While national public opinion polls are fun to examine, the real action for handicappers, of course, is in the Electoral College.
But “generic” electoral vote projections are only of limited value because elections are ultimately about the candidates. GOP Reps. Michele Bachmann (Minn.) and Ron Paul (Texas), for example, don’t have the same chance of carrying Ohio as former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney (R) does, so any electoral vote estimate should pit potential nominees against each other — not merely a generic Republican challenger against President Barack Obama.
This electoral vote column assumes a contest that pits Obama against Romney, who currently looks like the strongest GOP general election nominee and is better known and more thoroughly vetted than other Republican hopefuls. Of course, there is no certainty that the former Massachusetts governor will win his party’s nomination.
While the president’s popularity is down among almost all groups, the Democratic base is likely to turn out strongly for him next year. African-Americans and younger voters, many of whom sat out the 2010 midterms, surely will be more energized next year by the president’s re-election campaign than they were last year, providing him with a significant boost in states with large black and liberal constituencies.
Obama starts out being certain or likely to carry 14 reliably Democratic states plus the District of Columbia, for a total of 186 electoral votes. Included in that list are seven states with double-digit electoral votes. All of the states but three — Illinois, Vermont and D.C. — have coastline on either the Atlantic or the Pacific oceans.
One solid Obama state, Maine, divides its electoral vote by Congressional district, and it’s possible that the state’s 2nd district could be carried by Romney. However, right now that isn’t likely.
Romney, on the other hand, begins with a prohibitive advantage in 23 reliably Republican states and 191 electoral votes. One of the states that Romney would be likely to win, Indiana, was carried in 2008 by Obama. Only six of the 23 states in the Romney column have double-digit electoral votes, reflecting the Republican Party’s strength in more sparsely populated states.
That leaves 13 states in the competitive category, with Obama needing 84 of the remaining 161 electoral votes and Romney needing 79.
In the razor-close 2000 contest, George W. Bush won seven of the 13: Colorado, Florida, Nevada, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Ohio and Virginia. Al Gore carried the other six: Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, New Mexico, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.
Ten of those 13 states stuck with their partisan bent four years later, while three states flipped allegiance. New Hampshire went to John Kerry, while New Mexico and Iowa, both of which backed Gore in 2000, switched to Bush in 2004.
Four years later, of course, Obama won all 13.