Louis Jacobson is a GOVERNING contributor.E-mail: email@example.com
With the nomination of Mitt Romney now all but a formality, I've updated my handicapping of the Electoral College.
When I looked at the state of the presidential race in December, I rated 223 electoral votes in the safe, likely or lean Republican category, compared to 192 in the safe, likely or lean Democratic category. The winner needed to draw from 123 electoral votes in 10 states considered tossups.
But after a lengthy and often contentious Republican primary season, the outlook for Romney has weakened.
Now, I find 191 electoral votes in the safe, likely and lean Republican category, 247 that are safe, likely and lean Democratic, and 100 in eight states that are considered tossups.
That's just 23 electoral votes short of the 270 that Obama needs to secure victory -- a margin that could be achieved by winning Florida alone, or by winning Ohio and Nevada together. All of these are states that Obama won in 2008.
By contrast, Romney would have to take 79 electoral votes in the tossup category to win -- say, North Carolina, Virginia, Colorado, Iowa, New Hampshire and Florida.
While Romney's road to 270 electoral votes is tougher, it's also entirely plausible. In fact, what's striking about the current electoral map is how fluid it seems to be.
In reaching my current ratings, 10 states switched categories, all of them in the Democratic direction: Arizona, North Carolina, Virginia, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Maine, Michigan, New Mexico and New Jersey. It's quite possible that more than half of these could drift back in the GOP's direction in the coming months.
In previous handicapping, I have been more cautious than other sources about giving Obama the benefit of the doubt in swing states. What's changed since December is a growing number of head-to-head polls in many of these states documenting Obama's lead over Romney. (The best resource we've found for state presidential head-to-head polls is at RealClearPolitics; you can find polling data by clicking on the individual states here.)
An indication of how close the contest is: Shifting the two lean-Democratic states that lie closest to the tossup column -- Pennsylvania and Wisconsin -- would make the breakdown Obama 217, Romney 191 and tossup 130. That would make for a much narrower contest.
A few notes on my handicapping system: These ratings are based on consultations with more than three dozen political watchers in competitive and potentially competitive states, as well as polling data.
States deemed lean Republican, tossup or lean Democratic are considered competitive; states in other categories are not, at least for now. Within each category, the states are rank-ordered by their likelihood to favor one candidate or the other, except for safe Democratic and safe Republican. So, beyond the safe categories, the list of states can be viewed as a continuum between the states most likely to go Republican (at the top) and the states most likely to go Democratic (at the bottom).
Unlike all other states, Maine and Nebraska do not operate on a winner-take-all system, so votes can be divided between Obama and Romney. Where appropriate, I split out electoral votes that could differ in their presidential leanings from the state as a whole.
Here are the ratings:
Safe Republican (158 electoral votes)
Alabama (9), Alaska (3), Arkansas (6), Georgia (16), Idaho (4), Kansas (6), Kentucky (8), Louisiana (8), Mississippi (6), Montana (3), Nebraska (4 of 5 electoral votes), North Dakota (3), Oklahoma (7), South Carolina (9), South Dakota (3), Tennessee (11), Texas (38), Utah (6), West Virginia (5) and Wyoming (3)
Likely Republican (12)
Indiana (11): Obama won Indiana in 2008, but the state's strong Republican turn since then suggests that lightning is unlikely to strike twice for the president.
Nebraska (1 of 5 electoral votes): Obama has a shot at winning one of Nebraska's electoral votes for the second election in a row. It was one of the biggest surprises of the election in 2008, and seems even more unlikely now.
Lean Republican (21)
Arizona (11, shifted from safe Republican): Republican difficulties with Hispanic voters -- combined with a hard-line Republican legislative session and a bevy of competitive races on the 2012 ballot that could help boost Democratic turnout -- suggest that the Obama campaign may be on to something with its continued interest in contesting Arizona. A February NBC-Marist poll had Obama within 5 points of Romney; other polls have shown wider margins. It's still not clear that Arizona's truly competitive turf for Obama, but there's enough evidence to merit a shift from Safe Republican to Lean Republican.
Missouri (10): Despite the likelihood of Democratic Gov. Jay Nixon winning reelection, Missouri -- a longstanding swing state that tends to side with the winner in presidential races -- is increasingly morphing into relatively solid Republican territory in federal races.
North Carolina (15, shifted from lean Republican): Obama's narrow win in 2008 -- by just a few thousand votes -- suggests that North Carolina won't be an easy state for him to score a repeat victory. But the Obama campaign has been methodically building its operation in North Carolina for months, and independent analysts say it exceeds what Romney has in place. That could prove crucial in a state that looks like the election may be decided by turnout.
Virginia (13, shifted from lean Republican): Obama has led Romney in four out of the seven polls conducted in Virginia since January, such as his 8-point lead in a mid-March Quinnipiac poll, though a subsequent Roanoke College poll had Romney up by six. This is a state where the gender gap -- which strongly favors Obama at this point -- could play a role in the northern Virginia suburbs.
Colorado (9): Recent head-to-head polling in Colorado is scarce, but experts expect the state to be competitive.
Iowa (6): The limited head-to-head polling in the state suggests a close race; experts in the state concur.
New Hampshire (4, shifted from lean Republican): On paper, Romney should be strong in New Hampshire (he has a home there and was governor of neighboring Massachusetts) while Obama ought to be something less than a shoo-in (the state has been lukewarm to him dating back to his 2008 primary loss to Hillary Clinton). But in-state analysts detect enough of a pro-Obama shift in recent months to prompt a switch from Lean Republican to Tossup.
Florida (29): Despite the state taking a strong Republican turn in 2010, a late-March Quinnipiac poll had Obama ahead of Romney by 7 points. Virtually everyone expects Florida to remain a central battleground all the way to the end.
Ohio (18): In late March, Quinnipiac had Obama up by 6 points over Romney. But like Florida, Ohio (perhaps the most hotly contested battleground of the past few presidential elections) will be competitive through Election Day.
Nevada (6): Recent polls have shown Obama up by margins in the mid-single digits, likely due to a combination of a strong Democratic infrastructure in the state and the president's strength among Hispanic voters. Either way, both parties will likely treat the state as competitive, particularly since Romney can count on support from the state's Mormon voters.
Lean Democratic (72)
Pennsylvania (20, shifted from tossup): A late-March Quinnipiac poll had Obama up by just 3 points, a somewhat smaller margin than earlier polls. This suggests Pennsylvania should be a Tossup, yet history argues for a slight lean to the Democrats. One Keystone State analyst put it this way: While Romney's profile isn't bad for a Republican running in the state, Democrats weaker than Obama (specifically Al Gore and John Kerry) have managed to win the state. Republican Gov. Tom Corbett and the Legislature have also had a rocky couple months, which doesn't help Romney.
Wisconsin (10, shifted from tossup): A series of polls in February had Obama up by between 5 and 17 points. For this reason, Wisconsin is shifting from Tossup to Lean Democratic -- with a strong caution not to write off the state for Romney yet. More than most states, Wisconsin today is a churning political cauldron, roiled by a hard-fought election to recall Republican Gov. Scott Walker. Anything could happen between now and November.
Maine (1 of 4 electoral votes, shifted from tossup): Like Nebraska, Maine allows electoral votes to be split amongst the candidates. The vote representing the 2nd congressional district, which is politically more conservative, is one where the Republicans can play to win.
Michigan (16, shifted from tossup): Romney may hail from the state, but recent polls have Obama up by margins ranging from the high single digits to double digits. Romney's dismissiveness about the auto bailout may represent a strategic hurdle in Michigan.
Minnesota (10): Minnesota generally leans Democratic in presidential contests, and the polling so far bears that out. But barring Romney naming former Gov. Tim Pawlenty as his vice president -- and likely not even then -- Romney is still an underdog.
Oregon (7): Polls show Obama ahead in Oregon by at least the high single digits. That's smaller than his margin of victory in the state in 2008, but enough that Oregon could join its Pacific Northwest neighbor Washington state in the Likely Democratic category before the election is out.
New Mexico (5, shifted from tossup): New Mexico has been decided by exceedingly close margins in recent presidential elections, but no state in the 2012 election has seen more of a swing due to Hispanic voters. Even Rasmussen, a polling outfit that is generally seen as leaning Republican, recently found Obama up by a whopping 16 points. If it does end up a close race, the third-party candidacy by former GOP Gov. Gary Johnson could have an impact on the margins. But it's not looking especially close for now.
Maine (3 of 4 electoral votes, shifted from tossup): The remaining three electoral votes for Maine are also rated Lean Democratic for now. Chances are that these three electors will veer toward the Democratic end of the spectrum more so than the 2nd congressional district electoral vote will.
Likely Democratic (26)
New Jersey (14, shifted from lean Democratic): Three polls in February and March had Obama up by double digits, which is prompting a switch from lean Democratic to likely Democratic. Republicans like to think New Jersey is competitive in the presidential race -- particularly with satisfaction with Republican Gov. Chris Christie cresting. But the Christie factor doesn't appear to be enough. An April Quinnipiac poll found that even adding Christie to the GOP ticket leaves Obama up by 7 points.
Washington state (12): Like New Jersey, Washington state is often on the verge of being considered competitive, but it never quite makes it. The polls this cycle show consistent double-digit leads for Obama.
Safe Democratic (149)
California (55), Connecticut (7), Delaware (3), District of Columbia (3), Hawaii (4), Illinois (20), Maryland (10), Massachusetts (11), New York (29), Rhode Island (4) and Vermont (3)
States that are safe, likely and lean Republican: 191 (down from 223 in December)
Tossup states: 100 (down from 123 in December)
States that are safe, likely and lean Democratic: 247 (up from 192 in December)
Of interest to hard-core political junkies: I know of at least seven other electoral college ratings. The other handicappers are:
Associated Press: 242 leaning Obama, 191 leaning Romney, 105 tossup
Chris Cillizza of Washington Post's The Fix: 237 leaning Obama, 191 leaning Romney, 110 tossup
Cook Political Report: 217 leaning Obama, 195 leaning Romney, 126 tossup
NBC Political Unit: 227 leaning Obama, 197 leaning Romney, 114 tossup
RealClearPolitics: 227 leaning Obama, 170 leaning Romney, 141 tossup
Rothenberg Political Report: 237 leaning Obama, 206 leaning Romney, 95 tossup
University of Virginia political scientist Larry Sabato: 247 leaning Obama, 206 leaning generic Republican, 85 tossup
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