Monday, June 09, 2008

How Different Will the 2008 White House Map Look From ‘04 and ‘00?

By Stuart Rothenberg

Illinois Democratic Sen. Barack Obama talks about changing the map in this year’s presidential contest. So do Republicans, who argue that Obama’s poor showing among some Democratic constituencies gives Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) an opportunity to pilfer a couple of traditionally Democratic states in November.

There will be changes, but don’t expect the 2008 presidential map to look wildly different from those of 2000 and 2004.

Barring a full-scale McCain meltdown or the public’s wholesale rejection of the GOP (neither of which can be ruled out), only a handful of states are prime candidates to swing from their traditional partisan bent in recent presidential elections.

Most of the states that went for George W. Bush in 2000 are likely to end up in the Republican column again this November, while almost every state that former Vice President Al Gore won eight years ago is likely to go for Obama this year.

Increased turnout by black and young voters could improve Obama’s showings in some states, as could his appeal among upscale whites. But those gains aren’t likely to be large enough to flip many states, and so far there is no evidence that red states in the Deep South are potentially winnable for Obama because of their large black population.

The two states that switched from the Democratic column in 2000 to the GOP four years later, Iowa and New Mexico, are worth watching, though both are more likely than not to revert back to the Democrats in November. The one state that went Republican in 2000 but switched to the Democratic column four years later, New Hampshire, should be competitive once again this year.

Beyond those three, another six to 10 states bear watching as candidates for changing their “normal” partisan vote this year.

Four states won twice by George W. Bush and ordinarily in the GOP’s column — Colorado, North Carolina, Virginia and Ohio — should be prime Democratic targets. The first three have large numbers of upscale white voters who may respond to Obama’s appeal, while the closeness of the race in Ohio four years ago suggests an ongoing Democratic opportunity.

Three normally Democratic states — Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin — are likely to be top Republican targets for switching. All three have substantial numbers of “Reagan Democrats,” who are likely to be a tough sell for Obama, making those states potential McCain upsets.

In addition, a handful of other states that have been presidential battlegrounds over the past 20 years — Florida, Nevada, Missouri and possibly Maine — could be in play. But because they have in the recent past been seen as competitive, their inclusion on this list doesn’t suggest a dramatic change.

There is little evidence that Obama can pick off any of the remaining 22 other states that have a history of voting reliably Republican in presidential contests.

Three states that were once competitive — Kentucky, West Virginia and Tennessee — no longer seem so.

Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton’s (D-N.Y.) smashing victories in Kentucky and West Virginia confirmed what has been a developing story since early in the primary season: Obama has limited appeal among downscale (those with lower income and less formal education), older white voters.

For whatever reason — and a number of possible explanations come to mind — they don’t find him an appealing candidate. Many, of course, ultimately will end up voting for Obama anyway, but some are likely to prefer McCain in the general election, while others will stay home.

Even minimal defections from this group should cause concern among Democratic strategists, since the party has been able to count on this constituency in the past.

In 2000, for example, Al Gore carried voters age 60 and older (who constituted 22 percent of all voters in that election), 51 percent to 47 percent, and he won a majority of voters with an income of less than $50,000 per year (47 percent of all voters).

In both 2000 and 2004, exit polls found 11 percent of Democrats voting for Bush. In contrast, 8 percent of Republicans voted for Gore in 2000 and 6 percent crossed over to support Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) four years later. Obama may be able to improve on those percentages among Republicans, but it seems unlikely that he will be able to limit Democratic defections to below what they were in the past two contests.

A close electoral map invariably raises the specter of a possible split decision — with one nominee winning the popular vote and the other winning an Electoral College majority. As in 2000, this seems like a serious possibility.

Obama is likely to “waste” votes in Illinois, New York and California (winning them with large majorities), and he may gain some ground in normally Republican states — getting closer than most Democrats normally do, but not winning.

If this happens, and if Obama narrowly loses one or two larger, traditionally Democratic states, such as Michigan and Wisconsin, we could see an updated version of 2000, with McCain winning the White House at the same time that Obama gets more than half a million more votes.

This column first appeared in Roll Call on June 5, 2008. 2008 © Roll Call Inc. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.