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If the 2012 presidential election were held today, President Barack Obama would be in an extremely tight race.
Of course, this assessment comes on the heels of a Republican wave in the 2010 midterms. With a better political climate and a relatively weak opponent, Obama could well win reelection by as strong a margin as he did in 2008, when he won the electoral college by a 365-173 vote.
His chances today, however, hinge on 104 electoral votes, or the 10 states rated tossups by Governing's baseline analysis of the 2012 contest. The 10 states include Colorado (9 electoral votes), Florida (29), Iowa (6), Michigan (16), Nevada (6), New Hampshire (4), New Mexico (5), Ohio (18), Wisconsin (10) and one of Maine's four electoral votes. (Unlike all other states, Maine and Nebraska award one electoral vote to the winner of each of the state's congressional districts.)
The good news for Obama is that he won all of these states in 2008. The bad news is that the GOP did very well in many of these states in 2010, leaving the party primed to retake some of this territory.
Comparing which states could conceivably flip from their 2008 allegiance is instructive. Several states Obama won that year are now in the GOP camp. Indiana and one district in Nebraska fall into our likely Republican category, which means they're not really competitive, while North Carolina and Virginia, two other states that backed Obama, currently reside in the lean Republican category, which does count as competitive, but which leans modestly to the GOP.
By contrast, we see one state won by McCain in 2008 that is vulnerable -- barely -- to an Obama takeover: Missouri.
The only consistent polling done in key presidential battleground states has shown Obama leading most potential GOP rivals, with former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney often faring the best. Over the past two months, Public Policy Polling has found Obama ahead of all challengers in Florida, Nevada, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.
However, we take these polls with a grain of salt. While PPP had a good track record in 2010, it is a Democratic firm that uses automated polls rather than traditional polling methods. More importantly, it's still early in the cycle, and Obama, by virtue of being president, inevitably has a big advantage in name recognition over many of his GOP rivals. A fairer head-to-head test will have to wait until voters become more familiar with the GOP candidates.
Indeed, because this early handicapping is designed as a starting point -- not an end point -- for the 2012 election, we fully expect the state-by-state ratings to jump around as the election season proceeds. After all, the general election is almost two years away, meaning that there's a high likelihood that the political environment will change at least once, and possibly more than that, before Election Day.
Even more important, the Republican primary field is wide open, with no nominee expected for another year or so. Because of that, the analysis that follows uses a hypothetical, generic Republican nominee as Obama's opponent. The actual nominee may be stronger than the generic candidate used in this analysis, or weaker.
The system used to categorize the 50 states and the District of Columbia includes seven categories: safe Republican, likely Republican, lean Republican, tossup, lean Democratic, likely Democratic and safe Democratic. Given the early stage of the election, we are hesitant to rank-order the states within their assigned categories, so we've listed the states in alphabetical order within each category.
The author -- who handicaps gubernatorial, state legislative and state attorney general races for Governing -- handicapped the state-by-state presidential contest in 2008 for Stateline.org. These ratings are based on interviews with several dozen political experts in the states.
Here is a capsule analysis of all the competitive and potentially competitive states:
Safe Republican (169 electoral votes)
This list includes several states that were halfheartedly targeted by Obama in 2008 (Georgia, Montana and North Dakota) as well as one state, Arizona, where Democratic presidential candidates have been competitive in the recent past. But none of these states backed Obama in 2008, and the chances that any of them will do so appear to be slimmer than ever. For now, we find no plausible path to victory for Obama in any of the following states: Alabama (9), Alaska (3), Arizona (11), 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). In a striking break with tradition, the Hoosier State went for Obama in 2008. But the president's odds of a repeat appear long indeed. Not only did the state turn strongly Republican in the 2010 midterms, but the Indiana Democratic Party has depleted its bench and looks likely to lose most, if not all of the 2012 statewide races. This could hamper organizational effectiveness and voter motivation for the Democrats, and conversely help it for Republicans. At this point it looks like an economic miracle would be needed for Obama to become competitive again in Indiana.
Nebraska (1 of 5 electoral votes). In what may have been the biggest surprise of Election Night 2008, Nebraska's Omaha-based 2nd congressional district gave its one electoral vote to Obama. He barely won the district -- by about 3,000 votes -- but given that it resides within a super-solid Republican state, he would not be well-advised to pour many resources into recapturing a single electoral vote again. Two additional factors must be considered as well. The first is that the lines may change during redistricting in a way that dilutes Democratic strength in the second district, and the second is that members of Nebraska's Legislature have been considering scrapping the district-by-district system for allocating electoral votes.
Lean Republican (38)
Missouri (10). Missouri was once a bellwether state, only voting for the losing candidate once during the 20th Century. But Democrats here have faced increasing headwinds, thanks in part to a well-organized GOP base of social conservatives. In 2004, Democratic nominee John Kerry cut his losses by pulling out of Missouri early, thereby torpedoing any chance he had of winning the state. Four years later, even as Obama was winning states like Indiana, North Carolina and Virginia, the future president came up short in Missouri, albeit narrowly. Of the three lean Republican states on our list, Obama might ultimately find Missouri the least fruitful.
North Carolina (15). Obama's 2008 victory in North Carolina owed much to affluent, educated, urban and suburban voters residing in and around the Research Triangle. If they are energized to vote again in 2012, and if African-American turnout is strong, Obama will have a shot at holding onto North Carolina. Still, North Carolina is generally a Republican state. It has gone Republican for president since 1980, the GOP took over both chambers of the Legislature in 2010 and Republicans are favored to flip the governorship in 2012. Watch the level of resources the Obama campaign spends in the Tarheel State to see how serious they are for 2012. Another sign of interest would be a decision to hold their national convention in Charlotte, one of four finalist cities.
Virginia (13). Like North Carolina, Virginia was one of the states Obama plucked away from the Republican coalition in 2008. Like his win in North Carolina, the victory in Virginia owed much to affluent moderates, especially those living in the Washington, D.C., suburbs. Also like North Carolina, Virginia saw a strong Republican tide in 2010. Virginia is still winnable for the president, but for now we're calling it lean Republican.
Colorado (9). Observers of all political stripes agree that Colorado is a tossup for 2012. Historically a Republican state on the presidential level, it went for Obama by 9 points in 2008, following several cycles of strong showings by Democrats in state and federal races. The Democratic momentum stopped in 2010, but Tea Party-related divisions also hampered the GOP, leading to something of a draw. The Democrats won the governorship and held both a U.S. Senate seat and control of the endangered state Senate, but the GOP flipped two Democratic-held U.S. House seats as well as the state House. Colorado promises to be hard-fought territory in 2012.
Florida (29). Given the massive 2010 Republican wave in Florida -- more devastating for Democrats than almost any other state in the nation -- we are tempted to place Florida in the lean Republican category. But for now, we're going to call it a tossup, primarily because both parties are certain to target the Sunshine State in 2012. If that's the case, anything can happen. It's all about the math: Florida is by far the biggest electoral-vote prize among the competitive states for 2012, and as such, it is a crucial building block to victory. And unlike Ohio, Michigan and Pennsylvania, which are all losing electoral votes due to reapportionment, Florida will soon to be fortified with two additional votes, only strengthening its importance.
Iowa (6). The Iowa caucuses gave Obama a stunning initial boost in 2008, but the GOP did fairly well in 2010, ousting the incumbent Democratic governor and flipping the state House. The Republicans, however, failed to oust any of the vulnerable members of the state congressional delegation, flip the state Senate or flip a competitive state attorney general race. This split decision suggests that Iowa will be battleground territory again in 2012.
Maine (1 of 4 electoral votes). Like Nebraska, Maine allots its electoral votes by congressional district (though unlike Nebraska, it has never actually split them between two candidates before). In recent presidential races, Maine has voted Democratic, but it also has a maverick sensibility. Tea Party-aligned Republican Paul LePage won a Democratic-held gubernatorial seat in 2010, though with only 38 percent of the vote. If any of the state's four electoral votes is likely to go to a Republican, it would be the 2nd congressional district's vote, represented by blue-collar Democrat Mike Michaud. That district went for Obama by a 12-point margin over McCain in 2008, significantly less than the 23 percent margin in the 1st district. As a result, we're rating this one electoral vote a tossup, but keeping the state as a whole, lean Democratic.
Michigan (16). Michigan may end up in the lean Democratic category eventually -- no Republican presidential candidate has won the state since 1988 -- but a strong 2010 cycle for the GOP, and the political unpredictability stemming from the state's still-devastated economy, gives us enough pause to rate it tossup for now.
Nevada (6). Obama won Nevada by 12 points in 2008, but with the state still reeling from a poor economy, anything is possible. The best news for the Democrats is that Sen. Harry Reid, a flawed candidate, beat Republican challenger Sharron Angle, an even more flawed candidate. The key factor in Reid's victory was a strong Democratic ground operation in and around Las Vegas; that's the kind of tool that Obama will need to utilize in 2012. Still, either party can make a plausible case for winning the state in 2012.
New Hampshire (4). A historically Republican state, New Hampshire has trended Democratic in recent presidential elections. The national GOP, with its Southern and evangelical tint, has been a hard sell in recent election cycles. Still, the GOP had a great 2010 -- taking both chambers of the Legislature, successfully defending a U.S. Senate seat and flipping both seats in the U.S. House - so the identity of the GOP nominee will likely make a big difference in how the state votes, with Mitt Romney, the former governor of neighboring Massachusetts, the strongest potential GOP nominee. Obama famously lost the Democratic primary to Hillary Clinton, illustrating the challenges he faces connecting with the state's blue-collar voters. He recovered to win the general election by 9 points, but observers across the political spectrum expect New Hampshire to be a genuine battleground in 2012.
New Mexico (5). Obama won New Mexico by 15 points, a departure from the close elections of 2000 (when Al Gore edged George W. Bush) and 2004 (when Bush edged John Kerry). The state's large Hispanic population could be decisive for Obama, and it will help him to have Democratic Sen. Jeff Bingaman on the ballot in 2012. The state's history of narrow races, however, makes us hesitant to move it away from tossup at this point.
Ohio (18). Once again, Ohio will be a major -- and possibly decisive -- factor in determining who wins the 2012 election, even though it's clout will be two electoral votes smaller. As before, both parties are expected to pour significant resources into the state. Obama only won the Buckeye State by 5 points in 2008, leaving him little margin for error in a state that went strongly Republican in 2010, as the GOP ousted an incumbent governor and state attorney general, flipped five House seats and successfully defended an open Senate seat. As with other Midwestern states, Obama has to be hoping for a noticeably improved economy.
Wisconsin (10). One of the strongest Republican tides in 2010 came in Wisconsin, which gives the GOP hope of winning a state where Obama triumphed by 14 points. As with other hard-hit Midwestern states, how well the president fares depends heavily on how much the economy improves by Election Day.
Lean Democratic (47)
Maine (3 of 4 electoral votes). See description above.
Minnesota (10). Minnesota has a famously Democratic voting record in presidential races, even voting against Ronald Reagan's reelection in 1984 (when favorite son Walter Mondale was running against him). Republicans can win here -- the GOP did take over both chambers of the Legislature in 2010 -- but any Republican, even former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, would face an uphill battle given historical voting patterns. Exercising caution, we'll call Minnesota lean Democratic, even though we have a feeling it will end up in the likely Democratic category by Election Day.
New Jersey (14). New Jersey has a habit of seeming more competitive early in the presidential cycle than it actually ends up being. That could happen again, but for now, we'll be cautious and consider it lean Democratic. A perennial problem for the GOP in winning New Jersey is that advertising in New York City and Philadelphia markets is expensive, draining money that could be spent more profitably in cheaper, more competitive states.
Pennsylvania (20). We gave serious thought to calling Pennsylvania a tossup state, given the drubbing that state Republicans gave Democrats in 2010 -- taking over the governorship, the state House, a U.S. Senate seat and five seats in the U.S. House delegation. Pennsylvania could well end up a tossup before the campaign is over, but the state has a strong history of voting Democratic for president (2000 for Al Gore; 2004 for John Kerry). The 2012 turnout patterns are likely to be far more favorable to the Democrats, too.
Likely Democratic (19)
Oregon (7). It's not impossible that a Republican could win Oregon, but it's not likely either. The GOP had a relatively good year in the state in 2010, and yet an attractive and well-funded former pro basketball player still couldn't win the gubernatorial race. Unless there's an even stronger Republican wave in 2012, Oregon should stay Democratic.
Washington state (12). What's true for Oregon is even truer for Washington state, where credible Republican candidates like Dino Rossi have consistently lost, even in favorable political environments like 2010. Barring something unexpected, Washington should stay in the Democratic camp.
Safe Democratic (149)
It's highly unlikely that the GOP candidate will target any of these states in 2012: 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).