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Politically Thinking: Obama faces re-election challenge

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Posted on September 29, 2011 |
By Eric L. Davis



Projecting electoral votes in 2012 demonstrates the challenges facing President Obama’s re-election. Even before any votes are cast, Obama’s path to 270 electoral votes is difficult due to changes in the apportionment of House seats and electoral votes following the 2010 census. Because of shifts in population from the Northeast and Midwest to the South and Southwest, the states Obama won in 2008 will have eight fewer electoral votes in 2012 than in 2008.

Obama is likely to win the District of Columbia, all states from Maryland north to Maine (with the exception of New Hampshire and Pennsylvania), California, Oregon, Washington, Minnesota, Illinois and Hawaii. These states provide 196 of the necessary 270 electoral votes. (For this column, I am assuming that all states award electoral votes on a winner-take-all basis.)

I would give the 2012 Republican presidential candidate the electoral votes of all the states that John McCain won in 2008, plus five states Obama won: Indiana, Iowa, New Hampshire, North Carolina and Virginia. These states have 229 electoral votes. I count Iowa and New Hampshire in the Republican column because GOP candidates will be spending so much time in those states campaigning for their party’s primary.

Obama will not win any states in 2012 that McCain carried in 2008. The 2012 election will thus be decided in a group of eight states with 113 electoral votes. In order to be re-elected, Obama needs to win 65 percent of the electoral votes in these toss-up states.

The states on my toss-up list are Colorado, Florida, Michigan, Nevada, New Mexico, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. Florida and Colorado voted Republican in every election between 1988 and 2004, and then voted for Obama in 2008. Michigan and Pennsylvania voted Republican only once between 1988 and 2004. Wisconsin has never voted Republican in the last 24 years. Democratic candidates have won four out of the last six presidential elections in New Mexico. Nevada and Ohio have been the nation’s most competitive states recently, voting for three Democrats and three Republicans in the last six elections.

If Obama could win the mountain states of Colorado, New Mexico and Nevada, plus the historically Democratic state of Wisconsin, he would have 226 electoral votes, 44 short of an electoral vote majority. He would need to get the remainder of his electoral votes from some combination of Florida, Michigan, Ohio and Pennsylvania.

One glimmer of hope for Obama is that all four of these states have Republican governors, whom polls show are increasingly unpopular. Obama has to hope that voters in these states will be less likely to vote for a Republican presidential candidate because they don’t like their states’ incumbent Republican governors.

Florida, with 29 electoral votes, is the largest of these four super-competitive states. Whoever emerges as the Republican presidential candidate will certainly consider putting Florida Sen. Marco Rubio on the ticket as the vice-presidential nominee, to appeal both to Florida voters and to Hispanic voters more generally.

If Florida ends up going Republican, Obama would have to win all three of the large states of Michigan, Ohio and Pennsylvania in order to be re-elected. Ohio will be the most difficult of these three for Obama.

If I had to categorize the toss-up states today, I would give Obama Colorado, Michigan, New Mexico, Nevada, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, and the Republican candidate Florida and Ohio. Adding up all of my projections, the Republican would be elected president with 276 electoral votes. Of course, the election that counts will be in November 2012, not in September 2011.

Eric L. Davis is professor emeritus of political science at Middlebury College.

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