This election will be decided by who wins a majority of ten states, (Colorado, Florida, Iowa, Nevada, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia and Wisconsin). Almost without exception, the other forty-one states have already been decided. This election’s epicenter (s) will be in places like the suburbs of Denver, the exurbs of Philadelphia, northeastern Ohio, northern Virginia and Milwaukee County. This election is already shaping up to be the dirtiest in decades and in the battleground states it will be a bloodbath as foot soldiers from both parties and their super-PAC confederates fight it out for the hearts and minds of the less than ten percent of the electorate that hasn’t already made up their minds. National polls don’t matter much: many are skewed and it doesn’t matter that the President will win California by twelve percentage points; it only matters if he can pull off narrow wins in places like Ohio.
The 2008 election:
First, some interesting tidbits from the 2008 contest that provides background and clues for 2012.
2008 Election: Obama 52.9%, 365 Electoral Votes
McCain 45.7%, 173 Electoral Votes
President’s Bush’s approval rating was somewhere in the range of 30% for most of 2008 which provided the Democrats with a strong initial advantage that they were able to use not only to motivate their own voters but to bring in large numbers of political independents. Combined with the financial panic in September, 2008, the weak candidacy of John McCain and dispirited Republican voters gave Barack Obama an easy win. He was able to win crucial battleground states that George Bush had won in 2004 (Colorado, Iowa, New Mexico, Ohio, and, most importantly, Florida) but he also won states that had been trending Republican in recent presidential contests. Virginia and Indiana had not gone Democratic since Lyndon Johnson’s 1964 landslide while North Carolina and Nevada voted for President Obama on the strength of an enormous mobilization of young and minority voters in the state. Obama came an eyelash away from winning Missouri, which has voted for the winner in almost every election since 1932.
With the negative feeling that most Americans had towards the Republican Party in general and George Bush in particular, it is a wonder that Barack Obama didn’t win by an even larger margin and this is his potential weakness going into the next election. Unless the Republicans nominate someone totally unacceptable, there is little chance the President will achieve more than 50% of the vote. He probably won’t get less than 45% nationally so he’ll be fighting for about 5% of the undecided vote.
The 2012 election:
First the states that are not (at present) considered battleground states:
Solid Democratic states: (175 Electoral Votes)
California, Connecticut, Delaware, District of Columbia, Hawaii, Illinois, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, Rhode Island, Vermont, Washington
Leaning Democratic states: (42 Electoral Votes)
Maine, Michigan, Minnesota, New Mexico, Oregon
Solid Republican states: (191 Electoral Votes)
Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, Georgia, Idaho, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, North Dakota, Oklahoma, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, West Virginia, Wyoming
Comments about these states: Since 1988, most of these states have either gotten more Democratic or Republican and don’t show much sign of changing. It is virtually certain that the President cannot carry any of the states in the GOP column but the Republican candidate does have a chance in at least four that are trending blue (with New Mexico being the most likely, carried by George Bush in 2004). However, if the GOP candidate is carrying likely Democratic states the election would almost certainly be a huge victory for the Republicans.
The battleground states: (130 Electoral Votes)
Colorado: (9 Electoral Votes) This state has been ground zero for the every election since 2002. In the last half of the 20th century it was reliably Republican in presidential elections. However, with a large increase in the Hispanic population, a large liberal base in and around Denver, and an influx of liberals from California, Colorado has become a purple state. Moreover, the state has become a testing ground for a shadowy liberal group called “Progress Now” which is an umbrella organization of sixteen groups dedicated to electing Democrats throughout the country. For several years Progress Now has worked on three states in particular: Minnesota, Wisconsin and Colorado. In 2004, George Bush won the state by 4.7% but in 2008 Barack Obama won by almost 9%, a sharp turnaround in just four years. Even though Bush won the state in 2004 the Democrats captured the state legislature and won an open Senate seat. In 2010, even while Republicans were winning nationwide, a divided GOP in Colorado kept them from capturing the governor’s chair. Moreover, Progress Now, along with a lot of union help, helped the incumbent Senator, (a very liberal Democrat), limp over the finish line against a weak Republican challenger. Even if John McCain had somehow managed to win more conservative states in the east in 2008, he probably would have still lost here, Nevada and New Mexico, which would have cost him the election. In 2008 Hispanics voted 68-32 for Barack Obama which helped him roll in these states (as well as Florida, and, to a lesser extent, North Carolina and Indiana). The GOP will probably have to win at least one of these three states to secure victory. Right now, the President would probably win the state and his allies will be everywhere mobilizing his base to get out and vote. If he can keep up the intensity of his base he’ll have a good chance to carry the state. Intensity will be a key; there is no way the President will be able to match the eagerness of his supporters that he had in 2008 but he’ll still have support from most of them. The question is, will it be enough? One thing is for certain, this state will be a bloodbath, especially in the suburbs and exurbs of Denver.
Florida: (29 Electoral Votes) The big catch of the 2012 election. Barack Obama can afford to lose the state but the GOP cannot. Once it was clear that Obama had won Florida on election night 2008 the outcome was not in doubt. Polling has been all over the place in this state and it has been hard to get a solid read on how strong the President really is in the Sunshine State. With high unemployment and a real estate crisis that has verged on depression, Obama will have to do some heavy lifting to carry the state. He carried it by less than 3% in 2008 while George Bush finished five points ahead of John Kerry in 2004. It leans slightly Republican with an energetic GOP establishment in the state. Republicans control the state legislature and the governorship and will be fighting hard to beat the liberal Senator Bill Nelson. If Marco Rubio is nominated for Vice President then Florida will almost certainly be out of reach for the President and he may not spend many dollars chasing after such a lost cause.
Iowa: (6 Electoral Votes) A small state but an important one. It has only voted Republican once in the last six elections (2004) but George Bush came close in 2000 and polling data shows the President is quite unpopular in the Hawkeye State. The GOP wave in 2010 allowed the Republicans to capture the governorship and the General Assembly but not the State Senate. The President’s approval rating among independents has lingered around 40% for about a year but in states with small minority populations that approval drops even lower. Iowa, along with New Hampshire, are the two battleground states where this has had an effect. Iowa’s state GOP party is fairly well organized and the state is loaded with evangelicals who are itching to vote Republican this year (provided Mitt Romney is not the nominee).
Nevada: (6 Electoral Votes) The state probably most affected by the Great Recession, Nevada’s foreclosure rate, unemployment rate, and high school dropout rate are of nightmare proportions. George Bush carried that state by 2.5% in 2004 but Barack Obama won easily in 2008 by over twelve points, a huge turnaround. Democrats greatly outnumber Republicans in the state (a large reason the hated Harry Reid was reelected in 2010) and control the state legislature, so it will be hard for the GOP to carry the state but it is certainly possible. The same night Harry Reid won reelection to the Senate, the Republican candidate for governor, Brian Sandoval, won in a landslide (ironically enough over Harry Reid’s son). Again, if Rubio were on the GOP ticket (or perhaps someone like Sandoval), Nevada would lean Republican.
New Hampshire: (4 Electoral Votes) The only state in the Union to vote for George Bush in 2000 and then switch to John Kerry in 2004, New Hampshire has been a battleground state for twelve years. Republicans and Democrats have been in a political death match in the small cities and towns of the Granite State. Always the recipient of a ton of media attention as it has the first presidential primary every four years, New Hampshire also followed right along with the Democratic wave in 2006 and the Republican wave in 2010. Obama blew out John McCain by almost ten points in the state but the President’s approval rating is well below water in the state and it is likely that he’ll lose in November. Four electoral votes aren’t a lot but in a close contest it could be the difference.
North Carolina: (15 Electoral Votes) A real surprise in 2008, Obama was able to win the state by a hair (just 14,000 votes out of 4.3 million cast) with a massive GOTV effort featuring a very motivated youth vote along with a growing liberal cohort in the state around the large cities and a large minority turnout was enough to carry the state. George Bush won the state by thirteen percentage points in 2004 so it was considered out of reach by many experts in 2008. Of the battleground states North Carolina would be the one hardest for the President to defend in 2012 and it should fall to the GOP with even a little effort. The GOP captured the state legislature in 2010 and the unpopular Democratic governor isn’t running for reelection as she sees that it will be virtually impossible for her to win this year. Still, the Democrats are working hard to keep the state competitive.
Ohio: (18 Electoral Votes) With Florida, the GOP must win Ohio to win the election. Every Republican candidate in the last one hundred years has won the Buckeye State. Slightly red, it does have a bit of a conservative tilt and the President’s approval ratings are low in the state and he’s behind both Romney and Santorum in the state. The Democrats rely on turnout, especially in Cuyahoga County (Cleveland) and the union areas around Akron, Toledo, Youngstown, Dayton and Columbus. The GOP, especially in national elections, is strong in most of the countryside and in the southwest of the state (Cincinnati). Ohio punishes parties that are unpopular. In 2000, Mike DeWine won reelection to the Senate by over twenty points. In 2006 he lost to an ultra-liberal opponent by seventeen points. Then, in 2010, Rob Portman won an open Senate seat again by over twenty points and a Republican beat the incumbent Democrat for the governorship. The Democrats will pour millions into the state in the hopes that a huge financial advantage in Ohio, along with union foot soldiers and liberal activists, will put them over the top. In 2004 this state was ground zero; resources were poured into Ohio by both parties but Bush got over the finish line by two points. In 2008, tired by eight years of a disappointing President, the Iraq war, and endless deficits, many GOP voters simply stayed home. At the same time, Barack Obama’s campaign poured significant resources into the state knowing that if they took Ohio or Florida they would checkmate the Republican opposition. It is in states like Ohio where voter intensity really matters. If Republican voters are loyal to their candidate that fact alone will probably be enough to carry the state for the GOP. The dirty little secret of the 2004 election in Ohio is that George Bush lost the independent vote but did so well with GOP voters that he was able to win the Buckeye State.
Pennsylvania: (20 Electoral Votes) As Ohio is crucial to the GOP, Pennsylvania is to the Democrats. If the Republicans can win the Keystone State, the President has virtually no chance for reelection. Pennsylvania has not voted Republican in a presidential election since 1988, but George Bush campaigned hard both in 2000 and 2004. Bush came close in 2004 (2.5%) but John McCain got crushed in 2008 (over 9.5%). However, the GOP picked up the governorship and an open Senate seat in 2010 and, if Rick Santorum (a native son) is nominated, that will be worth a percentage or two more for him in the general election. The election will be decided in three counties outside Philadelphia, (Bucks, Montgomery and Delaware) which have led the way in wave elections. In 2006 Ed Rendell easily won reelection for governor and Bob Casey crushed Rick Santorum in the Senate election and it was in the collar counties outside Philadelphia that decided the election. In 2010 Pat Toomey was elected to the Senate because he won big in the countryside and the areas around Pittsburgh while mitigating his opponent’s (Admiral Sestak’s) great advantage in Philadelphia and the collar counties. In 1988 George H.W. Bush won Pennsylvania by two points by crushing Michael Dukakis around Philadelphia. If the GOP hopes to win in Pennsylvania they must (at the very least) pull even in the collar counties of Philadelphia. If they do that, they’ll have a strong chance of carrying the state.
Virginia: (13 Electoral Votes) Virginia had voted Republican in every presidential election since 1968. In 2004 George Bush carried the state by over eight points but in 2008 Barack Obama won by more than six. In the first decade of the 21st century, the southern suburbs of Washington DC have been a bloodbath for Republicans. In local elections, the GOP got trounced as heavily populated suburban areas became much more liberal. Democrats elected two governors in a row and, in 2006 defeated an incumbent Republican Senator on the strength of the votes provided in northern Virginia. However, in 2009, a Republican was elected governor by the biggest margin in the state in modern history (sixteen points) and the state legislature is now controlled by the GOP. Obama’s GOTV effort in Virginia in 2008 was, to say the least, impressive. Following the model of North Carolina, they mobilized liberals, youth and minority voters in large numbers and not only carried the state for Obama but captured three congressional seats as well. In 2010, two of those seats were recaptured by the Republicans (and they won another in the western part of the state) in a massive repudiation of the President’s policies. Like Ohio the state tilts lightly red and should be good ground for a solid GOP candidate. Like Pennsylvania this state will be won in the suburbs outside the largest city. The Republicans will win handily in most of the rest of the state so if they come close or even win in northern Virginia (Loudoun, Prince William and Fairfax) they’ll take the state.
Wisconsin: (10 Electoral Votes) The state, just slightly blue, will be an interesting test-case in 2012. In 2000 and 2004 the Democratic candidate won the state by a hair (5,000 and 12,000 votes respectively), and, if there hadn’t been massive voting fraud in Milwaukee and Dane counties the GOP may have carried the state. Wisconsin hasn’t voted Republican in a presidential election since 1984 but it has been close (as has been shown above) and the GOP controls the governor’s chair, the state legislature and the state supreme court. As in Colorado, Progress Now is working hard on the recall election of the incumbent governor, Scott Walker (the election will probably happen in late spring or early summer) and will do its best to defeat him and prepare for the fall campaign. National Democrats don’t want the locals in the Badger State to force the recall because so much manpower and funding will go into it and the fall campaign will have less resources to draw upon. The Democrats not only want to carry the state for the President, there is also an open Senate seat that must be defended. The state’s GOP organization is highly motivated and is looking forward to defeating the Democrats in the recall and in the fall elections. The Democratic Party in Wisconsin, controlled from Madison, is one of the most radical in the country and they’ll work hard with unions, Think Progress and the Administration to carry the state.
In 2000 and 2004 only three states (Iowa, New Hampshire and New Mexico) switched from one party to the other in the presidential election. The forty-seven other states (and the District of Columbia) voted the same way in both elections. I believe the coming contest is shaping up like 2000 and 2004. If the fragile economy continues to improve, the President will have a decent chance of scraping together 270 electoral votes for victory. Conversely, if the economy doesn’t improve or gets worse (especially if gas prices continue to rise) he’ll probably lose. In modern times, no incumbent has been reelected with an 8% unemployment rate.
The public has seen plenty of negative advertising for the Republican candidates which partially explains their weakness against the President. However, once a candidate is chosen his attention will turn on the President and will begin a narrative about the things he hasn’t delivered that were promised in 2008. The choice of VP will be crucial. Someone like Marco Rubio brings strength and national power to the ticket. Young, conservative, and telegenic, he brings the element of youth and vitality that was owned by the Democrats in the last election. As a first generation Cuban immigrant he would almost certainly help increase the GOP share of the Hispanic vote (68-32 for Obama in 2008). Moreover, Catholics, (who voted 54% for Obama in 2008) will probably leave the Democrats in high numbers (especially if Rick Santorum is nominated) and that will play a pivotal role in most of the battleground states. Obama’s share of the Jewish vote (78% in 2008) will almost certainly go down as well.
The President will have a massive advantage in fundraising and will try to use that lead to steamroll his way through states by employing operatives, buying airtime and organizing voters in the battleground states. By throwing enough mud on the wall he hopes to pick off enough of states to win the election. He’ll have to thread a narrow needle; it is the opinion of this author that he’ll lose in Florida, New Hampshire, Iowa, North Carolina, Virginia and Ohio (that would be 276 EVs for the GOP candidate) if the election were held today. This author suspects strongly that Rick Santorum will be the nominee and will probably stay fairly close to the President in polling throughout the spring and summer. We probably won’t know if there’s a clear leader until after the first debate after Labor Day when people will really start paying attention. In 1980, Carter led Reagan until the debates and it was only in the last few weeks when the undecided voters finally gave up on an unpopular incumbent and voted for the challenger. In that election, Reagan won by ten percentage points and carried forty-four states. A generation later, with a much-changed political demographic, Rick Santorum’s ceiling for electoral votes is probably around 350. If he carries all the battleground states he’ll win 321 electoral votes, 51 more than he needs. With an election this close, it is simply too early to tell who will emerge victorious.