In my previous 7-10 blog posting, I analyzed Barack Obama's path to 270 electoral votes. The second part of this "Electoral Calculus" series examines the options available to his opponent, Republican Governor Mitt Romney of Massachusetts.
To start, as the challenger to a first-term president, Mitt Romney does not have history on his side. Since President Franklin Delano Roosevelt's inauguration in 1933, a first-term president representing a political party that wrested control of the White House from the opposing party in the previous election has only been defeated once. The lone first-term president who failed in his reelection bid was Jimmy Carter in 1980.
FDR was elected four consecutive times. Because he died so early in his fourth term, Truman's election in 1948 was a de facto "reelection." Eisenhower was reelected in 1956. JFK, unfortunately, never lived to face reelection. LBJ routed Barry Goldwater in 1964, but decided not to run for reelection in 1968. Nixon demolished McGovern in his 1972 reelection bid, but resigned before he could complete his second term. Ford lost to Carter in 1976, but never served a full first term and wasn't even elected on the same ticket as Nixon. Carter, of course, lost to Reagan in 1980. Reagan won reelection in a landslide in 1984. George H.W. Bush lost his reelection bid to Bill Clinton in 1992, but the Republican Party had controlled the White House for 12 consecutive terms by this point, thus making Bush's defeat different from Carter's. Both Bill Clinton and George W. Bush were two-term presidents.
Incumbent presidents have numerous institutional advantages that presidential challengers simply do not have. A president can control the national conversation, as Obama did with his recent announcement concerning immigration policy. After getting beaten up in the press for two or three weeks over disappointing economic news and gaffes, Obama easily changed the narrative to one about how Mitt Romney is boxed in on immigration reform and how Obama's policy announcement polls well. Presidents also have the ability to speak to tens of millions of voters at once with a presidential address or news conference. They have high-ranking cabinet officials who can act as surrogates. And they can raise a lot of money.
Considering all this, Romney still has a chance to relegate Obama to the unsavory realm of one-term presidents. However, his margin for error is much smaller than Obama's because the onus is on Romney to win back states that Obama won in 2008. Shifting demographics make states in the South and West more appealing for Democrats, as is evidenced by Obama's chances in Florida, Colorado, and Nevada.
However, there is a flip side to these demographic changes. What Democrats gain in the South and West might be offset by a slightly less favorable electorate in the Midwest. This is where Romney will likely focus his efforts. The 7-10 will assume that a comfortable Obama victory (300+ EVs) is more likely than a comfortable Romney victory. So I will begin with what I consider the most likely outcome: an Obama victory with 291 EVs:
For Romney to have any chance at defeating Obama, he MUST carry Indiana, North Carolina and Florida. Nevada and Iowa would be nice to have, but their low number of EVs can be offset elsewhere. Nevada is a possible Romney pickup because of how hard the state was hit by unemployment and a poor housing market. That could sour voters on Obama because they could reasonably conclude that things haven't gotten much better for them with him at the helm. Iowans might reject Obama because of his stance on gay marriage. This state is actually closely divided in presidential years. Giving Romney all of these states gives him 247 EVs.
To get to 270, Romney will or should focus his efforts on the blue states in the Upper Midwest. Using a sports reference, Romney should campaign heavily in the blue states in Big Ten (the athletic conference) country. These states are Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio and Pennsylvania. (Illinois is not included here because it has no chance of going for Romney.) If Romney can win New Hampshire, then winning any two these five Midwestern states will send him to the White House. If Romney does not win New Hampshire, he still only needs to win two of these states as long as they are not Minnesota and Wisconsin. He would need a third state in this case. One possible result of this strategy is this map, which puts Romney in the White House at 291 EVs:
Vice presidential speculation has often focused on Ohio Senator Rob Portman and former Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty. Selecting either of these potential candidates as Romney's running mate might play well in the Midwest with their blue-collar appeal. Pawlenty may be especially helpful because he has no ties to the George W. Bush presidency (like Portman does), he is not a firebrand that could scare off moderate and independent voters, and he can speak easily with social conservatives and evangelical voters.
The Republican wave election of 2010 shows that Republicans can compete in Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin and Ohio. This is not to say, however, that these states are automatic pick-ups for the Romney campaign. Ranking these states in order from most likely to be poached by Romney to least likely, I would rank them as Ohio, Wisconsin, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Minnesota.
Ohio is a true swing state. Over the past 10 elections, it has voted for the Republican candidate six times and the Democratic candidate four times. However, Republican Governor John Kasich is not popular and Romney faces headwinds from labor unions and auto workers over his positions on the bailouts of the auto companies and his hostility to labor unions.
Wisconsin has voted Democratic in the past six elections. However, John Kerry nearly lost the state. Republican Governor Scott Walker recently survived a recall election. This result has certainly emboldened Republicans both in Wisconsin and around the country. Look for a lot of outside money to enter this race as Governor Walker helps Romney with fundraising. The same caveats apply, however, regarding labor voters and auto workers. It is also probable that the electorate in November will be a little browner, blacker and younger (in other words, more Democratic) than the electorate in this month's recall election.
After Ohio and Wisconsin, there is a considerably steeper climb for Romney to get to the next three Midwestern states.
Michigan has voted Democratic in the past five elections. Recent polling has shown this race to be very close, perhaps because of Romney's family ties to the state. But given the pride Michigan voters have for their car companies and Detroit (and Romney's "Let Detroit Go Bankrupt" column in the New York Times), it would seem that these tight polls are not quite accurate. It bears watching these polls to see if they are anomalies or if they are picking up on something that should concern Team Obama greatly.
Like Michigan, Pennsylvania has gone blue in the past five elections. This state has a tendency to look competitive for Republicans only to fall out of play as the election draws near. Pennsylvania is fools gold for Republicans, just like Missouri is fools gold for Democrats. Blacks, Latinos and immigrants in Philadelphia; moderate voters in the Philadelphia and Pittsburgh suburbs; and labor voters in Pittsburgh are likely very much opposed to Romney. Look for Joe Biden to connect with culturally conservative voters outside these areas who might be more sympathetic to Obama's economic message even if they are closer to Romney when it comes to social issues.
Minnesota has the longest streak in the country of voting for Democrats in presidential elections. The last Republican it supported was Richard Nixon in 1972. Not even Reagan could win this state despite his landslide victories in 1980 and 1984. That alone should relegate this state to tertiary status for the Romney campaign. A Tim Pawlenty selection might make this state more competitive than it otherwise might be because he would be a native son. If Romney is playing hard to win Minnesota, that's likely a bad sign for the Obama campaign because this state appears to be the furthest out of reach. It has a strong progressive streak (consider former Senator Paul Wellstone, for example) and a large urban core of Democratic voters in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area.
Note how this analysis doesn't mention Virginia. While it is a highly contested state, The 7-10 thinks its changing demographics, growing Washington DC suburbs, low unemployment rate, and reliance on federal funding makes this state increasingly difficult for Republicans to compete in. A far more likely Romney result (275 EVs) would be a map like this:
In short, this is definitely a winnable election for Mitt Romney. But it requires a lot of breaks to go his way (e.g., Florida, Nevada, North Carolina, etc.). He will probably not rout Obama by any means, but a narrow Electoral College victory is definitely possible. He will need to maximize turnout among White blue collar voters and social conservatives in order to peel away a few light blue states in the Upper Midwest. He will also need to hope the economy continues to stall because that would play into his message of how Obama has not produced results for average families. Again, at this stage, The 7-10 considers a Romney win to be more unlikely than likely, but the path to victory is definitely there.