When Barack Obama sailed past the requisite 270 electoral votes to a decisive win in the 2008 presidential election, many hailed the emergence of a new electoral map—one marked by the blurring of the sharp red and blue lines that had carved up the country for 10 years.
North Carolina and Virginia, once Southern vanguards of conservatism, helped elect a Democratic president for the first time in decades. Similarly, deep-red Indiana gave Obama the edge by a tiny, 0.9 percent margin.
The new battleground encompasses 16 states, many of them put into play for the first time four years ago and one more, Arizona, that’s only recently been added to the list. How Obama and Republican Mitt Romney fare this year will help answer the question of whether the larger competitive map from 2008 was a fluke arising from a nationwide outburst of discontent with the party in power, or perhaps something more permanent, rooted in changing demographics.
“The most striking thing about the 2012 map compared to the 2008 map is how similar it is,” said Alan Abramowitz, professor of political science at Emory University. “There’s a great deal of consistency, which reflects the divisions in the country which are very stable. That said, there are certainly two or three states that could flip.”
The 2012 map puts into focus the way that demographics are roiling the old campaign playbook. Traditional swing states, like Ohio and Florida, remain critical, but they now share the stage with a new breed of battlegrounds—places like North Carolina, Colorado, Nevada—where an influx of minority and youth voters has transformed the political landscape.
Part of the Obama campaign’s success in 2008 can be attributed to effectively recognizing those shifts and wooing new constituencies. The question in 2012 remains whether the president can stitch together those constituencies again or whether those blocs will defect to Romney in the wake of protracted post-recession misery.
Among the states that are likely to flip, most agree that Indiana, which no Democrat had won in more than four decades before Obama, is likely to go back in the Republicans’ column without much of a fight. Meanwhile, Missouri, where Obama and John McCain waged a fierce battle four years ago before the senator from Arizona prevailed by 4,000 votes, is trending GOP. Both states are populated with the working-class whites who have been slow to feel the effects of the economic recovery and among whom the president has seen his approval ratings plummet. At this point the Obama campaign isn’t expected to compete seriously in either state.
North Carolina and Virginia are similarly rich targets for the Romney campaign—Virginia had not helped vault a Democrat to the White House since Lyndon B. Johnson in 1964, North Carolina not since Jimmy Carter in 1976. Both became competitive relatively late in the game, but don’t expect such stunners in other states this time around. The White House already has its hands full.
“That’s a lot of territory to defend,” said Larry Sabato, director of the Center of Politics at the University of Virginia, regarding the president’s winning roster of states from 2008.
Arizona, however, falls on the opposite end of the spectrum— it’s the one state the president could conceivably carry in 2012 that he couldn’t in 2008, now that native son McCain won't be on the ballot. In the past decade, Arizona’s Latino population has grown an astonishing 46 percent, according to Census figures—a trend that has boded well for Democrats in the Mountain West, where states like New Mexico and Nevada have grown bluer over the years.
Hispanic voters favor Democrats nationally by a 2-to-1 margin, and a recent survey by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press found that Obama leads Romney among Latinos 67 percent to 27 percent, even as both parties signal the bloc’s importance to their coalitions.
The Obama campaign has made rumblings in the Grand Canyon State’s direction, dispatching volunteers in aggressive voter-registration drives. Moreover, if SB 1070, Arizona’s controversial immigration law, is upheld, it has the potential to motivate Hispanic voters to turn out like never before. Still, most prognosticators rate Arizona a long shot for the president.
States such as Michigan and Minnesota bring welcome news for the Obama team. Romney would have to break the Democrats' nine-going-on-10 winning streak in Minnesota to bring that state into the GOP fold. In his birthplace, meanwhile, he’s running against one of the Obama administration’s signature accomplishments: the bailout and revival of an auto industry on the ropes.
Daron Shaw, a University of Texas political scientist and Republican pollster, said he’s most struck by Obama's resilience in places in places like New Mexico, Nevada, and Colorado—states where economic pessimism prevails yet voters are still supportive of the president. "But the stickiness of the economy in the upper Midwest poses a particular problem for Obama among blue-collar workers," he said.
Each side has a battleground strategy designed to put the nominee over the top in what is universally viewed as a very tight race. For Romney, the critical states are Ohio, Florida, North Carolina, and Virginia, says Republican pollster Glen Bolger. “I don’t know that the math works unless a Republican wins at least three out of those four and one out of the Colorado-Nevada-New Mexico trio, and you can throw New Hampshire in as well,” he said.
Democratic pollster Mark Mellman said the expanded battleground means Obama could win reelection even if he loses states like Ohio and Florida that were must-wins in the past. "There's a lot of ways for the president to get to 270," Mellman said. “It’s not any one state. It’s looking at this whole group of states that form different routes.... That’s really the key.”