Note: Several months ago I published an article predicting the 2012 presidential race. On July 26, 2012 I was the keynote speaker at the Coalition of Greater Minnesota Cities Summer Conference/Annual Awards Dinner where I updated my prediction. Here is a summary of my talk and prediction.
Presidential public opinion polls are perplexing. Some polls put Obama ahead of Romney, some say the race is tightening. Others find Obama ahead in critical swing states while others describe swing voters as perhaps moving toward Romney.
Ignore all of these polls. The only three numbers I think that are important are these: 10/10/270. Let me explain.
You should ignore the polls first because they are snapshots in time, more than almost four months before the November elections. Too many things can happen–a collapsing economy, war in Syria, gas prices, campaign gaffes–which can impact the race in the next few months. Ignore the polls also because they are national opinion polls reflecting aggregate opinion across the county. As Florida in the 2000 presidential election taught us, one can win the popular vote in a presidential election (as Al Gore did) but still lose the presidency in the Electoral College. What matters most is winning 270 electoral votes. The presidency is a battle not across 50 states but in 50 states. In contrast to the Republican presidential contest that has turned less from winning individual states than to amassing delegates, the general election in November is really one of winning enough electoral votes to reach 270–a majority of the 538 electoral votes at stake.
What complicates the race to 270 is that with the exception of Maine and Nebraska, the remaining 48 states plus the District of Columbia award their electoral votes on a winner-take-all basis. Whichever candidate wins a plurality of the popular vote in a particular state wins all of its electoral votes. Thus the general election is both about winning states and amassing delegates.
Why is all of this important? Simply the presidential race is over in 40 states. There are some states that are reliably Democratic or Republican. No one seriously thinks a Republican is going to win New York and even though Mitt Romney is its former governor, neither he nor any other Republican has a prayer to win Massachusetts. Conversely, even though Romney’s recent bad news was that he could not prevail in Alabama and Mississippi, the good news for him and Republicans is that no Democrat is going to win there. The race for the presidency is simply over in these states and Democrats in Texas and Republicans in California might as well do something else besides casting presidential votes in November.
Barack Obama is reasonably assured of winning California (55 electoral votes), Connecticut (7), Delaware (3), Hawaii (4), Illinois (20), Maine (4), Maryland (10), Massachusetts (11), New Jersey (14), New York (29), Oregon (7), Rhode Island (4), Vermont (3), Washington state (12) and Washington, D.C. (3). And despite protests from Republicans that Minnesota (10) is competitive, that is a fairy tale. If Minnesota is a swing state then it is truly over for Obama. Don’t look for the candidates or TV ads to be here come October. Thus, Obama starts with 15 states (plus D.C.) and 196 electoral votes.
Conversely, Mitt Romney or any other Republican nominee is reasonably assured of winning Alabama (9), Alaska (3), Arkansas (6), Georgia (16), Idaho (4), Kansas (6), Kentucky (8), Louisiana (8), Mississippi (6), Montana (3), Nebraska (5), North Dakota (3), Oklahoma (7), South Carolina (9), South Dakota (3), Tennessee (11), Texas (38), Utah (6), West Virginia (5) and Wyoming (3). Moreover, it was luck in 2008 that Obama won Indiana (11) and that is not in the cards this year. This is a total of 21 states and 170 electoral votes.
Initially, this means a total of 14 states, with 172 electoral votes, are potentially in play. These swing states will determine the outcome of the election and within them, swing voters–roughly 10-15% of the voters–will make the difference. Thus, the battle for the presidency is really over what a handful of swing voters do in 14 swing states. These states are: Arizona (11), Colorado (9), Florida (29), Iowa (6), Michigan (16), Missouri (10), Nevada (6), New Hampshire (4), New Mexico (5), North Carolina (15) Ohio (18), Pennsylvania (20) Virginia (13), and Wisconsin (10).
Now some of the states are debatable as swing. It is a long shot for Democrats to win Arizona even with a strong Hispanic turnout. In hopes of winning North Carolina Democrats are holding their convention in Charlotte. But there is no evidence that there is a convention bump; look to the Republican National Convention in Minnesota in 2008 as rendering North Carolina a long shot. Similarly, Republicans consistently see Pennsylvania as one that they can win, but the Keystone State, as well as Michigan, remain more Democratic than Republican. The last time the GOP won Pennsylvania was in 1984 with Ronald Reagan. In the case of Michigan, Republicans running against the auto bailout seem to be a losing strategy. Thus, the original 14 state list could be reduced to ten, leaving Obama with 232 electoral votes, and a Republican nominee with 196. This leaves 110 electoral votes in contest.
These states are: Colorado (9), Florida (29), Iowa (6), Missouri (10), Nevada (6), New Hampshire (4), New Mexico (5), Ohio (18), Virginia (13), and Wisconsin (10).
If pressed I could even make the argument that it is over in Wisconsin (Obama) and Missouri (Romney) but will not.
In these swing states the percentage of undecideds ranges from 10% in Colorado, Ohio, Florida, Tennessee, Iowa, and Missouri, to about 7 percent in Nevada, with the overall undecideds in the country at 10%. Thus this is how I arrive at 10/10/270–Ten percent of the voters in ten states determine who gets to 270.
Now the question is who the undecideds are and what will move them. Politics is about moving marginals (swing voters) (politics as a bar fight) Consider who these voters are and the issues that concern them.
First they are the unemployed, struggling middle class affected by the economy gas prices, and unemployment. These are the white working class. Bad news for Obama is that he does not connect with them. Good news for Obama, they also do not connect with Romney.
The second group of swing voters include moderate women concerned by recent debates over reproductive rights, birth control, and family issues. These are the soccer moms. The swing to the right has alienated many of these women from the GOP and Obama and the Democrats seem to be enjoying an unusually large gender gap this year.
The third group of swing voters are young people under thirty. It is odd to call them swing voters especially since four years ago they came out strong for Obama. This time around they are nowhere near as excited by him as they were in 2008, mostly because of economic issues and the failure of Obama really to connect with them.. These voters should be part of Obama’s base but because of their unpredictable turnout it is apt to call them swing voters. If they do show up they will vote for Obama.
Potentially these three groups and issues overlap; making it difficult to decide which is the most important or will tip the balance in the election. But assume for minute that this presidential election is similar to many others in that it is a economic referendum on the incumbent–then it is the economy that is the main issue. How is the economy doing in these swing states? It is a mixed bag, with unemployment levels stagnating along with economic growth. Moreover, neither candidate seems to be doing a good job coming up with an election narrative except for saying “I’m not Obama” or “I’m not Romney.”
Having said all that, here is how I think the remaining states are tipping now.
Add to Obama’s 232 the following states: Colorado (9), Nevada (6), New Hampshire (4), New Mexico (5), and Wisconsin (10). This is 34 more electoral votes that gets him to 268, two short of the necessary 270.
Add to Romney’s 196 : Missouri (10), Virginia (13). This is 23 more electoral votes and gets him to 219,still 51 short.
Three states, Florida (29), Iowa (6), Ohio (18), total 53 electoral votes, and they are too close to call at this time. Romney needs all three states to win, Obama one state to win.
Unless this election is a replay of 1980 where disgust for the status quo and Carter was so strong that it tipped millions of swing voters in the last 72 hours to vote for Reagan, I do not see Romney presenting winning all three of these states. Obama wins at least one of these states, thereby ensuring his re-election. Obama wins with 274-321 electoral votes.