2008 May Come Down to Ohio — Again

 
Sure, the Democratic presidential candidates are doing well in the polls.

Consider a recent Newsweek survey. It showed U.S. Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) seven points ahead of former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani (R), five points ahead of U.S. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), 15 points ahead of former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney (R) and 11 points ahead of former U.S. Sen. Fred Thompson (R-Tenn.). Her chief rivals for the Democratic nomination - U.S. Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) and former U.S. Sen. John Edwards (D-N.C.) - also bested these four leading Republicans.

But presidents aren't elected by nationwide vote. They're elected state by state, by piecing together a winning coalition with at least 270 electoral votes. And looking at the race this way, Election 2008 appears to be just as close as the 2000 and 2004 elections were.

"Out There" draws that conclusion based on initial soundings from more than three dozen political sources in the 19 "purple states" in the 2008 presidential race - states neither Republican "red" nor Democratic "blue" but generally considered up for grabs. This ranking is based on the working assumption that solidly Republican and solidly Democratic states stay that way.

Of the purple states, 11 voted for President George W. Bush in 2004: Arizona, Arkansas, Colorado, Florida, Iowa, Missouri, Nevada, New Mexico, Ohio, Virginia and West Virginia. Eight voted for U.S. Sen. John Kerry (D): Maine, Michigan, Minnesota, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, Oregon, Washington and Wisconsin.

Of course, the eventual nominee of each party - and the quality of their campaign - will be enormously important in determining the outcome in each of these states. But this analysis focuses on generic political leanings at this point.

Louis Jacobson is the editor of CongressNow , an online publication launched in 2007 that covers legislation and policy in Congress and is affiliated with Roll Cal l newspaper in Washington, D.C. Jacobson originated the "Out There" column in 2004 as a feature for Roll Cal l, where he served as deputy editor. Earlier, Jacobson spent 11 years with National Journal covering lobbying, politics and policy, and served as a contributing writer for two of its affiliates , CongressDaily and Government Executive . He also was a contributing writer to The Almanac of American Politics and has done political handicapping of state legislatures for both The Rothenberg Political Report and The Cook Political Report .
The purple states are ranked in five categories, based on discussions with political experts in each state: "Likely Democratic," "Lean Democratic," "Tossup," "Lean Republican," "Likely Republican."

Two states - Virginia and Nevada - merit a Likely Republican label. Virginia was not even considered a purple state by most observers in 2004; it now makes the list thanks to demographic changes in the Washington, D.C., suburbs that have driven Democrats to victory in two gubernatorial races and one senatorial contest. Though Nevada has a sizable labor-union constituency and a fast-growing and diverse urban population, Democrats have been thwarted in the state in recent years at the presidential, congressional and gubernatorial levels.

In the Likely Democratic category are Oregon, Washington and New Hampshire. New Hampshire went for Bush in 2000, but not so in 2004. And it went heavily for Democrats in the 2006 midterms.

Battleground states: Republican to Democratic
  1. Virginia (13 electoral votes): Likely Republican
  2. Nevada (5 electoral votes): Likely Republican
  3. Florida (27 electoral votes): Lean Republican
  4. Arizona (10 electoral votes): Lean Republican
  5. West Virginia (5 electoral votes): Lean Republican
  6. Colorado (9 electoral votes): Lean Republican
  7. Arkansas (6 electoral votes): Lean Republican
  8. Missouri (11 electoral votes): Lean Republican
  9. Ohio (20 electoral votes): Toss-Up
  10. New Mexico (5 electoral votes): Toss-Up
  11. Iowa (7 electoral votes): Toss-Up
  12. Wisconsin (10 electoral votes): Lean Democratic
  13. Minnesota (10 electoral votes): Lean Democratic
  14. Michigan (17 electoral votes): Lean Democratic
  15. Maine (4 electoral votes): Lean Democratic
  16. Pennsylvania (21 electoral votes): Lean Democratic
  17. Oregon (7 electoral votes): Likely Democratic
  18. New Hampshire (4 electoral votes): Likely Democratic
  19. Washington state (11 electoral votes): Likely Democratic

Of the 14 remaining purple states, six are in the Lean Republican camp. Four of them - Arkansas, Florida, Missouri and West Virginia - have historically supported Democratic presidential candidates more often than not, but they've been in the GOP column in recent scrambles for the White House. The other two - Arizona and Colorado - have historically pulled the lever for Republicans but are undergoing demographic shifts - such as in-migration from more liberal regions and growing numbers of Hispanic residents - that open up new opportunities for the Democrats.

In the Lean Democratic category are Michigan, Minnesota, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. These states have consistently voted Democratic in recent elections, but each has a viable Republican Party and enough dissatisfaction, particularly on economic issues, to make voters slightly less predictable. The other Lean Democratic state, Maine, shares some of the same economic concerns and has a long history of maverick politics.

If every "Lean" state were carried by its preferred party in 2008, then the election would hinge on three states classified here as tossups: Iowa, New Mexico and Ohio.

Iowa and New Mexico went for Democrat Al Gore in 2000 and Bush four years later, by narrow margins each time. The sense for 2008 is that both could swing either way, though Democrats feel cautiously optimistic about winning both.

That leaves Ohio and its 20 electoral votes as the kingmaker - again. In the last election, a gritty contest that both sides always expected to be pivotal, the Buckeye State sided with Bush by just 119,000 votes, or 2 percent of votes cast.

Next year, Ohio political experts agree the Democrats will start from a much better position than they had in 2004. In the 2006 midterms, the state shifted markedly in the Democrats' direction with the election of Ted Strickland (D) as governor. Strickland's win, plus victories in several other statewide races, stemmed largely from an onslaught of public disaffection with the scandal-plagued administration of Republican Gov. Bob Taft and was a major breakthrough for the state's once-dormant Democratic Party.

If a single reason justifies Democratic optimism right now, it is that public disapproval of Bush and the unpopularity of the Iraq War are pushing the national winds in the party's favor. That makes it easier to imagine on-the-bubble red states shifting to blue than to imagine tenuous blue states shifting to red. Either way, don't bet the farm. There's lots of Campaign 2008 left to play out.
 
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