State by State, It's Still a Tight Race
By Louis Jacobson, Special to Stateline
So much has happened in the presidential race over the past three months that voters can be forgiven if they feel dazed. But despite all the political and media frenzy - and despite Democrat Barack Obama's double-digit leads in two recent national polls - the outcome of the 2008 election is still likely to hinge on a half-dozen hotly contested battleground states, according to Out There's third analysis of the "purple" swing states that are neither safely Republican ("red") nor Democratic ("blue").
Out There currently posits that Obama can claim 242 electoral votes as either safe or leaning in his direction, while Republican John McCain can claim 221 electoral votes in the same way for himself. Reaching the magical 270 to win the White House will depend on winning some of the following toss-up states: Colorado, Michigan, Missouri, New Mexico, Ohio and Virginia, which cumulatively are worth 75 electoral votes.
Just three months ago, Out There's analysis concluded that Obama led in electoral votes, 259-221, with 58 in the toss-up category. While a number of states have moved modestly toward either Obama or McCain over the past three months, the only state to make a difference in Out There's electoral-vote tally was Michigan, which shifted from leaning Democratic to toss-up in this assessment.
On the one hand, a Quinnipiac Poll released June 26 found Obama ahead in Michigan, 48 percent-42 percent. However, the state's mood is volatile from continued economic troubles under Gov. Jennifer Granholm (D), and Obama faces fallout from the controversy over how, or whether, to seat Michigan delegates to the Democratic convention after the state moved up its primary contrary to national party rules. All of this suggests that Obama shouldn't get too comfortable about his chances in Michigan yet.
Meanwhile, one state has dropped off Out There's purple-state list: West Virginia. Once a staunchly Democratic state, it has voted Republican during the past two presidential elections and gave Obama such a primary drubbing that Out There can no longer justify calling it purple.
Two new purple states - the first ones Out There has added in this cycle - both come from the Republican heartland of the South: North Carolina and Georgia
Aside from Virginia, North Carolina likely offers Obama his best chance of winning a Southern state this fall. North Carolina has not only a sizable black population but also large numbers of highly educated, middle-class voters in the Raleigh-Durham area - precisely the demographic groups that have backed Obama so strongly. The state Democratic Party is also better organized than its Republican counterpart, and with numerous statewide contests on tap this fall - including an open governor's seat - it will be focusing heavily on turnout.
Georgia, meanwhile, still strikes Out There as a long shot for Obama, given the Peach State's strong turn to the right during the past decade. But an Insider Advantage poll released June 20 makes it hard not to include it on the list. The survey found McCain ahead only by 44 percent to 43 percent.
In all, Out There currently classifies 20 states as up-for-grabs, based on a review of state-level polling data and discussions with roughly 40 in-state analysts. Twelve of the states voted for President George W. Bush in 2004: Arizona, Arkansas, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Iowa, Missouri, Nevada, North Carolina, New Mexico, Ohio and Virginia. Eight voted for U.S. Sen. John Kerry (D): Maine, Michigan, Minnesota, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, Oregon, Washington and Wisconsin.
As with Out There's previous two assessments over the past 12 months, this analysis divides the purple states into five categories: Likely Democratic, Lean Democratic, Toss-Up, Lean Republican and Likely Republican.
A big caveat is that general election polls have been sparse in many of the purple states, and many of those that have been taken were done by automated calling rather than live interviewers - a technique that some analysts consider less reliable.
The leanings of most of the toss-up states, as with Michigan, are tricky to divine. In Ohio, the decider of the 2004 election, a mid-May Quinnipiac poll had McCain up by 4 percentage points, while the same poll a month later had Obama up by 6. A mid-May Virginia Commonwealth University poll found McCain up by 8 in the Old Dominion, although recent automated polls have shown Obama leading.
No traditional polls have been taken recently in Missouri or New Mexico; automated polls show all three close, albeit unsettled. Sources predicted that Missouri would be slightly easier for McCain to win, given the size of its rural vote. New Mexico will likely be a crapshoot for either candidate, although the high-profile backing of Gov. Bill Richardson (D), a former presidential contender himself, will help Obama, given Richardson's popularity in the state.
For three states, Out There's call has changed from three months ago. Oregon, which earlier this year seemed to be a potential pickup opportunity for McCain, has since taken a strong turn for Obama, not only giving him an 18-point primary victory but also hosting his single biggest rally, with an estimated 75,000 attendees. Oregon moves from Lean Democratic to Likely Democratic.
Two other states, however, moved in the other direction: Arizona, which shifts from Lean Republican to Likely Republican, and New Hampshire, which shifts from Likely Democratic to Lean Democratic.
Initially, Out There characterized historically Republican Arizona as a potential pickup for the Democrats, thanks to large numbers of Hispanic voters and newcomers. But the bar will be high with home-stater McCain on the ticket. The leanings of women could determine whether the state becomes seriously in play by November.
As for New Hampshire, the Democrats have surged in the Granite State in recent years, but the state has also given McCain two victories in GOP presidential primaries, and his maverick approach fits the state well. Obama, for his part, lost dramatically to Clinton in New Hampshire. While Obama was up by 51 percent-39 percent in a mid-June American Research Group poll, McCain is sure to lavish money and attention on the state, and it seems prudent to recast New Hampshire as Lean Democratic.
Over the past three months, McCain's hold on his states has remained solid. Arkansas remains Likely Republican, and barring something unexpected, it could fall off the purple-states list, as West Virginia did, by November, due to unfavorable demographics for Obama.
Florida continues to lean Republican. In mid-June, Obama came out ahead of McCain in the statewide Quinnipiac Poll for the first time this year, 47 percent-43 percent, perhaps due to his efforts to court Sunshine State voters after securing the nomination. Still, Florida remains a challenge for Obama, given his troubles with older voters, a crucial Florida voting bloc. In addition, the Florida GOP is well-organized, and Gov. Charlie Crist (R) will work hard to elect McCain, although the impact of his reversal on offshore drilling - which Crist, like McCain, now supports - remains to be seen.
Nevada remains Lean Republican for now, but a mid-June Mason-Dixon poll for the Las Vegas Review-Journal found McCain ahead only 44 percent to 42 percent - within the margin of error. Rapid growth of the Democratic rolls the wake of January's hard-fought Nevada caucuses could eventually push this state into the toss-up column.
Obama, too, has held strong in several of his states. In Minnesota, the June 26 Quinnipiac poll has him ahead, 54 percent-37 percent, while the same survey had him ahead in Wisconsin, 52 percent-39 percent. In both states, previous polls had Obama ahead by double digits as well. And in Washington state, an Elway Poll in May had Obama up by 6.
In Maine, automated polls have shown Obama up by double digits. And Iowa, which launched Obama on the path to the nomination in January, continues to look strong for him. He significantly outpaces McCain in organization in the state, and registration numbers have surged for the Democrats.
Even Pennsylvania - where Obama fared poorly among white, working-class voters as he lost to Clinton by nearly 10 points on April 22 - still leans Democratic rather than slipping into toss-up status. A Quinnipiac poll taken in mid-June had Obama up by 12. Despite his weakness in many parts of the state, Gov. Ed Rendell (D) and the previous two Democratic presidential nominees, Al Gore and John Kerry, won the state while carrying just a few counties. Obama can do that, and would be helped if he can win back Clinton supporters in historically Republican, but Democratic-trending, suburban counties near Philadelphia, especially Montgomery and Bucks.
Both campaigns say they plan to challenge their rival in states considered safe in previous elections, but with the exception of North Carolina and Georgia, Out There is not yet ready to push the other suggested states - such as Indiana, Montana, New Jersey, North Dakota and even Alaska - into the purple category, largely on the basis of historical voting patterns and preliminary polls. If the evidence changes - and both campaigns will be pushing hard, considering early advertising buys and strategists' PowerPoint presentations - some of these states could well join the list later this year
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 Call newspaper in Washington, D.C. Jacobson originated the "Out There" column in 2004 as a feature for Roll Call, 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.