Monday, July 21, 2008

The Big 5: Picking the States That Will Pick the President

By Stuart Rothenberg

It’s far too soon to know whether the presidential contest will blow open into a laugher or remain competitive from now until Election Day. But if the race stays close until the end, a mere four or five states are likely to tell you whom the next occupant of the Oval Office will be.

Right now, those states look to be Colorado, Virginia, Ohio, Nevada and Michigan.

Let’s be clear: I’m not suggesting that these will be the five closest states. But together these five states will tell a great deal about whether Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) has added to the Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) and Al Gore states, thereby giving him at least 270 electoral votes, or whether Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) has either held the 2000 and 2004 George W. Bush Electoral College coalition together or been able to offset one or two losses with a previously Democratic state of his own.

Colorado and Virginia make the list because they are the two states mostly likely to switch to Obama that went for Bush in both 2000 and 2004.

Early polls show Obama, the presumptive Democratic nominee, ahead in Colorado and running essentially even with McCain, who will be the GOP standard bearer, in the Old Dominion. Of the two, Colorado would seem to be the more likely Democratic opportunity, and it is not easy to imagine Obama winning Virginia while losing Colorado.

Obama’s potential in both states is in the suburbs, with upscale, white voters who are drawn to the Democratic nominee’s message of change. Both states have seen Democratic gains recently — Democrats won the two states’ last Senate races and made gains in each state’s Legislature in 2006.

If Obama fails to carry either state, his arithmetic gets dicey. Even more important, a pair of McCain victories would suggest that the Republican made substantial gains between June and November — a bad sign for Obama nationally.

It shouldn’t be a surprise that Ohio is on the short list of key states. Kerry lost the state by 118,601 votes last time, and if he had carried the Buckeye State, he would now be running for re-election.

Republicans have had serious problems in Ohio over the past few years, losing all of the state’s top offices, a Senate seat and a Congressional district. The state’s economic problems have also made it ripe for Obama’s taking in 2008. Indeed, if McCain keeps the state in the GOP column, it would be a sign of the limits of Obama’s appeal — especially with “Reagan Democrats” but more generally with swing voters.

Nevada has proved to be one of the more competitive states over the past few White House contests, so it automatically becomes a bellwether of the 2008 presidential election. Yes, there are plenty of conservatives and Republicans in the state, but Nevada also has its share of Hispanics, labor union members and moderate Democrats.

Bush won Nevada in 2004 with 50.5 percent and in 2000 with 49.5 percent. Bill Clinton carried it twice, albeit narrowly. If Obama wins Nevada, he’s likely winning other red states, and he’s likely to be the next president of the United States.

Finally, Michigan probably is McCain’s best chance of picking off a state that has gone Democratic in the past two presidential contests. That is enough to warrant placing the Wolverine State on this short list of predictive states.

If McCain replicates either of Bush’s winning electoral vote coalitions, he won’t need to worry about Michigan, Pennsylvania or Wisconsin, each of which went Democratic in both 2000 and 2004. But if Obama carries states that Kerry and Gore lost, McCain will need to swipe a state or two from the Democratic column in order to get to 270 electoral votes.

Of the three Midwest states, Wisconsin’s performance in the past two presidential contests suggests it’s McCain’s best shot. After all, while Gore and Kerry carried the state, their margins — two-tenths of a percent in 2000 and four-tenths of a percent in 2004 — were ridiculously close. Kerry carried the Badger State by 5,708 votes out of almost 2.6 million cast.

Pennsylvania also was a tighter race in each of the past two elections than was Michigan. And, if you believe that trade is a litmus test issue in Michigan — and it may be — then McCain is on the wrong side of the issue.

So it’s hard to argue with the view that Michigan is tougher for the Republican nominee than either of the two other states.

But I’ve picked Michigan because it has something that neither of the other two states has: a weak Democratic governor and a mood of desperation flowing from a decimated economy. The state has been in such serious economic straits for so long — well before the current economic slowdown — that Michigan voters might be willing to try something new, including giving McCain a long look.

So keep an eye on Colorado, Virginia, Ohio, Nevada and Michigan as you watch the polls. They’ll give you more information than the national numbers.

This column
first appeared in Roll Call on July 17, 2008. 2008 © Roll Call Inc. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.