Monday, August 22, 2011

The State of the Presidential Race, Many Months Out

If you read this space frequently, you know that I firmly believe in the provable theorem that polling more than a year out from a Presidential race is not fairly predictive of the outcome of the actual race. From the unbeatable George Herbert Walker Bush to the clear one-terms Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton, political comebacks and political disasters abound. Recency is everything in politics.

So it is with the 2012 race. President Obama could enjoy a reviving economy and go on to win decisively. He could continue the long popularity slide of his Presidency to date and wind up with 1980-style whipping. Whether you like or dislike the President, it's hard to deny that none of us, with any kind of reasonable certainty, can know his fate.

Having said that, I'm all about looking at races and understanding where they stand. So, let's look at the latest, post-Pawlenty, post-Perry announcement polling and see where the 2012 race might wind up. Gallup has just released a series of heads up match-ups for the Presidency and they look as follows:

Obama vs. Romney - Romney +2%
Obama vs. Perry - EVEN
Obama vs. Bachmann - Obama +4%

So, let's talk about the map where Obama enjoys something between a 4 point edge and a 2 point deficit.

First, let's safely assume that any state John McCain won will be a safe GOP state in a close race (Obama won by more than 7 points nationally in 2008):

This gives, to the prospective GOP nominee:
Wyoming, Oklahoma, Utah, Idaho, Alaska, Alabama, Arkansas, Louisiana, Kentucky, Tennessee, Kansas, Nebraska, West Virginia, Mississippi, Texas, South Carolina, North Dakota, Arizona, South Dakota, Georgia, Montana and Missouri

This gives the GOP nominee 181 electoral votes with the new census counts.

On the flip side, let's assume that any state that Obama won by 15 points or more is a relatively safe Democratic state (the worst-case scenario in this polling is less than a 10 point national swing from the 2008 vote.)

To Obama, this therefore gives:
District of Columbia, Hawaii, Vermont, Rhode Island, New York, Massachusetts, Maryland, Illinois, Delaware, California, Connecticut, Maine, Washington, Oregon, Michigan, New Jersey and New Mexico

This gives Obama 208 electoral votes by the new count.

On the GOP side, let's assume that the two really close states in 2008, which were exceptional outliers on the Democratic side, do not repeat. Namely, let's put North Carolina and Indiana in the GOP count.

This adds 26 to the GOP side and takes the GOP total to 207.

So we are building off a base of 208 for the GOP and 207 for the Democrats, with 270 votes needed for victory.

The states in play are:
Wisconsin, Nevada, Pennsylvania, Minnesota, New Hampshire, Iowa, Colorado, Virginia, Ohio and Florida

So what are some of the strategies that a GOP candidate looking to unseat Obama could use to get to 270?

(1) Take the closest states from 2008
If the GOP candidate simply went in rank order of the next-closest states, they could target:
Florida, Ohio, Virginia and Colorado. Between these 4 states lie 68 electoral votes, vaulting a prospective GOP nominee to 276 and winning the election.

(2) Go Big or Go Home
A variant of John McCain's strategy in 2008, simply target the big prizes. Aim for Florida, Ohio (which no Republican has EVER won without taking) and Pennsylvania. Between the 3, they hold 66 electoral votes, giving 274 to a GOP nominee who sweeps them.

(3) Go Hispanic
Put Rubio on the VP ticket and target pushing the GOP share of the Hispanic vote up from the 25% or so that John McCain enjoyed to a more respectable 35% or 40% and take the heavily Hispanic states. This means fighting for Florida, Colorado and Nevada, which would yield 43 electoral votes, pushing the count up to 250. The problem with this strategy is that you still need Ohio and even that is not quite enough, as it only raises the total to 268. You still need one more outlier state, possibly Iowa or Virginia to complete the sweep.

(4) Go for the Rust
Target economically depressed states. Ohio has been swamped by the recession, as have Florida, Nevada and Wisconsin. Those 4 get you to 269, which is enough to prevent a victory, although a GOP candidate would still need 1 more state to complete the sweep.

(5) The Southern / Flyover Strategy
The Northeast and Mid-West are Obama's wheelhouse, so why fight him there? Focus on taking back the South, namely Florida and Virginia and fight for flyover Iowa. This gets you to 250. Still some work to do, so go hard for Iowa as well, which gets you to 268...pick up one more state and you are there.

Strategies 1 and 2 seem by FAR the most feasible to me. The key issue with strategy #1 is that Virginia continues to trend blue, as does Colorado. Ohio and Florida certainly seem winnable to a GOP candidate. Strategy #2's greatest risk is Pennsylvania, which hasn't gone red in quite some time (24 years by 1988, to be precise.) Strategies 3, 4 and 5 just require too many resources in too many states with no room for error.

Interestingly, if you look back to 2008, I wrote extensively about the importance of Colorado in deciding Presidential races. Much of the attention in races is rightly focused on the biggest swing states of Florida, Ohio and Pennsylvania.

But, as I mentioned above, Pennsylvania is a long-shot for any GOP candidate in a close race. And Ohio and Florida are close to must-haves for a GOP candidate, but are, in and of themselves, insufficient to win.

Colorado didn't wind up getting a lot of press in 2008 because the race simply wasn't close enough and the election was basically decided before the polls even closed there -- once Obama took Ohio it was more or less curtains for McCain. But if you start with the most Democratic states in 2008 and go down the list until you get to 270, you get to 263 without Colorado and 272 with it. Doing the same thing on the Republican side, you get to 266 without Colorado and 275 with it. So if the 2008 pattern holds, Colorado will be THE swing state.

Broaden out to the three states closest to that inflection point and you see they are Iowa, Colorado and Virginia.

Obama has 257 without them, so he wins if he takes Virginia (+13 takes him to 270 EV's) or with both Iowa AND Colorado (+15 takes him to 272). Conversely, a GOP candidate would have to take Virginia AND either Iowa or Colorado.

Colorado and/or Virginia could be the key to the whole thing. Obama certainly needs 1 of the 2 in most feasible scenarios and the GOP may well need both. Here's to shifting political power in the US.

Of course, if it's a 10 point rout in one direction, this discussion is all academic. But it's been a long-time since we had a 10 point rout (28 years on election day.)

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