There's 11 months left until the 2016 presidential election, an eternity in politics. But even though the Democratic and Republican nominees have yet to be chosen -- a crucial variable, no doubt -- the open-seat contest starts off as competitive.
Republicans can take heart that winning a third consecutive presidential election -- as the Democrats hope to do -- has been a stiff challenge historically. For their part, the Democrats have a structural advantage, as they benefit from demographic change -- rapid growth among Democratic-leaning minorities and the aging of the white Republican base.
The most common view has Democrats starting with a base of 247 electoral votes, which is just 23 swing-state votes short of the 270 needed to win the presidency. By contrast, the conventional wisdom has Republicans starting with 206 electoral votes if you include North Carolina, which has voted Republican in five of the last six elections. This lineup requires the GOP to win 64 swing-state votes to secure the White House -- almost three times as many as the Democrats would need.
But what if the conventional wisdom is wrong?
There's general agreement that at least seven states, worth a collective 85 electoral votes, start off as tossups for the general election: Colorado, Florida, Iowa, Nevada, New Hampshire, Ohio and Virginia. But there's a possibility that there are even more tossup states. If that's true, that could eat into the Democrats' comfort zone considerably.
Let's zero in on four states that have backed the Democratic nominee in every presidential election since 1988, but which may have not been rock solid for the Democrats in recent state elections: Maine, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, which collectively have 50 electoral votes. If the status of these states were to shift from leaning Democratic to pure tossup, instead of a 247-206 Democratic edge (setting the seven tossup states aside), the GOP would be slightly ahead, 206-197.
Could this happen?
Potentially. Three of these four states currently have a Republican governor, and the other, Pennsylvania, had one as recently as last year. Meanwhile, seven out of these states' eight legislative chambers are currently controlled by Republicans.
We checked with political observers in each of the four states to gauge whether this was a realistic scenario. While they didn't dismiss it out of hand, they also weren't ready to reclassify their state from lean Democratic to pure tossup.
A key factor in determining these states' ratings is the nature of the eventual Republican nominee. An "establishment" candidate would likely run stronger in Maine, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, they said, than an "anti-establishment" candidate such as Donald Trump, Ben Carson or Ted Cruz.
"The rest of the country's Republican base has shifted rightwards and produced nominees that don't fly [in Michigan]," said Bill Ballenger, the founder of the newsletter Inside Michigan Politics.
Similarly, Pennsylvania "can be competitive for the GOP with Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio, John Kasich or Chris Christie," said Philadelphia-based Democratic consultant Larry Ceisler. "The state is moderate at its core. The Clintons have a long history here, but there is also some fatigue."
By contrast, an unconventional candidate like Trump or Carson would put Pennsylvania solidly in the Democratic camp, Ceisler said.
Maine, too, "generally prefers moderate candidates in both style and policy," said University of Maine political scientist Kenneth Palmer. "The state went heavily against Barry Goldwater in 1964, and I think it would do the same again this year against a nonestablishment candidate."
Observers say that while Maine, like the other states, starts the contest in the Democratic camp, the GOP has a shot at winning a fraction of the state's electoral votes due to its unusual division of electoral votes by congressional district. With an establishment candidate, Maine's more rural and conservative 2nd congressional district may well be a tossup, said University of Maine political scientist Mark D. Brewer. Even with an anti-establishment candidate, the district and its one electoral vote could still be competitive for the GOP.
In Wisconsin, the voting pattern in the last few years hasn't been moderate so much as polarized. In recent presidential elections, Wisconsin has backed Obama and sent liberal Democrat Tammy Baldwin to the Senate; in lower-turnout, off-year elections, it has elected conservative Republicans like Gov. Scott Walker and U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson.
Though they have won six straight presidential contests in Wisconsin, Democrats won't be complacent, "because they have been getting hammered in midterms here," said one political observer in the state. "Both sides are used to slugging it out. The bigger question is whether the GOP will make an all-out effort -- a ground game plus television plus candidate travel -- to carry the state for president as George W. Bush did in 2004, but neither John McCain nor Mitt Romney did in 2008 and 2012."
Beyond these four states, the most intriguing pickup possibility for the GOP may be New Mexico.
As recently as 2004, New Mexico voted for George W. Bush. But it went for Obama by increasingly large margins in 2008 and 2012. The most commonly cited reason for this shift has been national Republicans' growing difficulty reaching out to Hispanics; New Mexico has the highest percentage of Hispanic residents of any state. This would suggest that the 2016 Republican candidates' strongly anti-illegal-immigrant rhetoric would be a negative in a state like New Mexico. However, the possibility that the GOP nominee could be Rubio or Cruz -- both of whom are Hispanic -- could scramble the equation.
In particular, Rubio -- whose record on immigration is more nuanced than Cruz's -- "would likely win with the vote of a lot of crossover Democrats," said one observer in the state.
With that, here's our baseline rating of the Electoral College, at least at this early point in the presidential contest.
Safe Republican (142 electoral votes)
Alabama (9), Alaska (3), Arkansas (6), 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 (39 electoral votes)
Georgia (16), Indiana (11), Nebraska (1 of 5 electoral votes), Arizona (11)
Lean Republican (25 electoral votes)
Missouri (10), North Carolina (15)
Tossup (85 electoral votes)
Ohio (18), Iowa (6), Florida (29), Virginia (13), Colorado (9), Nevada (6), New Hampshire (4)
Lean Democratic (55 electoral votes)
Wisconsin (10), Pennsylvania (20), Michigan (16), Maine (4), New Mexico (5)
Likely Democratic (10 electoral votes)
Safe Democratic (182 electoral votes)
California (55), Connecticut (7), Delaware (3), District of Columbia (3), Hawaii (4), Illinois (20), Maryland (10), Massachusetts (11), New Jersey (14), New York (29), Oregon (7), Rhode Island (4) Vermont (3), and Washington state (12)