Blue tide or red squeaker?

by on July 29th, 2008

This is presidential election silly season. Everyone has a different prediction. Many spin their predictions to favor the candidate of their choice. Some look backward at previous elections to guide their forecast. Others look forward, armed with issue surveys and new voter registration lists.

Because so many pundits use so many different methods to predict November’s result, some websites throw all the surveys and predictions together to come up with a composite or average. Recent elections show that approach to be as valid as any other. After I tried to peer through the mist last month and suggested that the election may not be decided on election day, but could rival the cliffhanger 2000 balloting, I got several emails and calls asking if I could provide more details. Remember, not only the devil is in the details. My wrong assumptions, mistakes and prejudices of a lifetime in electoral politics are in these details. Reader beware!

Many independent and Democratic-leaning prognosticators believe that the red state/blue state map is due for radical change. We have had a remarkably static red/blue split for over a quarter century. Only three states switched from 2000 to 2004. Iowa, New Hampshire, and New Mexico were squeakers both times. But the enthusiasm for Barack Obama is causing many to believe that a new map is in the making. Still, it seems unlikely that a blow out is in the making this year, unless the popular vote breaks so heavily for Obama that the unexpected landslide pushes many states into the blue, at least for this one election.

Major realignment seems less likely

Realignments come slowly, usually as one generation passes and younger voters with different experiences and priorities come of age. The young people who became Republicans during the Reagan years are nudging out some baby boomers, but the heavy spending of Republican-controlled Congresses has blunted the Republican advance and the Democrats are on the ascent, especially among new voters.

Why are the Republicans losing ground? Let’s look just at the House of Representatives. This is a classic case of the older, entrenched Republican leaders taking control from the Democrats and then adopting the practices of the Democrats they defeated instead of the issue positions of the newly elected GOP representatives from swing or Democratic districts. Eventually, the old bulls destroyed the pasture of the newly arrived young bulls. The voters found new bulls from the other party and voted the newer Republicans out. Some Republicans who had represented Democratic or marginal districts for years found that the pressure to follow the dictates of the old bulls made them more vulnerable back home. They retired rather than face tougher and tougher reelections.

With that developing realignment in the background, what are the chances that Obama can roll to a landslide? The chances are less today than before he clinched the nomination.

Obama has lost momentum

This is illustrated by a late-July Radnor focus group that assembled as Obama was returning to the United States following his campaign swing abroad. Responding to a question about whether Obama supporters believed that they knew enough about their candidate, one Obama supporter said: “I know less about Obama than I used to.” Responding to a question about John McCain’s acceptability, an Obama supporter said: “He’s not as bad as I thought.” For their part, McCain supporters were just as happy or happier with McCain than they were a few months ago. But they were even more opposed to Obama than before.

What does this mean? Maybe nothing. Or perhaps it means that Obama could lose if he does not make a convincing case to voters who regard him as a stranger, despite the fact that his name and face are recognized around the world. His campaign manager seems to say as much, describing this summer as a rerun of 2007, when Obama was introducing himself to Democratic Party activists.

“In many ways, it feels like … last July or August in Iowa for us,” says David Plouffe. “You look at these voters who are going to decide the election in these battleground states, and they know very little about him.”

Obama has been described by his own campaign as elusive. A candidate may want a bit of that to gain the widest possible appeal and keep from alienating potential supporters, but the media keep digging and describing the candidate when the candidate does not describe himself.

Less of McCain is better?

A few comments in one focus group are not determinative, of course, but the comments are indicative of results from other groups, from surveys, polls and even the two campaigns. Obama failed to consolidate his support and his move to the center was clumsy. Meantime, McCain has been out of the limelight. He has reorganized his campaign once again. He has committed a few mistakes. Maybe he should stay out of the limelight. So often, the candidate who makes the fewer mistakes wins. With McCain, perhaps less is more.

So the elements of a landslide – especially ever increasing momentum – seem to be gone for Obama. McCain could slip through. Victory for McCain by even the slimmest margin will be considered an upset, given the historical precedents: The incumbent president’s party almost always loses when the U.S. is mired in an unpopular war or in bad economic times. Add to that the fact that President Bush is so unpopular and many people conclude that Obama has a lock on the election. If he does win, McCain will do so with a narrow electoral college margin, possibly while losing the popular vote.

They still don’t know enough about Obama!

Older Democratic women – many former Hillary Clinton supporters – are not backing Obama in the expected numbers. These reluctant women are the only Democrats who are lagging behind their traditional support level for a Democratic nominee.

Will they decide the election? Radnor’s focus groups suggest that they will. If Obama can win them over, he should win the election. If not, he may lose. A surprising number of these women suggest that they will wait to learn more about Obama as they watch the Democratic Convention. We will know much more in the days following the convention.

Obama must be considered the favorite. Even some loyal McCain staff members concede that they expect defeat. But they also make plausible arguments about how McCain could win. With such a narrow possibility of victory, every decision is crucial. The vice presidential selections could tip the balance in a key state and bring along enough electoral college votes to win the White House. The two campaigns are vetting and evaluating possible vice presidential choices knowing that, for the first time in memory, the VP spot could be all important.

With that as more background, let’s look at the states that each candidate should win.

  • Obama has a clear lead in California, Connecticut, Delaware, the District of Columbia, Hawaii, Illinois, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, Rhode Island, Vermont and Washington – a total of 183 electoral college votes.

    McCain’s campaign has made public statements that they hope to win California and be competitive in Connecticut, Maine, New Jersey and possibly Washington. This appears less likely as each day passes and those states edge closer to Obama. California could be a wild card – but that seems very remote. Of course, if he wins California, McCain will head to the White House.

  • McCain is clearly ahead in Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, Idaho, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Nebraska, Oklahoma, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, West Virginia and Wyoming – 144 electoral votes.

    The Obama camp has made noises about trying to win several of those states, especially Arizona, Arkansas, Indiana, Kansas and North Dakota. In fact, Democratic Governor Kathleen Sebilius of Kansas is being considered for vice president because she might be able to pull her state from red to blue. The assumed superiority of Obama’s financial resources originally made long shot attempts seem reasonable. Now, it appears that McCain will be better financed than anticipated just a few weeks ago while Obama’s fundraising is drifting off. The state most likely to be picked off may be Indiana. Several polls put Indiana within striking distance, especially if native son Senator Evan Bayh is chosen as Obama’s running mate. Arizona is trending Democratic but should stick with McCain, its native son.

    Opportunities for Obama?

    Obama believes he has a chance to upset McCain in Alaska, Georgia, Mississippi, Montana and North Dakota. Some Alaska polls show momentum for Obama. Unpopular GOP incumbents could be a drag. Alaska deserves watching. Even more problematic for McCain is Montana, where Obama is spending time and money. Recent polls show Obama slightly ahead in Montana and neighboring North Dakota. Each state has two popular Democratic U.S. senators. Montana has popular Democratic Governor Brian Schweitzer running for reelection. This makes these two states especially challenging for McCain. Georgia will go for McCain unless Libertarian Party nominee and former Georgia Republican Congressman Bob Barr takes a larger than expected share of the Georgia vote from McCain.

    Another possibility? Obama will pick former U.S. Senator Sam Nunn, a Georgia favorite, for VP. That would make Obama competitive but still an underdog. But the combinations of a decent showing by Barr and Nunn on the ticket could be enough to switch Georgia to blue. The Obama campaign hopes for a huge African-American turnout in Mississippi, which is about 38 percent black. But black voters in Mississippi may not be so monolithic as assumed. These states have 30 electoral votes.

  • Upsets are possible, but still improbable, for McCain in Minnesota, Oregon and Wisconsin. Governor Tim Pawlenty of Minnesota is a possible VP selection. But even with a McCain-Pawlenty ticket, McCain faces heavy odds in Minnesota. Pawlenty did not secure a majority of the vote in either of his gubernatorial victories (2002 and 2006). Oregon was close in the last two elections but stayed Democratic. Obama is gaining in popularity after some earlier skepticism from centrist Democrats. Wisconsin is a swing state, traditionally close, as it was in both 2000 and 2004. Obama swept the Wisconsin Democratic primary and built a strong grassroots network. Minnesota, Oregon and Wisconsin could contribute 27 more electoral votes to Obama.
  • Iowa and New Mexico are still very much in play, although New Mexico seems to be firming up for Obama. Both lean toward Obama but could be nudged into the McCain column. Both also seem to be trending Democratic over the longer term and if New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson is Obama’s vice presidential running mate, McCain will have no chance to win New Mexico. These two states have 12 electoral votes.
  • Three normally GOP states could go for Obama: Florida, Missouri and North Carolina. McCain needs to hold these usually Republican states or his chances diminish considerably. Recently, McCain has shown more strength in Florida. He has fallen back and trails in some usually reliable polls in Missouri. Moderate North Carolina voters have yet to begin making up their minds, it seems, but the voters who have decided give McCain a narrow lead. Watch these three states. If McCain takes a decent lead in all three by October 1, he has a real chance at the White House. If he trails in two or all three, then he is in considerable trouble. Florida, Missouri and North Carolina have 53 electoral votes.

    Real toss-ups?

    Obama seemed to be moving ahead in Colorado. Then McCain picked up support. Pennsylvania may be decided by which Pennsylvanian is selected for vice president. McCain may be able to catch up in Pennsylvania if he selects former Republican Governor Tom Ridge for VP. Ridge is pro-choice, which could generate a walk-out by pro-life delegates at the Republican National Convention. Some McCain strategists think such a walk-out could help McCain. If Obama picks popular Democratic Governor Ed Rendell as his VP, that could tip things his way. What if both Ridge and Rendell are selected? Obama would seem to have the edge. Beside that, Obama must announce his VP choice first. If he picks Rendell, McCain is likely to concede Pennsylvania and try to pick off another toss-up state with his VP choice.

    McCain has a long, uphill struggle to win Michigan. Even adding former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, whose father was a popular governor of Michigan in the 1960s, might not be enough. McCain will try hard in Michigan because his positions on the issues make sense to many beleaguered Michigan voters. Will that be enough? Recent polls suggest that McCain could pull an upset in Michigan.

    New Hampshire is the one state where McCain may be able to reverse a Bush loss last time. New Hampshire went for McCain in 2000 and rescued his moribund candidacy this year. Recent polls show Obama with a lengthening lead. Nevada is too close to call. That is not usual in this late-deciding, growing state. The Hispanic vote may be decisive.

    Ohio again – or maybe Virginia?

    The true battleground may again be Ohio. Obama did badly in the Ohio primary. Bush carried Ohio narrowly in both his presidential runs. Two years ago, the Democrats swept to power in key state offices and a bad economy gives Obama a clear shot at these critical 20 electoral votes. If McCain loses Ohio, he is most likely finished. Obama can win the White House without Ohio.

  • Virginia may decide the election. Virginia has voted Democratic only once (1964) in the past 14 presidential elections. Virginia was the only Southern state not to vote for Carter in 1976. But the growth of Northern Virginia and university communities makes Virginia less Southern. The Democratic Party recognized the shifting population and moderated issue positions. The Republicans alternately ignored and decried the changes.

    Today, Virginia is a more like the neighboring Mid-Atlantic states than a Southern state. Obama is spending money and time in Virginia. He has opened 30 local offices, more than either party has and more than McCain seems likely to be able to afford. Popular Democratic candidates will share the ticket with Obama this fall. If Obama selects Democratic Governor Tim Kaine for VP, that could end McCain’s chances.

    Virginia’s Kaine is the VP choice who could mean the most to Obama in November.

    Meantime, McCain is fighting a Republican leadership in Virginia than seems more concerned with control of the party than winning the election. Ohio, Pennsylvania and Virginia have 89 electoral votes.

    Add it all up and “safe” and “likely” Obama states have 200 electoral votes. For McCain, the total is 174. Add Iowa and New Mexico to the Obama count and he has 212. Give McCain Florida, Missouri and North Carolina (which may be quite a stretch) and he has 227. Figure that Obama will win Colorado, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin and he has 269 (one vote short of victory). Then, Obama would need one of the following states: Ohio, New Hampshire, Nevada or Virginia.

    But if McCain could win Ohio, New Hampshire, Nevada and Virginia, he would have 269 and the electoral college would be deadlocked, 269-269. In that event, the House of Representatives would decide the election in early January. Obama would have more support in the House and would be inaugurated as president on January 20, 2009.

    Everything changes if Senator Hillary Clinton is picked for vice president.

    Or, if McCain can win Michigan and Pennsylvania, or one of those two plus Wisconsin….

    Radnor Reports

    Kenneth E. Feltman