Monday, September 22, 2008

What’s the Top Electoral College State This Year?

By Stuart Rothenberg

Two months ago in this space, I identified five states that I argued would pick the next president. Tell me how these states — Ohio, Colorado, Virginia, Nevada and Michigan — will go in November, I wrote, and I’ll tell you who will be our next president (“The Big 5: Picking the States That Will Pick the President”).

As the presidential race has developed, those five states seem to hold the same predictive value now that they did then. Sure, there are a handful of additional states that could turn the election to either Democratic Sen. Barack Obama (Ill.) or Republican Sen. John McCain (Ariz.) — New Hampshire, New Mexico, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and North Carolina — but the longer the list, the less it tells us about who’ll win.

I’ve become convinced that my initial list of five states probably can be boiled down to just one — one state that is most likely to determine who will be the next occupant of the White House. And that state is Colorado.

If John McCain carries Colorado in November, I’d expect him to hold onto all of George W. Bush’s 2000 states, with the exception of New Hampshire. If he does that, and if Obama holds all of Al Gore’s states, plus New Hampshire, McCain would win 274 electoral votes to 264 for Obama.

If Obama carries the state, he has altered the arithmetic of the Electoral College so as to make it difficult for McCain to win.

It’s true, of course, that Obama could win Colorado and still lose the election. Republicans continue to look at Michigan, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Minnesota as possible swing states they could win to offset the loss of Colorado or Virginia. But if there is a single state among this group that is most likely to switch parties and therefore determine the winner of the presidential contest, it now appears to be the Centennial State.

Colorado, which generally has been characterized as a part of the conservative, Republican Mountain West, has voted Republican in nine of the past 10 presidential elections. George W. Bush carried it twice, including by 5 points in 2004.

But recently, the state has been trending Democratic. Democrats won a Senate seat in 2004 with Ken Salazar and the governorship two years later. With Sen. Wayne Allard (R) calling it quits, Democratic Rep. Mark Udall is a slight favorite to win the state’s other Senate seat this year. And Democrats now hold majorities in both chambers of the Colorado Legislature.

Until late July, polling in the state showed Obama ahead, from anywhere between 2 and 9 points. But recent polling has been more mixed. Polls have generally shown one candidate or the other ahead by the low single digits, making for a race that looks to be a tossup.

But my confidence in these surveys is not great. A number of the surveys are automated, and some of the internals look more than a little odd. That doesn’t mean the results are wrong. It just means that I don’t have a great deal of confidence that they are correct.

One of the recent surveys, conducted on Sept. 11 by Insider Advantage, showed Obama up by 3 points. But the survey found McCain getting an unbelievable one-quarter of the African-American vote and Obama winning both men and women by an identical 49 percent to 46 percent margin.

Given the gender gaps everywhere — with McCain running well ahead of Obama among men nationally, as well as in Colorado surveys conducted by Public Policy Polling (D) and even Rasmussen Reports for Fox News — it seems unlikely that there would be no gender gap in Colorado. And if McCain wins 25 percent of the black vote anywhere, I’d be stunned.

Still, the state looks to be made for a tight contest. With upscale white voters who would seem likely to prefer Obama, Hispanics, Boulder liberals and plenty of swing suburbanites, Colorado looks like a one-time Republican state where Obama should have appeal.

One of the problems facing Obama is that the Democratic nominee for president has not won more than 47 percent of the vote in the state since 1964, when Colorado went for Lyndon Johnson (D). Bill Clinton carried the state with only 40.1 percent of the vote in a three-way race in 1992, and John Kerry drew 47 percent last time.

Of course, with Bob Barr running as a Libertarian, Cynthia McKinney as a Green and Ralph Nader as an Independent (to say nothing of the 11 other tickets on the ballot in the state), the presidential candidate who carries the state need not win a majority of the total votes cast.

A month from now, the national landscape could look very different. The contest for the White House might have blown wide open. But at this point, with the race looking very tight, Colorado surely is one of the key swing states, and it now looks like the best indicator of how the nation will go.

This column first appeared in Roll Call on September 18, 2008. 2008 © Roll Call Inc. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.