While national public opinion polls are fun to examine, the real action for handicappers, of course, is in the Electoral College.
But ďgenericĒ 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, donít 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 ó 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 partyís nomination.
While the presidentís 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 presidentís 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 ó Illinois, Vermont and D.C. ó have coastline on either the Atlantic or the Pacific oceans.
One solid Obama state, Maine, divides its electoral vote by Congressional district, and itís possible that the stateís 2nd district could be carried by Romney. However, right now that isnít 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 Partyís 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.
New Mexico, with its large Hispanic population, Democratic-leaning Minnesota and quirky New Hampshire still look like tossups, but some of the other key 13 states donít.
Given Obamaís job ratings, the publicís dissatisfaction with the countryís direction and the state of the economy, itís difficult to imagine him winning the two big prizes, Ohio and Florida, again. Both states traditionally have preferred the GOP nominee when Democrats are on the defensive, as they will be next year. Thatís 47 Electoral College votes for Romney.
Two Southern states, Virginia and North Carolina, could be competitive, but itís certainly a stretch to call them tossups. Unlike 2008, Obama isnít a blank-slate agent for change. Both states lean toward Romney, who would likely have enough appeal in the suburbs and among white independents to give him an edge. That is an additional 28 Electoral College votes for Romney.
Winning those four states would put Romney at 266 electoral votes, just four shy of the magic number.
The most obvious candidate for pushing Romney over the top is Colorado (9 electoral votes), Iowa (6) or Nevada (6).
Obama won 53.7 percent of Coloradoís vote in 2008, but the Democratic nominee took only 47 percent in 2004 and 42.4 percent in 2000. This time, Obama will struggle with independent voters because he wonít benefit from the publicís dissatisfaction with the incumbent president. That makes him an underdog in the state.
Unless the president can change the current political dynamic, he could well lose most or all of the remaining competitive states to Romney, who has enough appeal among swing voters to help him carry those states.
For now, then, Romney has a slight electoral vote advantage over the president.
Stuart Rothenberg is editor of the Rothenberg Political Report.