The Critical 2012 Swing States

The Critical 2012 Swing States

By David Paul Kuhn - March 4, 2011

We don't know what the economy will look like by autumn 2012. We don't know the Republican nominee. But we already know the broad battlefield. And, as we long have known, it will not look like 2008.

It's the swing states that decide the outcome for every state. States like Texas and California are sure things. Thus the red and blue states are at the mercy of the purple states.

The big five 2012 states: Florida, Ohio, Virginia, Wisconsin and Colorado. States like Nevada, Pennsylvania, Iowa, New Hampshire and North Carolina fall in line soon after. The lineup could slightly shift. The GOP ticket might impact it. State polling will eventually inform the list.

In discussions, chief strategists from past Republican and Democratic presidential campaigns broadly agreed with this big five. One top GOP strategist emailed me, "Hope Virginia is not a top five state in 2012." He placed Nevada in that count instead. But Obama's margin of victory was twice as large in Nevada as Virginia.

Don't make too much of the 2010 elections. That goes double for Virginia's 2009 gubernatorial election. There is a notable reddening of Wisconsin and Ohio in recent years but one must be cautious. There is no evidence that gubernatorial elections dependably predict a state's performance in presidential elections. We know midterm outcomes are not consistently predictive (you say 2006, I say 1994).

State polling is irrelevant at this point. Political science also provides no guidance on predicting the critical presidential swing states this early. Some campaigns will invest in models that use data one now considers--electoral votes, performance in recent presidential elections, states trend during the race, demographics--and other measures like state polling and party identification.

"We could agree today on how about 40 states would go," said Daron Shaw, a UT-Austin political scientist who was the director of election studies for the 2000 Bush campaign. It's that last ten or so that, as Shaw noted, drive Obama strategist "David Plouffe and Republican strategists crazy."

So goes electoral math. It's debatable, as is any list, to place Wisconsin in the big five and not big Pennsylvania or even little Iowa. Consider how close Wisconsin was in 2004, for one. But Wisconsin is probably the most likely of the big five swing states to be pushed into the six-to-10 range. Pennsylvania is usually placed in the top three swing states because of its size. But it's always bluer than the pundits have it. Obama's victories in North Carolina and Indiana are highly unlikely to see sequels. Obama barely won those two states with historic political winds at his back.

What does this map mean? There are plausible scenarios for Obama to retain the presidency and lose it. Should Obama lose Florida, Ohio and Virginia, the GOP need only win a state like Wisconsin, Colorado, or New Hampshire; if the GOP does that, Republicans win the presidency. It will be hard for Obama to lose those big states and hold the smaller swing states. Swing states have similar demographics. That's why they're swing states.

It's still, to borrow from Tim Russert, "Florida! Florida! Florida!" This is one reason Florida freshman Sen. Marco Rubio is the most likely Republican vice presidential nominee. It's why Republicans are holding their convention in Tampa, Florida. The best defense is a good offense, in sports, war and politics.

Republicans likely need to win Ohio and Florida. In a more traditional scenario, Obama likely needs Florida and a Colorado or Wisconsin. He will have more problems in Ohio than Florida (the former is whiter than the latter).

Obama could win without Florida and Ohio. In fact, this is likely his staff’s backup plan. But it's a difficult Democratic route around those two mega swing states. It would require victories in Colorado, New Mexico, Nevada, Virginia, Wisconsin, as well as Iowa and bluer swing states like Pennsylvania. Yet if Obama's losing Florida, he's likely struggling to hold onto to states like Virginia and stuck in a dead heat, if not slipping behind, in a state like Iowa. 

Now imagine Virginia, like Ohio and Florida, also goes red. Obama can still win. Republicans can, however, block this neo-Democratic path by winning New Hampshire. Hence, New Hampshire may become a central swing state. 

That neo-Democratic route may also prove Obama's only route. That's because (best guess) the GOP will prove the slight favorite in Ohio and Florida by late September. Both Florida and Ohio shifted to Obama only after the September stock market crash. This is one reason Obama's final performance in 2008 was always a poor predictor of 2012.

Be wary of the swing state hype. Political operatives sometimes push campaigns to invest in long shots (it's profitable). There are head fakes. Campaigns want the competition to invest in the unwinnable. Sometimes campaigns are flailing. The McCain campaign was far too broadly invested by October 2008 (though, at that point, the crash fated John McCain's loss).

The Washington Post's Chris Cillizza recently pondered the 2012 electoral map: "Will it be the playing field of 2004, in which a few large and traditionally competitive states such as Florida, Ohio and Pennsylvania decided the outcome? Or will it be the wider playing field of 2008, in which Obama used his financial and organizational advantage to cruise to a 365-electoral-vote victory?"

It's the wrong question. The coming map will look more 2004 than 2008. But Republicans were secure in states like Colorado and Virginia in the Bush years. They no longer are.

The 2012 map will not be a sequel to 2008. (Disclaimer: dramatically poor GOP nominee or an economic recovery that's as dramatic as the 2008 crash.)

Lest we forget, and so many do forget, 2008 was trending toward the 2004 map--even amid the implosion of the GOP president and party. See this headline in Cillizza's newspaper on the day of the stock market crash: "Familiar Ground May Be Election's Deciding Factor." The crash upended that electoral ground.

I reported repeatedly in the months after the 2008 election that "we are still living in the same political construct." Facts were lost in the (false and promiscuous) reports that Obama changed the electoral map -- a point that helped explain why 2010 went so badly for the left.

Obama won nine states in 2008 that Democrats did not in 2004. But, to repeat myself, Obama was tied or trailing in six of those states prior to the market crash. 

Recall the time before the crash. Subtract a conventional recession, George W. Bush and Democrats' fat ranks. Add a struggling Democratic president and a marred Democratic brand. That schema illustrates why the 2012 map is anything but 2008. It's going to be a tight race on familiar terrain. But that's not news. It's the physics of modern politics.

David Paul Kuhn is a writer who lives in New York City. His novel, “What Makes It Worthy,” will be published in February 2015.

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