Over the last 100 years, only five incumbent presidents have lost second-term bids. Mitt Romney is trying to become the 21st century’s first challenger to topple a sitting president, and his camp says it could reach the 270 electoral votes needed for victory this way:
Hold on to the 22 states that John McCain won in 2008. Take back three states that traditionally vote Republican for president but that Barack Obama captured in 2008: Indiana, Virginia and North Carolina. Win traditional swing states Ohio and Florida. Then win one more swing state, such as: New Hampshire, where Romney has a home; Colorado; Pennsylvania; or even Michigan, where his father is remembered as a great governor.
Right now, President Obama and Romney, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, are virtually deadlocked in national polls. Surveys released Thursday found the candidates in a virtual tie in Ohio and Florida. Polls tend to put Obama slightly ahead in Virginia and North Carolina, and many swing states are well within the president’s reach. Even Arizona – which backed GOP presidential nominee McCain, its senator, in 2008 – could be in play this time; polls there show a virtual tie.
But national polls six months out don’t mean much. The candidates’ campaigns, the national parties and their allied “super” political action committees will saturate the country with advertising wars from now to November. They’ve already begun in select swing states. That could influence public opinion. So might unforeseen events.
The biggest predictor of electoral success is usually a state’s voting history, said Larry Sabato, the director of the University of Virginia Center for Politics. By that measure, he saw North Carolina and Indiana leaning Republican. Virginia, which has seen an influx of urban professionals and immigrants in recent years, now trends Democratic.
Obama won 365 electoral votes in 2008 partly by defying some history. Indiana and Virginia went Democratic for the first time since 1964. North Carolina voted for a Democrat for only the second time since 1964. In those and other states, a combination of energized young and minority voters, as well as white-collar professionals who made up bigger shares of the population, boosted Obama.
Sabato and his staff figure that Obama starts 2012 with 247 electoral votes, “but not all of them are totally secure,” they said in an April 26 analysis. They figure Romney has a base of 206 electoral votes. RealClearPolitics, a nonpartisan website, gives Obama a 253-170 edge – and 270 are needed for victory.
The Romney camp cited a blueprint to get to 270 from Karl Rove, former political strategist for President George W. Bush. It goes like this:
- Win the 22 McCain states, for 180 electoral votes. Romney figures he can hold on to all of them, though Arizona may be questionable. A Rocky Mountain Poll of Arizona voters April 9-17 gave Obama a 42-40 percent lead. He was particularly boosted by Hispanics, who preferred him by 64-25 percent.
Obama won Florida with 50.9 percent in 2008. This time, independent voters there indicate that their votes are likely to depend on their economic mood, said Susan MacManus, a professor of government and international affairs at the University of South Florida in Tampa.
Ohio could be tougher for Romney. Obama got 51.4 percent of its 2008 vote, even though “the more recent trend is for Ohio to be one of the least Democratic states in the Midwest,” said Sabato of the University of Virginia. Since 1964, Ohio has voted for the winning presidential candidate every time.
– Swing states. If Romney wins all of the above, he’s at 266 electoral votes, meaning he needs one more state. There’s a long list of states that for years have been Democratic turf where Romney has potential, including Iowa, Colorado and New Hampshire.
For instance, he could make inroads in New Hampshire, which has voted Democratic in four of the last five presidential elections, if he’s able to peddle his image as the center-right executive who governed neighboring Massachusetts from 2003 to 2007 and maintains a vacation home in their state. New Hampshire folks like that personal tie, said Andrew Smith, the director of the University of New Hampshire Survey Center.
“Romney talks business,” Smith said, “and he can emphasize his moderate past.”
Romney strategists see other states offering special advantages. In Michigan, a state that Obama won by 16 points and that hasn’t voted Republican since 1988, Romney can recall his family roots: His father was a center-right governor of the state from 1963 to 1969, and “the Romney name still means something here,” said Bill Ballenger, the publisher of Inside Michigan Politics, a nonpartisan newsletter.
But Romney has some baggage that could weigh him down.
The Obama camp sees a lot of openings. In Michigan, it can point to Romney’s opposition to federal aid to the auto industry. Obama’s team also cites Republican opposition to higher taxes on millionaires. It can recite Romney’s campaign gaffes about his wife’s Cadillacs or his friendship with sports team owners.
Romney’s team is convinced that he has the edge on the economic argument. While unemployment is down from its October 2009 peak of 10.2 percent, and the economy is growing, albeit slowly, “people in focus groups don’t see their lives getting better,” said Neil Newhouse, a Romney pollster and senior adviser.
Consumers’ mood is fragile and hard to read. They’re “more upbeat about the state of the economy, but they remain cautiously optimistic,” said Lynn Franco, the director of the Consumer Research Center at the Conference Board, an independent business-research group.
The Romney campaign also thinks that the young and minority voters who came out in big numbers for Obama last time will be less eager to embrace him this year. Polls, though, find that the president maintains solid support among blacks, Hispanics and voters age 18 to 29. A March 23-April 9 survey by the Harvard University Institute of Politics found that 18- to 29-year-old support for Obama has been steady. His approval rating is 52 percent, down only slightly from 58 percent in November 2009.
However, the poll also held some encouraging news for Romney: While Obama had a 43-29 percent advantage among the young, 30 percent were undecided. And while the president had a 76-1 percent majority among young blacks, among whites he trailed by 37-34 percent. Obama won the young white vote by 10 points in 2008.
At this point, it’s hard to predict the election, Sabato said. Pick a swing state “and it’s an argument how they’ll turn out,” he said.