Obama's (Very Difficult) Five Paths to Re-Election

Obama's (Very Difficult) Five Paths to Re-Election

By Sean Trende - December 14, 2011

Obama's re-election team on Tuesday unveiled five potential paths for the president to win in 2012. They can be summarized as follows:

(1) West Path: The Kerry states, plus Colorado, New Mexico, and Nevada (272 electoral votes).

(2) Florida Path: The Kerry states, plus Florida (275 EVs).

(3) South Path: The Kerry states, plus North Carolina and Virginia (274 EVs).

(4) Midwest Path: The Kerry states, plus Ohio and Iowa (270 EVs).

(5) "Expansion Path": The Kerry states, minus Pennsylvania and New Hampshire, plus Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico and Arizona (272 EVs).

While it may sound re-assuring to the president’s supporters to hear that he has multiple paths to re-election, the truth is that all of these routes are awfully tenuous. Viewing them in light of his job approval ratings, one probably has to conclude that he remains a slight underdog.

Let’s look at the following chart. It shows a rough average of the president’s job approval numbers in key swing states in recent polls, which is one of the strongest predictors of how a president ultimately performs: 

Obviously, how these ratings translate into actual votes is dependent upon the GOP nominee. If Romney gets the nod, the president will have an extremely tough time winning New Hampshire, while Romney’s somewhat patrician demeanor may not play well in blue-collar Pennsylvania. At the same time, Team Obama could probably make Rick Perry radioactive in New Hampshire and pull out the win, while seeing Perry run better in the Mountain West and connecting with those blue-collar Pennsylvanians.

Setting aside candidate-specifics, we can make some broad generalizations about the president’s path. Right now, the president is looking like an okay bet to hold the Bush ’04 state of New Mexico, and is also performing well in Wisconsin.

After that, however, all of the paths become problematic. For starters, Obama looks to have an extremely tough time holding on in New Hampshire. Losing that state would ax the “West” and “Midwest” paths (both of which are further complicated by the president’s high disapprovals in Colorado and Ohio). The “expansion” path is complicated by the president’s low standing in Arizona, while a 43 percent approval rating in the Sunshine State will make the “Florida” path very difficult to pull off.

And of course, the president is by no means a shoo-in to hold the Kerry states. Aside from New Hampshire, Pennsylvania is looking very weak for him as well.

If anything, this understates the precariousness of Obama’s position. Most of the polls used here are polls of registered voters, or even adults, not likely voters. In a year like 2012 is shaping up to be, when Republican enthusiasm is outstripping Democratic enthusiasm, these polls will be to the left of the actual state electorates.

None of this is to say the president cannot win. Indeed, if he is re-elected, I suspect one of these paths will be the route that leads him, narrowly, to the Promised Land. But, barring a major turnaround, I suspect that by June or July of next year, these five paths will have been whittled down to one or two roads to re-election.

Sean Trende is senior elections analyst for RealClearPolitics. He is a co-author of the 2014 Almanac of American Politics and author of The Lost Majority. He can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @SeanTrende.

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