Much has happened in the presidential race since we last handicapped the Electoral College landscape in January 2011. The Republican field has seen the emergence of several different frontrunners, from Donald Trump to Rick Perry to Herman Cain to Newt Gingrich. And despite unemployment going below nine percent, the still struggling economy has added further challenges to President Obama's reelection prospects.
Our baseline analysis in January pitted Obama against a hypothetical, generic Republican nominee; we acknowledged that the actual nominee might be stronger or weaker than the hypothetical one. Based on interviews with political observers in competitive states, we concluded back then that Republicans had 219 of the required 270 electoral votes either solidly or leaning in their direction, the Democrats had 215, and 104 votes in 10 states rated as tossups.
Now, however, we're modifying our predictions because the Republican primary contest has changed considerably in the last year.
We are now rating for two separate scenarios: One in which former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney (or, much less likely, former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman) is the GOP nominee, and one in which anyone else in the Republican field wins the nomination, such as Gingrich or Perry. Today, we will focus on Romney or Huntsman as the nominee. Later this week, we'll post our Gingrich, Perry or other analysis.
We bifurcated our analysis because most political observers believe that Romney or Huntsman would have greater appeal to moderate and independent voters in the general election than one of the Republicans' more conservative candidates.
These ratings -- based on consultations with more than three dozen political watchers in competitive and potentially competitive states -- reflect this difference in general-election prospects. We find that just over a dozen states would fare differently enough under our two scenarios to justify different rating categories.
Under scenario one, a Romney or Huntsman candidacy would find itself with 223 electoral votes in the safe, likely or lean Republican category, compared to 192 in the safe, likely or lean Democratic category for Obama. The winner would need to draw from 123 electoral votes in 10 states considered tossups.
This means Romney or Huntsman would be able to win the election by taking all of the GOP-leaning states in our analysis, plus the tossup states of Colorado, Florida, Iowa and Nevada. In fact, under this scenario, the GOP ticket would win even if it lost the remaining tossup states on our list -- Michigan, Ohio, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Maine and New Mexico.
While there are broad similarities between our ratings today and those we made last January, there have been a couple noteworthy changes -- namely moving New Hampshire, Oregon and Pennsylvania in the GOP's direction under scenario one.
Polling in New Hampshire has shown Romney -- who's from next-door Massachusetts -- doing well against Obama. The contested GOP primary has also brought New Hampshire voters into months of close contact with GOP contenders, especially Romney.
Similarly, polling shows Obama with weak showings in head-to-head matchups in Pennsylvania. And while Oregon generally leans Democratic, the state has a relatively high percentage of Mormon voters who could provide a better base of support for Romney (or Huntsman for that matter) than most Republicans have in the state.
Of course, much will change between now and November 2012. In general, we've been more cautious than some of our sources urged us to be. Some of the experts we consulted with suggested that we handicap the race more favorably towards Obama in such states as Colorado, Maine and Nevada (now tossups) and New Hampshire and North Carolina (now leaning Republican). But we're being cautious, knowing we can always change our ratings later if more solid evidence emerges.
A few notes on our handicapping system:
States deemed lean Republican, tossup or lean Democratic are considered competitive; states in other categories are not, at least for now.
Unlike our handicapping from last January, we now have enough confidence in the electoral landscape to rank-order the states within each category, 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 award one electoral vote to the winner of each of the state's congressional districts. Where appropriate, we've split out congressional district electoral votes that differ in handicapping category from the state as a whole.
SCENARIO ONE: Romney or Huntsman as the Republican nominee
(Number of electoral votes are in parentheses)
Safe Republican (169 electoral votes)
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)
Nebraska (1 of 5 electoral votes)
Lean Republican (42)
New Hampshire (4)
North Carolina (15)
New Mexico (5)
Lean Democratic (31)
New Jersey (14)
Likely Democratic (12)
Washington state (12)
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: 223
Tossup states: 123
States that are safe, likely and lean Democratic: 192
On Thursday, Governing.com will post Lou's analysis of the Electoral College if the Republican candidate for president is Newt Gingrich or another candidate.