bombed as it has in the past, only this time with the extra ammunition delivered by multiple Super PACs. I think it is entirely possible that Barack Obama will win here again, and if he does, he’ll easily exceed 300 Electoral Votes. But it is also a plausible scenario that the Republican nominee carries Ohio and still loses the country somewhat handily. I simply do not believe Ohio is destined to be “THE STATE”, the corollary to the late Tim Russert’s famous and accurate pronouncement about Florida in 2000. We’ll look elsewhere for the true fulcrum of this race.

The November Nine

So in our tightly wound close finish we now have the Republicans ahead by one electoral vote: 223-222, and why don’t we award them one more on the assumption that they will carry either Maine’s 2nd District or, more likely Nebraska’s 2nd. We have a score of 224-222 with 92 EVS remaining in 9 states.

They fall into neat groups of three:

  1. Mountain West states (there is no truth to the rumor that these states will merge with the Big East states and form a Battleground State Super Conference):Colorado (9), Nevada (6) and New Mexico (5);
  2. Mississippi River states: Iowa (6), Minnesota (10) and Wisconsin (10); and
  3. The Big East, three states that really have little in common with each other other than their Atlantic coastline (Eighteen miles in New Hampshire, but enough to count): Florida (29), New Hampshire (4) and Virginia (13).

The math and calculations really start to get clear at this stage. Whichever side wins Florida, the other campaign must dominate both the Mountain and Mississippi River states, as just one victory each from each region for the Florida winner might either win the election right then and there, or combine with a New Hampshire and, more likely, Virginia win to tip the scales. And here’s where the news gets sobering for the Republicans. If either party is going to dominate the Mountain West and Mississippi River states, it will be Obama and the Democrats. (Florida is the sobering news for the Democrats, as we’ll see below)

Let’s start in the West.

COLORADO

Colorado was a reliably Republican state as recently as 2000, when Al Gore lost to George W. Bush by 8 points. Not so anymore, as first John Kerry and then Barack Obama made sizable gains. Kerry’s was actually the bigger improvement of the two, in part because Ralph Nader had won 5% of the vote four years earlier-in essence a latent Democratic vote that was already in motion away from the GOP.

            2000: 42.4 (-6.0 below the Gore national performance)

            2004: 47.0 (-1.3 below the Kerry national performance)

            2008: 53.7 (+.8 above the Obama national performance)

Did the Democratic convention, held outdoors at Invesco Mile High Stadium, somehow push Colorado over the top for Obama? It might have helped, though conventions have notoriously short shelf lives in terms of helping the party a given city or state has hosted. Or was it simply the extension of a region-wide movement, fueled in part by large number of Hispanic voters, as in Nevada and New Mexico? Or a gradual move by middle-class suburban Front Range voters away from the social conservatism and tilted economic policy of the GOP?. Perhaps a bit of all three, but the simple fact is that a successful Democratic candidate for President received a higher share of the vote in Colorado than he did in the rest of the country, a development unthinkable just a decade ago. The Republicans’ immigration views won’t help much, either-they have taken the fastest growing segment of the electorate-where various Republican Governors of California, Texas and even their most recent Presidents have made temporary inroads-and handed over an almost permanent trove of votes to the opposition. Democrats who might have struggled to win over 60% of the Latino vote now routinely win well over 70%, and with an ever-expanding turnout to boot.

NEVADA

The Hispanic vote in and around Las Vegas has helped to drive another remarkable Democratic surge in recent years, capped off by a stunning victory for incumbent Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid in 2010, after he had been written off the previous year by most prognosticators. The Democrats are betting on Nevada more vigorously each cycle, and so far they’ve left Sin City smiling.

2000: 46.0 (-2.4 below Gore national-but this represented a three point comparative pickup from Clinton 1996)

2004: 47.9 (-.4 below Kerry national)

2008: 55.2 (+2.3 above Obama national)

Bill Clinton ran five points lower in Nevada than his national average; twelve years later Barack Obama ran more than two points better-a net turnaround of nearly 15 percentage points, trailing only New Jersey 1992-2000 for the most dramatic shift away from the Republican Party in any three election period. The GOP’s entire hope this time comes down to whether substantial numbers of Obama voters from 2008 will blame the incumbent for the states’ continuing economic travails, including continued high unemployment and huge numbers of foreclosures. Obama didn’t help matters early in his Presidency when he counseled Americans to tighten their belts and foreswear vacations such as trips “to Vegas”. But there is scant evidence that the type of huge reversal necessary to allow the Republican nominee to win, or even come close, is in the offing.

NEW MEXICO

New Mexico has both the largest Hispanic population of any of the three marginal Mountain states and also has the most sizable conservative white population to offset that advantage and create an electoral balance. And New Mexican Hispanics are, for the most part, not recent immigrants but in fact natives who can count their ancestry back hundreds of years, making the partisan dynamic a bit more clouded. Yet there was nothing blurry about Barack Obama’s performance against the neighboring GOP Senator in 2008, after two close results in the two previous elections. (It is striking just how poorly the McCain-Palin ticket-two Westerners-performed throughout both the Pacific Coast and Mountain region. Somewhere Ronald Reagan is rolling in his grave)

            2000: 47.9 (-.5 compared to Gore national)

            2004: 49.1 (+.8 compared to Kerry national)

            2008: 56.9 (+4.0 compared to Obama national)

The only Republican hope here would be the “swinging gate” theory-all those voters who moved so dramatically to Obama in 2008 in New Mexico could switch back. Good theory-doesn’t happen much, however. Of the 12 most extreme election to election changes in marginal states since and including 1996, nine of which favored the Dems and three the Reps, only four featured countermoves four years later, two of which were New England states rallying behind John Kerry (New Hampshire and Maine) and the two others where the negative comparative movement nonetheless still produced a victory for the candidate who failed to improve (Obama in Minnesota and Ohio). Doesn’t mean it can’t happen, but the odds seem extremely slim.

And yet as doubtful as the Mountain states seem for the Republicans this year, the trio of Mississippi River states seem almost as daunting. Quite simply whatever gains the Republicans produced in the midterm seem to have been eradicated by a horrific branding since on bread-and-butter issues, culminating with a series of insensitive remarks by their front-runner, semi- (or is it quasi-?) Midwesterner Mitt Romney. If there will be a Santorum surprise, both in terms of the nomination (he did, after all, ultimately prevail over Romney in Iowa and also in the Minnesota caucuses) and possibly in the general election, it would have to be centered on his greater appeal throughout the Industrial belt, and particularly these three states. They each contain large number of working class Catholics who may be attracted to Santorum’s religious and cultural views as much as his conservative brand of economic populism. But remember that just five or six months ago, a son of the Midwest with business credentials and an economic pedigree was seen as the GOP’s best hope in this region: be careful what you wish for.

IOWA

The most stable of the three, with very close results in both 2000-04 and probably the GOP’s best hope.

            2000: 48.5 (+.1 above Gore national)

            2004: 49.2 (+.9 above Kerry national)

            2008: 53.9 (+1.0 above Obama national)

MINNESOTA

Trend lines until 2004 had actually been favoring the Republicans, as they had broken the historical dominance of the DFL (Democratic Farm-Labor) party, particularly in the affluent and growing Twin City suburbs. Kerry and Obama’s improvement has been rather modest, though- actually it was Kerry’s gain and then Obama slipped a bit comparatively: maybe a convention, this time the Republican meeting in St. Paul, helped to tamp it down.

            2000: 47.9 (-.5 below Gore national)

            2004: 51.1 (+1.8 above Kerry national)

            2008: 54.1 (+1.2 above Obama national)

It’s interesting that all three of these states feature nationally prominent Republicans. Former Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty, after considerable pre-campaign hype, ran a lackluster presidential effort and dropped out well before the first votes were cast. Representative Michelle Bachmann of Minnesota, who was born in neighboring Iowa, fared somewhat better after a brief spring fling of popularity and attention, but then steadily faded to also-ran status. And Wisconsin features two Republicans who attract substantial national attention though neither has yet sought higher office: Rep. Paul Ryan, he of the budget/Medicare plan and constant will he or won’t he? (run for Vice-President; run for President) speculation; and newly elected Governor Scott Walker, whose anti-union policies have sparked a veritable Armageddon of politicking in the Badger State over the last year.

WISCONSIN

For all its recent Sturm and Drang, Wisconsin provided Barack Obama with two stunning victories in 2008, both a blowout victory over Hillary Clinton in the primary and double-digit near-landslide win over John McCain in the fall. Al Gore and John Kerry had won by razor-thin margins; Obama graduated to the width of an axe.

2000: 47.8 (-.6 below Gore national)

2004: 49.7 (+1.4 above Kerry national. Again the Nader dynamic is visible-Gore won Wisconsin by 5,700 votes; Kerry doubled it to a crushing (!) 11,400 vote margin-both margins less than five-tenths of a percentage vote)

2008: 56.2 (+3.3 above Obama national)

The swinging gate definitely made an appearance here in 2010, as it did in many states but none so dramatically as in Wisconsin. A Democratic party which had won 15 of 18 statewide races for President, Senate or Governor from 1988-2008 got thumped in both Senate and gubernatorial elections, losing each by six percentage points. And now of course the state will decide the fate of Scott Walker, only the third U.S. Governor to be recalled in our history, in an election vs. a yet undetermined Democratic opponent in either May or June. Whichever side claims ultimate victory in the yearlong saga of Walker/Anti-Walker will undoubtedly claim momentum for the Senate and Presidential elections in November. It is hardly clear, though, that this momentum will amount to much. If Walker retains office partly because of some late economic improvement (though Wisconsin has actually lost jobs the past five consecutive months) such an uptick would also presumably help the President of a different party four or five months later. Conversely the frustration aimed at government, in part fueled by a poorly-performing economy for several years, necessary to throw out a sitting Governor could also be channeled into a similar rejection of a sitting President.

The basic Wisconsin question is more simple than any of the recall-based speculation: can Romney, Santorum or some Republican convince more than 6 percent of Obama’s 56%– or something like one in nine Obama voters-to change their minds? That is a tall order in these polarized times and makes me conclude Wisconsin will be a lagging indicator of any national GOP surge, not a leading indicator. This seems the toughest of the three Mississippi River states for the Republicans to win.

So let’s make an educated guess about the six states we’ve just reviewed in the hypothetical close election we’ve been assuming. I say Obama wins Nevada, New Mexico and Wisconsin for sure-which now places him at 243 Electoral Votes. I’d rate the Republican chances a tad better in Iowa than Minnesota, but not strong enough to win both. So Obama would have 253 EVs (with Minnesota) and the Republicans now 230. Colorado? Very, very close-perhaps the most important state of all, particularly if the Republicans are able to somehow win Florida.

But before we get to Florida, let’s discuss the other two “Big East” states.

NEW HAMPSHIRE

John Kerry did real well here, but both Al Gore and Barack Obama slipped comparatively vs. their predecessors on the ticket. This is very likely the one and only marginal state where Mitt Romney may give his party a real unique boost. (Again, we are using the Democratic performance as the analytical jumping-off point, mainly because it was a Democrat who won in 2008 and he is on the ballot again this year)

            2000: 46.8 (-1.6 below Gore national)

            2004: 50.2 (+1.9 above Kerry national) 

            2008: 54.1 (+1.2 above Obama national)   

I believe Romney could and probably should win the Granite State should he also narrow the entire election as per this entire analysis. The question for his party as it careens toward a possible brokered outcome, whether at the Tampa convention or before, is whether the four electoral votes he would gain is worth the potential damage he causes elsewhere. Of course all things are not equal, but if they were, one could easily argue that Rick Santorum could produce a pickup in states such as Iowa and Minnesota or more easily guarantee the crucial victory in Ohio-and also force the Democrats to spend more time and energy protecting Pennsylvania than Romney would in Michigan. In short I think the Romney superior general election candidate argument has mostly left the building. But let’s say he’s the nominee and they win it and thus get to 234 Electoral Votes.

Now the math becomes brutally simple: The Republicans win if they win Florida and either Colorado or Virginia (yes, we have assumed they win Ohio… and Iowa… and North Carolina…and New Hampshire). The Democrats have to win Florida, or instead both of the other two.

VIRGINIA

Obama made it a battleground in 2008 after Tim Kaine had wrested control of the statehouse in Richmond three years earlier. The formula was tried and true: a huge African-American turnout combined with a strong showing in fast-growing Northern Virginia offset the conservative Piedmont and mountains, Richmond suburbs and military-intensive white Tidewater. I think the fault lines will be similar this time no matter who the GOP nominee is: what the Lord giveth with Santorum’s more spiritual appeal he may taketh away with the loss of a more secular vote in the D.C. suburbs, and vice-versa for Mormon/Yuppie Romney.

            2000: 44.4 (-4.0 below Gore national)

            2004: 45.5 (-2.8 below Kerry national) 

            2008: 52.6 (-.3 below Obama national)

The Democratic train has been coming fast these past eight years. Of all the pieces of the Obama coalition, some of which clearly frayed at various points in the past three years, African-Americans and federal government employees would seem to be among the most secure for the incumbent. But the margin for error is newfound, narrow and thus very vulnerable-I’d say that Obama’s chances in Colorado are slightly better than here in the Old Dominion.

FLORIDA

And so inevitably we get to Florida. Our fourth largest state about to replace New York as #3; a little bit of everything (which may explain Mitt Romney’s success here)-South Florida is an extension of the Northeast U.S. as well as Latin America; Central Florida, popularized as the “I-4 Corridor” (which connects Orlando with Tampa Bay), has a Midwestern sensibility and many transplants from there; North Florida, particularly the Panhandle, is in many ways a part of the Deep South. It was closely decided in 2000 (you think?) but was won more decisively in both subsequent elections. Yet actually the comparative tide has been seeping back toward the Republicans. Much of the Latino vote here is Cuban, and will generally vote Republican. Some of highest foreclosure rates are found in Florida. And if somehow Jeb Bush ends up as the nominee-well, then the Obama campaign best break out a different map for their victory strategy.

2000: 48.8 (+.4 above Gore national. Actually before rounding after the decimal point it was +.46. If it had been +.47 history would be very different)

2004: 47.1 (-1.2 below Kerry national)

2008: 50.9 (-2.0 below Obama national)

Perhaps Barack Obama will reclaim nearly all of his 2008 voters, deny his Republican opponent the middle, and steam to a surprisingly easy reelection. Lord knows the GOP field and Congress have opened that door, and lately the economic wind seems to finally be helping the incumbent as well. But if he doesn’t, and this gets close, Florida is still problematic for the Democrats. In fact in the hierarchy of these nine states and their 92 Electoral votes-the most competitive of all-it is hard to rate Florida any better than eighth in terms of the Democrats’ chances, perhaps only trailing New Hampshire if Romney is the Republican nominee. Obama and Kerry both ran slightly stronger in Ohio (though Gore did not, of course); Colorado and Nevada have both leapfrogged the Sunshine State in terms of Democratic performance in the past decade. And while conventions have had little impact over the long haul, the 2008 versions appear to have aided their party just a little bit-Tampa can’t hurt the Republicans assuming they settle on a nominee without shedding much blood.

Concluding Choices

Which brings us to the part that is very tricky for each side. From the Democrats’ perspective, since their ticket is already set, they must assign a basic valuation to the closest states. It might be adjusted depending on GOP nomination events, but for now they must arrive at some truth.

Democrats cannot get shut out of the Atlantic states unless they dominate the Mississippi River and Mountain West states-but losing Florida, however likely, risks everything. I think mine is a party that still feels more familiar in places like Milwaukee, Madison, Minneapolis/St. Paul and Des Moines, so I feel the subtle preference will be to lock down the Midwest. Obama’s more recent populist bent may be better suited to the Upper Midwest than in the West where a new economy growth message rubs against the reality of the past three years. And besides the Obama campaign is still based in the region’s hub: Chicago. And amongst the rest Nevada and Colorado are still somewhat more exotic and distant locales while Virginia beckons to at least the White House staff every day, so expect a slightly more intensive effort in the Old Dominion. Of course they’ll have plenty of money for each of these states, but it’s not an infinite source, nor is time: ask Al Gore or anyone from his 2000 campaign if crucial scheduling and resource decisions could determine the Presidency by costing a candidate an important state.

If the Republicans can mirror the Obama logic and go where the getting may be best for them, they would probably jettison Romney and Santorum altogether and advance a ticket with appeal in Florida, Virginia, and Colorado above all other states. A message which is pro-military/anti-tax/pro-growth/anti-Washington. (except in Northern Virginia. Shhh…. Don’t tell) Romney’s failure to advance his economic credentials, to connect with the middle-class, and to demonstrate firm political character weakens his party across the board, with the possible exception of New Hampshire and, somewhat strangely, perhaps in Florida. Santorum may help most where help may be insufficient: a few extra votes in Western Pennsylvania or Northeast Wisconsin on the road to a statewide defeat and zero electoral votes, while hurting them in more tolerant and culturally moderate communities as exist in Florida, Nevada and Colorado.

Somebody’s got to win this: don’t bet against chalk, and the chalk right now lies with Barack Obama.

Tags: , ,