First of a series.
The 2012 presidential race will be decided in a dozen swing states, and President Obama faces a hard road to victory in many of them.
“It appears this election will be much more like Bush-Gore” in 2000, said Democratic strategist Steve McMahon, co-founder of Alexandria-based Purple Strategies. “The president ain’t gonna win by 95 electoral votes.”
Political strategists in both parties say the number of reliably Democratic states should give Mr. Obama at least 196 electoral votes, and the solidly Republican states should give the GOP nominee 191. With 270 electoral votes needed to win, the campaign will be fought in the battleground states of Colorado, Florida, Iowa, Michigan, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Mexico, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia and Wisconsin — a total of 151 electoral votes up for grabs.
The president would need states totaling an additional 74 electoral votes, but the news in swing states isn’t good for him against the GOP front-runners. A Gallup/USA Today poll in mid-December showed Mr. Obama trailing former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney by 5 percentage points in the 12 battleground states, and he trailed former House Speaker Newt Gingrich by 3 percentage points in those states. Nationwide, Mr. Obama leads Mr. Gingrich by 6 points and Mr. Romney by 1 point in the poll.
North Carolina, which Mr. Obama was the first Democrat to win in 32 years in 2008, is typical of the challenge facing Mr. Obama this time around. Mr. Obama’s approval rating in the Tarheel State has hovered in the low 40s; a poll taken by a Democratic firm in early December showed him in a dead heat there with Mr. Romney
“I don’t think it’s likely [Mr. Obama] will win it,” said David Rohde, professor of political science at Duke University in Durham, N.C. “In 2008, Obama just barely carried the state by three-tenths of a percentage point. It is a state that is still more Republican.”
Asked what benefit the Democrats will get from holding their nominating convention in Charlotte, N.C., in September, Mr. Rohde replied, “virtually none.” He said Democratic voters are more likely to be swayed by the economy during Mr. Obama’s presidency than by the atmospherics of a party convention.
“Things didn’t get better [under Mr. Obama], and so they’re less motivated than they were,” Mr. Rohde said.
The Gallup/USA Today poll also found that Democrats are declining as a percentage of all voters in the key swing states. The number of self-identified Democrats in the battleground states fell from 35 percent to 30 percent since 2008, while the number of Republicans rose 5 percentage points and independents increased by 7 percentage points. In 2008, when Mr. Obama won the swing states by 8 percentage points, Democrats held the advantage over Republicans in party identification by 11 points. The survey found that the Democrats’ advantage in party ID now has fallen to 2 percentage points.
Obama campaign officials say they’re not seeing a lack of enthusiasm among Democrats, and that their ground operations are superior to GOP forces in virtually every state.
The unemployment rates in several battleground states are higher than the national average, which complicates the president’s task. In North Carolina, the jobless rate was 10.4 percent in October. In Michigan, it was 10.6 percent; in Nevada, 13.4 percent.
But some swing states have weathered the weak economy better than others. In Iowa, the jobless rate in October was 6.0 percent. In New Hampshire, it was 5.3 percent.
“The economy is the most important thing,” Mr. Rohde said. “What happens between now and then is one of the things that the president’s fortunes will turn on.”
Obama campaign officials say they are looking at several different “paths,” or combinations of battleground states, to get to 270 electoral votes. One of them is the “expansion path” — trying to move a reliably Republican state, Arizona, into the Democratic column. Arizonans have voted for the Republican presidential candidate in every election since 1952, with the exception of President Clinton’s re-election victory in 1996. But the state’s Hispanic population grew by 46 percent in the last decade, providing Democrats with an opportunity that the Obama campaign is pursuing aggressively.
“The White House believes Arizona is in play because of the growing Hispanic population there, and the Republican Party’s immigration policies, and the fact that [Sen.] John McCain is not on the ballot,” Mr. McMahon said.
Obama campaign manager Jim Messina said he wants to pursue as many combinations of battleground states as possible, whether they be Western states, such as Colorado, New Mexico and Nevada, or Southern states, such as Virginia and North Carolina.
“Democrats got, in the ‘90s and early 2000s, involved in just fighting one path,” Mr. Messina told reporters in a recent briefing at the Democratic National Committee headquarters. “And that was a mistake for the party, and a mistake for how you win elections. Our goal this year is to get as many paths as we can.”
In the battleground states, Mr. McMahon said, three groups of voters will be especially important to the outcome: people who identify themselves as independents, Democrats who didn’t attend college, and seniors.
“The election’s going to be decided by a really small sliver of people in a really small sliver of states,” he said.
Independents voted for Democrats by 18 percentage points in 2006 and 2008, Mr. McMahon said, but swung back to Republican candidates by about the same margin in 2010. Seniors went for Democrats by about 8 percentage points in 2008, but voted for Republicans by a similar margin in 2010.
Of all the battleground states, Mr. McMahon will be looking at Virginia, Florida and Pennsylvania to determine the outcome.
“If you tell me who wins those three, I’ll tell you who will be president,” Mr. McMahon said, adding that it will be very difficult for the GOP nominee to win without Florida and Virginia.
Florida, the largest swing state with significant populations of seniors and Hispanics, will be host to the Republican National Convention in August 2012, in Tampa.