If there is a common wisdom regarding the 2012 Presidential election – or for that matter, the 2008, 2004, and 2000 contests – it is that the road to the White House for both candidates runs invariably through Ohio and Florida. More specifically, there seems to be a near-consensus among both liberal and conservative commentators that Mitt Romney must win both of these perennial swing states to capture the oval office, while President Obama can afford to lose one or the other, but not both.
A close analysis of the Electoral College map, as well as recent demographic and political shifts over the past decade, however, could be making this view somewhat antiquated; a development which might work in the President’s favor.
To illustrate this point, consider one of Obama’s worst-case scenarios. First, let’s assume the President loses North Carolina and Virginia, which is a distinct possibility, though polls in the latter have remained almost deadlocked for the past two months. Now imagine that Romney is able to carry Ohio and Florida, a considerably more difficult task, but well within the realm of possibility if the GOP blankets these states in ads attacking Obama’s economic record and the alleged cuts in Medicare in the Affordable Care Act.
This would give Romney a total of 266 Electoral College votes, still four shy of the 270 needed to capture the White House. To cross the threshold, the Republican would need to carry Nevada, Colorado, Wisconsin, or Iowa. The first of these seems unlikely as Obama has enjoyed a comfortable lead in Nevada for at least the past five months and Nate Silver’s fivethirtyeight.com blog calculates an 84% chance of the President winning the Silver State. Polls in Wisconsin have tightened recently, though much of this is arguably the result of Romney’s choice of Paul Ryan as his running mate which still has not closed the gap between himself and Obama. This leaves Colorado and Iowa.
Since coming within one point of the President in mid-August, Romney’s support has slipped to 45.3% to Obama’s 49% in Colorado according to the polling data aggregator RealClearPolitics. Indeed, the state has become increasingly blue, having voted for the Republican candidate for president in every election since 1992 until Obama won there in the last contest. Iowa, for its part, has trended towards the President since early 2012, though the race has tightened there considerably in the last few weeks with the latest averages showing a virtual dead heat in the state.
Both states have also seen substantial growth in their Latino populations, a group which heavily favors Obama. Fully 20% of Coloradans identify as Hispanic, a fact which likely explains the state’s drift towards the Democrats during the last ten years, and Latinos are widely credited for Michael Bennet’s victory over Tea Party favorite Ken Buck in the 2010 Senate race, a year which was hardly a pleasant memory for Democrats. While still a largely white state, Iowa too has seen an 84% increase in its Latino population since 2000, a change that similarly offered a boost for Obama there in 2008.
The status of Iowa and Colorado as the new crucial swing states also has implications in the post-Citizens United world. Four of the country’s 20 largest media markets, according to Nielsen Research, are in Ohio and Florida, making campaigning in these states considerably more expensive than in smaller markets. And with the Democrats and their super-PACs trailing the Republicans in fundraising, the Obama team needs to be somewhat more judicious in where it spends its money. The good news for the President is that only the Denver-area media market ranks in the top 20 while Des Moines is number 72 and Cedar Rapids – Waterloo – Dubuque number 89.
This is not to suggest that Obama has secured either state, and it is entirely possible to imagine the President losing one or both of the races in Colorado and Iowa. What it does mean is that the electoral math for the Democrats is not the same in 2012 as it was in 2008. The same is true for the Republicans.
Nor does this mean that Ohio and Florida are not still very important states for the election in November, and neither campaign would be well advised to ignore them. This is particularly true for Romney as losing either would almost certainly cost him the White House. But it does suggest that the traditional status of Ohio and Florida as must-wins for any presidential campaign is perhaps beginning to change. Despite what most pundits would argue, there is in fact a path to victory for the President that does not include the Buckeye or Sunshine states, and the Obama campaign would be well-advised to consider any route that secures another four years.