Changing electoral maps, from Appalachia to the West

Barack Obama is now traveling to general election battleground states with increasing frequency, and his exchanges with John McCain are starting to generate as much press as his disputes with Hillary Clinton. Today's topics included the RNC blasting Obama for falsely claiming that his uncle liberated Auschwitz and McCain's proposal that Obama and him travel to Iraq together, a proposal Obama quickly rejected as nothing but "a stunt."

Still recovering from months of delegate calculations, proportional allocations, even-and-odd delegate districts and Excel spreadsheets, the Obama campaign is now turning to an altogether different sort of calculation: the electoral college. Here, there is no proportionality as it is (almost) all winner-take-all. And there is less of an opportunity to change the message depending on which states votes, since they all vote at the same time.

As I have been exploring in recent weeks, Obama's electoral map differs from that of Al Gore and John Kerry, which placed heavy emphasis on Eastern states in general, and Ohio and Florida in particular. Hillary Clinton would have relied on a similar map, and polls suggested that she was in a position to be more successful than her predecessors in both these states. But there is ample evidence that states might not be Obama's safest bets and that he should look elsewhere for his top-tier opportunities.

Naturally, Obama will have enough resources that he will compete in all states in which he could have a chance. The same could not be said of Kerry and Gore, and this is the Democrats' main advantage this election year. Gore, for instance, sacrificed Ohio; Kerry gave up on places like Missouri and focused on Ohio. But it would not be correct to conclude that Obama will not have to prioritize an electoral map. For one, he has limited time and he will have to choose the combination of states that he believes will get him to 270. Second, the way in which he frames his messages will have to be targeted at specific constituencies: Will Obama aim at capturing working-class white voters or more upscale independent-minded voters? Trying to keep a balance in the themes that are emphasized can end up satisfying no one. As long as he does not need a majority of both to win the election, Obama could be better-advised to pick a path and largely stick to it.

Finally, there is the very simple problem that, no matter how much Obama is campaigning there, Appalachia is not warming up to him at all. Obama outpsent Clinton in Ohio, in Pennsylvania and in North Carolina. By the time Kentucky and West Virginia voted, the nomination's competitive stage had long been over. Yet, Obama got trounced in all the Appalachian counties in these states -- including in the all-important states of Ohio, Pennsylvania and North Carolina. Obama can spend as much money in WV and KY as he wants, but both states look to be as safe as it gets for John McCain. A new Rasmussen poll of Kentucky released yesterday shows Clinton leading McCain 51% to 42% in this red state (confirming that the Kentucky GOP is in bad shape, which we started seeing in the fall) but Obama is crushed 57% to 32%! That's a huge differential between the two Democrats. In Pennsylvania and Ohio, Obama will have to make up in urban and suburban areas his weakness in rural counties.

While this does not mean that Obama will give up on OH and PA -- he certainly needs the latter if he wants to get to the White House and he certainly has the potential to boost Democratic turnout and appeal to Republican-voting upscale voters in places like Philadelphia or the Ohio suburbs -- it does suggest that Obama will make an effort to turn to the Mountain West and replace the emphasis on the East and the Midwest with an all-out effort in Colorado (9 electoral votes), New Mexico (5 electoral votes) and Nevada (5 electoral votes). With all the Kerry states, these 19 electoral votes would get Obama to an electoral tie; add Iowa, the only 2004 Bush state that polls now suggest is leaning Democratic, and it is an electoral majority for the Illinois Senator.

Furthermore, Obama seeks to replace the Florida-Ohio strategy (which could lead to a more disastrous result this year than in cycles past) by replacing their 47 electoral votes with those of states that have not been in the map at all in past cycles, states like Virginia, North Carolina, Alaska and perhaps even an electoral vote in Nebraska! Note that polls do not show that Obama would be stronger than Clinton in North Carolina, but it seems safe to say that he will make a bigger play for that state than she would have.

In brief, Obama's changing the map is due to his relative weakness in the states that past Democratic nominees have put the emphasis on and his relative strength in places which they gave up on.

What makes the 2008 election particularly unpredictable is that McCain also changes the electoral map for Republicans, as his strengths and weaknesses are different from those of Bush
and those other Republicans would have brought to the table. Unlike his former nomination rivals, McCain can keep the Hispanic vote competitive and thus contest the 3 Western states (CO, NV and NM). Unlike Republicans who would have had more difficulty differentiating themselves from Bush, McCain can hope to convince independents who have given up on the GOP to still vote for him, allowing him to compete for independents in places like New Hampshire, upstate Virginia, Oregon and Washington.

And unlike Bush's strategy of turning out the base by polarizing the electorate, the trust McCain inspires among moderate Democrats could be higher than the one among conservative Republicans, which explains why McCain is confident that it can take advantage of Obama's weakness with blue-collar votes in the must-win Democratic states of Pennsylvania and Michigan. He just started airing ads in those two states, focused on economic issues. Polls have shown McCain to be surprisingly competitive in Michigan in particular, making it that much more important for Democrats to find a resolution to the delegate mess.

In other words, Obama and McCain both believe that their strengths make it imperative for them to focus on the Mountain West and on states like Virginia and New Hampshire; meanwhile, McCain will make sure to put in play Michigan and Pennsylvania because of his appeal to conservative Democrats and Obama will attempt a push in the deep South because to see whether he can boost black turnout. All of this at the expense of Florida and Ohio.

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