The outcome of the 2008 election will, like the last two presidential campaigns, come down to a small number of voters in a few places. Yet those votes will be affected by big, overarching events such as the emergence of Republican vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin, the economic crisis and the upcoming presidential debates.
By my count, the electoral map now puts the race almost dead even but leaning slightly toward Barack Obama, with 273 electoral votes in his column. Obama has several alternative roads to the White House — both through the Midwest and the Southwest. Ohio would give Obama a solid margin of victory, but he can win without Ohio by putting together Iowa, New Mexico and Colorado to secure 21 electoral votes. He is now ahead in those states, in double digits in Iowa.
But if Obama loses Ohio and wins the others, New Hampshire becomes a critical state. A loss there (where John McCain has considerable popularity) would create a deadlock — 269 to 269, not at all an unlikely end to an unlikely political season.
McCain must win Ohio, hold onto Nevada, and take back New Hampshire and one other blue state to get past 269 and have a clear win. His target last week was the values-oriented voters in Minnesota and Wisconsin; this week and for the foreseeable future, economic events are likely to be front and center.
But states no longer operate in isolation. When women flip nationally, that typically includes the women in Ohio. When liberals coalesce around a candidate, that includes the liberals in New York and Wisconsin. While there are state organizations, state issues and local turnout efforts, about 60 percent of what happens in Ohio — or anywhere else — is because of national events.
And so the national polls do matter. It is possible to lose the popular vote and win the Electoral College — George W. Bush did it in 2000 — but it has happened in fewer than 10 percent of U.S. presidential elections. Rather than a color-coded map, I believe in a targeting meter based on the order of states, and the state on the cusp of switching then becomes a reflection of the margin in the national polls. Gain or lose 3 points and the battleground shifts.
The order of states from most Democratic to most Republican has actually changed relatively little since President Bill Clinton’s 1996 reelection. Clinton had a wider national margin in 1996 than he did in 1992, so he pulled in more states than Democrats did in the next two races. Clinton’s win that year brought Nevada, Arizona, Kentucky and Arkansas to the Democratic column. He also carried West Virginia and Louisiana, two states that have been in the Republican camp since then. The next state on the targeting meter would have been Georgia, but pollsters there wrongly waved Clinton away, and we lost it by only one point.
By 2000, Bush took back New Hampshire, West Virginia, Louisiana and Arkansas. He grew the 5 percent margin in Texas in 1996 to over 20 percent in his home state and won Ohio, putting the dividing line at Florida.
In 2004, Bush lost Iowa and New Mexico from his column but gained decisive wins in Ohio and Florida. And he strengthened his leads in several states: Kentucky, Tennessee and Missouri. Each increased in Republican support by more than the overall margin of change in the election.
Now that the 2008 race has drawn to within the margin of error in the national polls, the new targeting map is coming into clear focus. It is unquestionably related to the 1996 through 2004 elections, with some clear exceptions. Iowa looks like it is squarely in Obama’s column. This is surprising since the voters there have one of the highest median ages, and older voters tend to favor McCain. But it may reflect enthusiasm from January’s Iowa caucuses, which produced the highest-ever turnout, along with proximity to Obama’s home state of Illinois.
McCain, the senior senator of Arizona, should in theory play better in the Southwest. But along with massive growth there in Latino communities, new residents have been largely from Democratic-leaning California. New Mexico and Colorado have been trending Democratic and are likely to back Obama. Nevada, with its strong independent streak, is the one new Western state so far holding for McCain; its defection would be a critical loss for him.
Obama has done best with minorities and progressive voters — two groups that are base supporters of Democrats. In the primaries, he performed worst among Democrats who have been swing voters — working-class and rural women, many of whom supported Hillary Rodham Clinton.
Where Palin can affect the map is in the values-oriented upper Midwest or in the Northwest, where polls in Washington and Oregon have gotten much closer. Still, in the absence of a larger national shift, I doubt that they will swing over to the Republicans.
The candidates must target the list of competitive states within plus or minus 6 percentage points, which depends on changes in the national polls. Two weeks ago, the dividing line was at Florida and Obama had a comfortable win in the Electoral College and in the national polls. Today, the dividing line is at New Hampshire and Obama is still ahead — but only slightly.
Given the shift in the polls and his solid money numbers, Obama should keep resources in all of his states as well as those in the Republican list, through Indiana. He should pull back in any of the states harder to get than Indiana (i.e., Missouri, North Dakota, South Dakota, etc.). He does not need them to win, anyway.
And we can expect McCain to press his case in all the Obama states, right through Wisconsin. Given that Obama lost the New Hampshire primary and McCain has always done well there, the Granite State will likely be a major battleground. Rather than Ohio or Florida on Election Night, we will more likely be waiting for the results from Nevada, New Hampshire and Colorado — states whose votes could be both close and decisive.
Mark J. Penn served as chief adviser to President Bill Clinton in the 1996 presidential election and to Hillary Rodham Clinton through her Senate and presidential races.