Louis Jacobson is a GOVERNING contributor.E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
It's been more than five months since our last handicapping of the race to win 270 votes in the Electoral College. Numerically, very little has changed in our breakdown of the states that are leaning toward either President Obama or Republican candidate Mitt Romney. But simply looking at the numbers doesn't tell the whole story.
Our current breakdown is 237 electoral votes in Obama's column, 191 electoral votes in Romney's and 110 in the tossup category. That's not far off from the 247 for Obama, 191 for Romney and 100 tossups we found in April. Only one state -- Wisconsin -- has nudged our numbers, and it shifts from lean Democratic to tossup in the current ratings.
But despite the long-term stability of the electoral map, Obama's position -- already reasonably strong in April -- has grown stronger, particularly after his bump from the Democratic National Convention, a series of gaffes by Romney and other controversies.
Most of the states we list in the tossup category are leaning toward Obama in polls taken in September -- particularly in Virginia and Ohio. (The best resource we've found for state presidential head-to-head polls is at RealClearPolitics.)
We were tempted to shift several of these states to lean Democratic, but to be cautious we're keeping each of these states in the tossup category for now (and adding Wisconsin). For one thing, both campaigns are continuing to advertise in each of our nine tossup states (and only in those states), according to NBC News.
If the current trends continue, however, we're expecting to shift several states to lean Democratic in our next handicapping in a few weeks -- perhaps enough to push Obama's 237 over the 270-vote threshold he needs to win.
In our analysis, Obama could reach 270 by adding just Florida and New Hampshire, or by adding Virginia, Ohio and New Hampshire. Romney, by contrast, needs to essentially run the table in the tossup states to win. It's not an impossible task given that there are six weeks of campaigning left, including the debates. But Romney's odds are lengthening.
As always, 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 (22)
Indiana (11): Obama should be able to repeat his victories in some of the redder states he won in 2008, but Indiana isn't likely to be one of them.
Missouri (10, shifted from lean Republican): Republican Senate candidate Todd Akin's controversial comment about rape has been a major setback for the Missouri GOP, but it's far from clear that it will have an impact on the presidential race. The onetime swing state has continued its rightward drift.
Nebraska (1 of 5 electoral votes): Obama won an electoral vote from an Omaha-based congressional district in 2008. A repeat is a longshot, but it could happen -- a recent poll had the race tied in the now redrawn district.
Lean Republican (11)
Arizona (11): Arizona has been on the Democrats' wish lists for a while, largely because the state GOP has swung to the right and Hispanic voters are chafing. Arizona still leans Republican, but recent polls are promising for Obama if he continues to put distance between himself and Romney. A mid-September poll by Purple Strategies, a bipartisan group, found Obama within three points of Romney -- much closer than (sparse) polling earlier in the year had indicated.
North Carolina (15): We were tempted to shift North Carolina -- a state Obama barely won in 2008 -- to lean Republican. But analysts inside the state insist that it's still a tossup, and a recent poll by a free-market group had Obama up by four. Both campaigns and outside groups are continuing to advertise in the Tarheel State, and both have robust ground operations. But North Carolina has one-stop early voting in which unregistered individuals can register and vote at the same time -- a tool the Obama campaign used effectively in 2008.
Colorado (9): Obama has held small, but consistent, leads in most of the recent polling in Colorado. Right now, Colorado seems like a pure tossup.
Florida (29): Florida, despite swinging hard to the GOP in 2010, has continued to produce a surplus of close polls. It's still suffering economically, which gives Romney an opening.
Nevada (6): Like its fellow Western state, Colorado, Nevada has produced a series of small, but consistent, leads for Obama. Hispanic voters, who strongly back the president, could prove a critical voting group.
Iowa (6): Polling has been scarcer in Iowa than in most battleground states, but Obama has worked the state hard and was up by eight points in the most recent NBC News/Marist poll.
New Hampshire (4): Romney, a New Hampshire resident, is still more competitive there than he is in any state in the Northeast. Still, he's slightly behind. There's scarce independent polling, and a late primary for statewide offices drained attention from the presidential race, leaving some room for uncertainty.
Virginia (13): Virginia, a Republican bastion on the presidential level for decades, backed Obama in 2008. Recent polls show the incumbent consistently ahead in 2012, most strikingly The Washington Post poll that had Obama with an eight-point lead. Even if that's exaggerated, Obama seems to have an edge.
Ohio (18): Whether it's because of the Obama camp's attacks on Romney's career at Bain Capital, Romney's "47 percent" comment or some other reason, the president has amassed a modest but persistent lead in Ohio -- a state that has consistently been pivotal in the race for the Electoral College. Most of Obama's leads in September polls have been outside the margin of error. Continued sparring over election rules pose a bit of a question. Some handicappers have recently moved Ohio to lean Democratic; for us, it's probably just a matter of time.
Wisconsin (10, shifted from lean Democratic): This may be a temporary change, but we've shifted Wisconsin from lean Democratic to tossup. Obama has consistently led in Wisconsin -- even on the day when Republican Gov. Scott Walker survived a hotly contested recall election -- but the state is so politically volatile (as well as being Romney's running mate Rep. Paul Ryan's home state) that we're making the change. Continued strong polling for Obama would shift it back to lean Democratic in our next handicapping.
Lean Democratic (52)
New Mexico (5): New Mexico is one state where Obama has returned to earth. Usually a state that's closely divided in presidential elections, New Mexico and its heavily Latino electorate seemed to be rushing hard in Obama's direction. More recently, though, the Albuquerque Journal poll found Obama up by a more modest five-point margin -- a far cry from his high-double-digit leads last spring. One reason: the third-party candidacy by former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson, who took seven percent in the Albuquerque Journal poll.
Pennsylvania (20): The Keystone State has gone for weaker Democratic candidates than Obama in recent elections, and polls show Obama with modest-to-solid leads. A key question is whether a tough voter ID law will cut into Obama's base on Election Day.
Michigan (16): Like Pennsylvania, Michigan -- where Romney grew up -- has at times been on the verge of tossup status. But recent polls have Obama up, such as The Detroit News poll showing Obama up by 14 points.
Maine (1 of 4 electoral votes): 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 a reach for Republicans. But Obama's statewide margins in recent Maine polls are big enough to suggest that Romney's task of winning even one electoral vote will be uphill.
Minnesota (10): History suggests that Minnesota should be in Obama's camp, but polling has been scarce in Minnesota. Until we see more confirmation, we'll keep this one lean Democratic.
Likely Democratic (31)
Connecticut (7, shift from safe Democratic): Connecticut is one of the rare states to move away from Obama in recent months. Perhaps it's the weak economy, or Wall Street's affinity for Romney, or perhaps its feedback from the surprisingly competitive Senate race to succeed Democratic-caucusing Independent Joe Lieberman. A late August Quinnipiac poll found Obama up by eight points -- a lot closer than one would expect in what is usually a solidly blue state. But a more recent Hartford Courant poll had Obama up by 21 points. We'll keep this at likely Democratic for now.
Oregon (7, shift from lean Democratic): Oregon hasn't been polled very much this cycle; what evidence exists shows Obama up by a margin in the high single digits. Combined with the state's record of voting Democratic for president and the seeming lack of a strong Republican effort in the state, we're moving Oregon from lean Democratic to likely Democratic.
Maine (3 of 4 electoral votes, shift from lean Democratic): Obama seems solid statewide, and only slightly less so in the one congressional district we rated lean Democratic (see above).
New Jersey (14): Republicans have long dreamed of making the Garden State competitive, and the popularity of GOP Gov. Chris Christie -- Romney's keynote speaker at the Republican National Convention -- gives the party an in. But the polls aren't showing the GOP making much headway. September polls by the Philadelphia Inquirer and Fairleigh Dickinson University both had Obama up by 14 points.
Safe Democratic (154)
California (55), Delaware (3), District of Columbia (3), Hawaii (4), Illinois (20), Maryland (10), Massachusetts (11), New York (29), Rhode Island (4) Vermont (3), and Washington state (12, shift from likely Democratic).
Of interest to hard-core political junkies: I know of at least eight other Electoral College ratings. The other handicappers are:
Having a majority of seats in play in a year when many states have newly-drawn districts could greatly change the composition of statehouses. Will Republican state legislators be able to hold and extend their reach? Could Democrats regain some of the losses handed to them in 2010? Governing’s team of writers and contributors will monitor developments all the way up to Election Day and beyond.
Click a state in the above map to display current breakdowns for each state legislature.
Information is current as of June 2012.
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