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A New Map in November?

By Reid Wilson

For months, Barack Obama has talked of expanding the presidential map, of competing seriously with John McCain in states abandoned by Democratic presidential contenders decades ago. It has been a powerful and alluring argument as some Democratic voters consider which primary candidate would be more electable in the Fall. The only trouble is, as Obama talks up his ability to put more states in play, McCain has made the same argument to Republican primary voters.

The likeliest outcome, as analysts believe and polls show, is a map in which both candidates take some surprising electoral votes, and a map so unique as to flummox historians and political scientists for a generation to come.

Twelve states in all were decided by fewer than five percentage points in 2004, and those are likely to be prime battlegrounds again. President Bush narrowly won Colorado, Florida, Iowa, Nevada, New Mexico and Ohio; John Kerry, meanwhile, barely took electoral votes in Michigan, Minnesota, New Hampshire, Oregon, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. As a measure of how static the map had become, just three states gave their electoral votes to the opposite party as had won them in 2000 (New Mexico and Iowa flipped into the Republican column, while New Hampshire went Democratic).

This year, according to polling averages and analyses, few of those same twelve states have clear favorites. The latest RCP Florida Average shows McCain with a nine-point advantage, while recent polling suggests a significant Obama lead in Iowa; in virtually every other traditional swing state, the two candidates are neck-and-neck.

Not content with the same boring battleground, though, both candidates are looking ahead to other regions that might come into play. And while both campaigns offer sometimes outlandish claims -- McCain's camp says he has a real chance of sweeping the West Coast while Obama's team publicly touts their chances in the Dakotas and Nebraska -- each candidate, by virtue of their stature and profiles, will in fact bring new states into play. "I think about this time in the 2004 election, the Bush, Kerry campaigns both of them claimed about less than a dozen states that were really in play," Rick Davis, McCain's campaign manager, said in an interview recently. "I think you've got a closer look at maybe twenty to twenty-two states that are in play now."

Obama's strengths come primarily along the voter-rich eastern seaboard. With an increasingly Democratic electorate, one that sent a Republican senator packing his bags after a loss in 2006 and is likely to hand the GOP another Senate loss this year, Virginia would seem to be target number one. Obama won the primary there handily, and if he is able to turn out huge margins in Richmond, where a sizable portion of the electorate is Democratic, and in the Washington suburbs, the commonwealth, long a bastion of southern conservatism, will be ripe for the taking. If he over-performs significantly among black voters, which Obama has done in early primaries, late polls could show North Carolina close as well. Obama "is going to do better in the Carolinas," Rutgers political scientist Ross Baker predicted.

Democrats' most targeted region heading into 2008 was the Mountain West, an area where the party has seen House, Senate and Gubernatorial gains in recent years. McCain's nomination as the GOP standard-bearer hurt those chances, but states like Colorado, New Mexico and Nevada will not come off the target list. Recent polling shows McCain leading in Nevada and a virtually tied race in the other two states.

The campaign will argue that their candidate has the opportunity to reach new voters by virtue not only of their own success, but because of Republican failings. "The Republican brand is so damaged by the war, the poor economy, that a lot of the traditional notions that we have about which states a Democrat can win are really going to have to be thrown out the window," Eric Holder, a former Deputy Attorney General and national co-chairman of Obama's campaign, said on Politics Nation Radio. "The test for our campaign will be to make sure we spend our money wisely, that we have Barack in the right places, that you don't get too full of yourself. But I think this is a target-rich environment for a Democratic candidate." ("It's a huge hurdle," Davis agreed. "The question's going to be, you know, does the image of the party change reflect more of John McCain, or is John McCain affected by the image of the party?")

The McCain campaign should see serious potential in the Midwest, traditionally a Democratic enclave amid a sea of Great Plains red. Wisconsin hasn't voted Republican since 1984, yet Obama leads the latest RCP Average there by a scant 1.6 points. Michigan, home of the Reagan Democrat, could vote Republican for the first time since 1988. And even Minnesota, the state with the longest streak of voting Democratic, could be in play, though some recent polls have shown a healthy lead for Obama. For McCain to win in each state, said Michigan-based independent pollster Bernie Porn, he will have to win over "a lot of the same folks who are considered the Reagan Democrats here: Social conservatives and Catholics."

While Reagan picked up Michigan, other Republicans have done well recently also. "All three [states], at least in recent history, have had Republican governors," Baker said. "You could not rule out the possibility of McCain picking up one of those." Davis hinted the campaign would make an investment in the entire area: "The Midwest and upper Midwest is going to see a lot of hot and heavy action," he said.

Another of McCain's strengths comes from his stronger position in areas that might have been more contentious were Hillary Clinton McCain's November foe. Clinton is polling much better than Obama in Florida, leading by 1.7 points while Obama trails by nine, and she runs ahead of the Illinois Senator when matched up with McCain in Pennsylvania and Ohio, as well.

In total, both campaigns will agree that at least 14 states are up for grabs this year. The Cook Political Report cites 23 states as likely or solidly in McCain's back pocket, for a total of 194 electoral votes. Obama is given a lead of 14 states, worth a combined 183 electoral votes. That leaves 161 votes in the middle, including Democratic-leaning swing territory in Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin and GOP-friendly turf in Ohio and Florida.

But whereas Ohio dominated the 2004 campaign and Florida ruled in 2000, this year's contest looks likely, broken down to true toss-up states, to come down to a handful that could fall either way, and that would demand smaller, more personal crowds. States like Colorado, Iowa, New Mexico and Nevada -- all listed as "toss ups" by Cook -- could give either Obama or McCain the narrow margin they need to get to 270 electoral votes.

With the proliferation of attention being paid to the presidential contest this year, and as more states than ever have cast meaningful ballots in presidential primaries, the effect of a map narrowed to a handful of smaller states could be similar to the primary calendar. In Iowa, some joke, voters will not commit to supporting a candidate unless the candidate has been inside their living rooms at least twice. This year, the rest of the country has followed suit. Obama and McCain could be forced to campaign extensively in smaller states, making their cases more individually than other candidates have had to make them. In the process, the two could very well change the way future strategists view the electoral map.

Reid Wilson is an associate editor and writer for RealClearPolitics. He can be reached at reid@realclearpolitics.com

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