As anybody who has at least a passing interest in politics understands, presidential elections in the United States are not determined by which candidate receives the most votes nationwide, but rather by which candidate receives a majority of votes in the Electoral College. Because the Electoral College (EC) has 538 total votes, at least 270 electoral votes (EVs) are needed by a presidential candidate to secure victory.
Because of the winner-take-all system of the EC (with the exceptions of Nebraska and Maine), one fault of the EC is that votes in a politically uncompetitive state, such as New York or Texas, can essentially be wasted while votes in highly competitive states, such as Ohio and Florida, have more of an impact. There is no benefit for Barack Obama if he beats Mitt Romney in New Jersey by 1 percentage point or by 15 percentage points because the EV total would remain the same. This is how George W. Bush was able to narrowly defeat Al Gore in the 2000 election. Gore won by healthy margins in states that were less consequential while Bush eked out several squeakers in states that were more significant.
Keeping this in mind, The 7-10 will endeavor to handicap the general state of the 2012 presidential campaign in terms of how both major candidates (Obama and Romney) can amass the 270 EVs necessary to either ensure Obama's second term as president or elevate Romney to the presidency. This post will focus on Obama's paths to 270; the next post in this installment will address Romney's paths.
Here are the results of the 2008 presidential race (in which Obama defeated John McCain 365-173):
This map will serve as the basis for all reasonable paths to 270 in 2012. However, it must be adjusted to account for the effects of redistricting (for Maine and Nebraska) and the shifting of allotted EVs because of population shifts as reflected in the decennial census. According to the 2010 Census, more Americans are leaving the industrial Midwest and Northeast and moving to the West and South. The booming Latino population and immigration are also contributing to growth in the West and the South. Taking these demographic changes into consideration, if the 2008 election were based on the 2012 electoral map, Obama still would have beaten McCain handily, but by a marginally smaller 358-180 margin:
We start this analysis by making a few assumptions based on Obama's performance in the 2008 race, general polling data, and socioeconomic trends:
1. "Red" (Republican) states that Obama narrowly lost in 2008 are out of reach for him in 2012. If Obama is campaigning in Montana and Missouri this fall, then that likely indicates a Romney wipeout. Slightly redder states that are potentially competitive in future election years due to demographic shifts (Arizona, Georgia and possibly even Texas) are also off the table. This keeps Obama at 358EVs.
2. Historically red states that went "blue" (Democratic) in 2008 will revert to their traditional leanings in 2012. Indiana and North Carolina were probably the two biggest surprises of 2008. If Obama is still competing in these two states in October, Romney is probably in serious trouble. Both states are culturally conservative to moderate, but perhaps the Black, Latino, and college vote may save Obama in North Carolina while the auto workers in Indiana may reward him for providing emergency assistance for the auto industry. For now, The 7-10 will put these states in Romney's column and lower Obama's EV total to 332.
Barring unforeseen circumstances, such as a military strike on Iran or a sudden drop in the unemployment rate, this map, a 332-206 Obama win, is probably the best the president can do in November. It assumes that the other more "purple" (political battleground) states, such as Ohio and Colorado, all break for Obama and that Romney is unable to pick off a blue state like Pennsylvania or Michigan. This map appears to be a healthy victory for Obama but it would likely obscure a much closer popular vote. Keeping in mind that this map is probably Obama's best-case scenario, we now must adopt a more pragmatic or sobering set of circumstances for the Obama team. These scenarios are listed in order of most likely to least likely.
3. Iowa is going to be a very difficult state for Obama to hold. While its unemployment rate is much lower than the national average, social issues may torpedo the president in the very state that launched his presidential campaign. Obama's stance on gay marriage probably will not play well in a state that recalled three state supreme court justices who ruled in favor of gay marriage. And because Obama ran for the Democratic Party's nomination unopposed this year, Republicans had the airwaves all to themselves. Even though these ads were generally targeted against other Republicans, their antipathy towards Obama was a common theme. After hearing months and months of ads about "repealing Obamacare" and "ending Obama's reckless spending," Obama's popularity may have suffered even further. Obama can still win this state because of its favorable economic conditions and the possibility that voters may tune out Republican attacks because of saturation, but this state is highly vulnerable to being poached by Romney. This reduces Obama's EV total to 326.
4. Florida is the mother of all swing states. Only 527 votes separated Bush and Gore in 2000. It's also worth so many EVs that a loss in this state could only be offset by winning two or three medium-sized states elsewhere. Romney almost certainly has to win Florida if he is to have any plausible chance of defeating Obama. If Obama holds onto Florida, that forces Romney to try to flip Ohio, Michigan or Wisconsin. Florida is a highly gerrymandered state at the state level and is dominated by Republicans in its state legislature. It also gave rise to the conservative Senator Marco Rubio and Governor Rick Scott. While Governor Scott may be unpopular, Rubio is considerably better liked. Florida was also hit particularly hard by the crisis in the housing market. Obama can hold this state, but it will come at a tremendous financial cost because of the sheer number and size of Florida's media markets (Miami, Orlando, Tampa-St. Petersburg, Jacksonville, Tallahassee, Pensacola, etc.). If Obama is at a disadvantage in fundraising, he might not have the resources to match Republican spending in the state on advertising and voter outreach. This could force Obama to cede Florida to Romney so he can hold more critical states, such as Colorado and Ohio. Losing this state would drop Obama to 297 EVs.
5. Nevada is getting the worst of both the housing crisis and high unemployment. That alone should make Romney's economic message may resonate more strongly than it would in a state that is in a better economic situation, such as Virginia. This state overwhelmingly went for Romney in the Republican primaries. There is also a significant Mormon population in Nevada that could turn out for him. The state also has a popular Republican governor and a competitive Senate race that could drive up turnout. At only 6 EVs, Nevada is not nearly as critical as a state like Virginia or Florida, but it does give Obama less margin for error regarding ceding other combinations of battleground states. This would drop Obama to 291 EVs and result in the following map:
This leaves the following seven contested states (listed in order from most vulnerable to least vulnerable for Obama): Colorado, Ohio, Virginia, New Hampshire, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, and Michigan. These states will all likely be decided by fewer than 5 percentage points for either Obama or Romney. But the advantage for Obama with these seven states is that at 291 EVs, Obama still has several viable paths to victory. Obama can still secure 270 EVs even if he loses the following combinations of states:
1. Colorado and Wisconsin
3. Virginia and New Hampshire
4. Wisconsin, Nevada and Virginia (if he holds Nevada)
5. Ohio and New Hampshire (if he wins the congressional district in Omaha, Nebraska)
These scenarios illustrate how Obama has to be at least a slight favorite to win reelection in June despite his mid-40 approval ratings and the tightness of the national polls. The onus is on Romney to actually take states away from Obama. Obama has the luxury of ceding marginal states (e.g., Indiana) at the expense of shoring up more critical ones (e.g., Ohio and Virginia).
A growing Latino population and Romney's "self deportation" remarks from the Republican primaries may save Obama in Colorado. Colorado also has a marijuana legalization initiative on the ballot that may drive up youth turnout even if Obama is opposed to its legalization.
Ohio voters will probably support Obama in November simply because he supported rescuing Detroit. More importantly, he he can remind voters that Romney penned an opinion piece entitled "Let Detroit Go Bankrupt". That alone should make Ohio, Wisconsin, Michigan and even Pennsylvania uphill climbs for the former Massachusetts governor. If Ohio stays blue, then Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania will almost certainly remain blue as well.
Virginia has a low unemployment rate and benefits from government contractors and federal employees in the Washington suburbs in the northern part of the state. Virginia's population growth is also concentrated in these northern suburbs which have a decidedly more mid-Atlantic (more diverse and immigrant-friendly) feel than Southern feel like towns in the southern part of the state. A combination of Black voters in Richmond, socially moderate-to-liberal voters in the DC suburbs, and voters who believe Republican Governor Bob McDonnell may have overreached or mishandled controversial issues related to women's health may be enough to offset Romney's likely victories in the military-heavy Hampton Roads area (Norfolk, Chesapeake, etc.) and the rural areas of southern and southwestern Virginia. Demographically, Virginia may be trending blue in the long term. One other important factor is a high-profile Senate race between former Republican Governor George Allen and former Democratic Governor Tim Kaine. The winner of this Senate campaign will almost certainly match the winner of its electoral votes.
New Hampshire is a tough state to analyze. Romney was the governor of neighboring Massachusetts and won the state handily in the GOP primaries. Obama also lost the state handily to Hillary Clinton in 2008. But New Hampshire also elected a Democratic Governor John Lynch four times. And on social issues, New Hampshire is not the same as Georgia. Whether the libertarian leanings of New Hampshire concerning taxation offset the socially moderate-to-liberal leanings of Northeasterners in general is up for debate. Romney is not going to win Massachusetts. But will he make a play for New Hampshire in the fall?
To be sure, the 2012 election will probably resemble the 2004 election more than the 2008 election. But because individual battleground state polling matters more than national polling, it would seem that Obama has a slight, but noticeable and important advantage regarding the electoral calculus. Even though this election will be close, perhaps campaign strategist David Axelrod said it best when he said, "I would rather be us than them."
(Coming next: Romney's Electoral Calculus: June 2012)