Much like a car whose gears shift poorly, this presidential contest is making a rather awkward transition to its general election phase. Nevertheless, as it turns into a competition between John McCain and Barack Obama, the race for 270 Electoral College votes is worth a hard look.
Keep in mind how relatively static voting patterns tend to be: In the 2004 presidential election, 47 states ended up in the same party's column as in 2000. The only differences were that 2004 Democratic nominee John Kerry won New Hampshire but lost Iowa and New Mexico, whereas 2000 Democratic nominee Al Gore had carried Iowa and New Mexico but lost New Hampshire.
To be sure, George W. Bush won Florida, Ohio, and to a lesser extent Nevada by very narrow margins in both elections, just as Gore and Kerry each barely carried Michigan, Minnesota, Oregon, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin.
This time around, even though as many as three states are likely to jump the track, the chances are high that any state that voted for the same party in the last two presidential elections will vote that way again. The question is, which states will be the exceptions?
A presidential campaign's most precious resources are money and the candidate's time. The logical places for each campaign to initially focus these scarce commodities are the trio of states that split in the last two elections and the eight states that barely stayed in a given column.
Because several factors favor Democrats this year, it has become popular to say that they will find it easier than Republicans to pick up states they narrowly lost in 2000 and 2004. That assumption is partly based on the vast shift in party identification--from equal levels of support for Republicans and Democrats just four years ago to a 6- or 7-point Democratic advantage today.
On the other hand, Obama is encountering resistance from white voters over age 65 or with less than a college education. Florida appears likely to be an even greater challenge for Obama than it was for either Gore or Kerry. And it's possible that Ohio and Missouri will be more difficult for him as well.
Obviously for Democrats, who came up 18 electoral votes short in 2004, Plan A is to sweep the three states that swung in 2004, hold on to the five states that Gore and Kerry narrowly won, then try their best to win both Florida and Ohio. Assuming the Democrats do not lose any of the states they won both times, either Florida or Ohio would turn the election in their favor. Nevada and Colorado would also be on the Democrats' list of prime targets. In both states, the demographics are changing in the Democrats' favor because of an influx of voters from out of state and the rising number of Hispanic voters. Arkansas and Virginia could also be plausible Democratic targets under optimal circumstances for the party.
Still, Democrats must be prepared to trot out Plan B, which hinges on the distinct possibility that Florida will slip out of reach again, thus increasing the importance of Ohio and the other targets.
Then there is Plan C, if things get really tough for Democrats. Plan C would kick in if neither Florida nor Ohio looked like a realistic pickup target. Obama might still want to contest both states. A Democrat can win without either, while a Republican would find it very difficult to win without both. So, if Obama were to spend a good bit of money to force McCain to spend much more of his considerably scarcer resources to defend Florida and Ohio, the Democrat would be making a good investment. But without electoral-vote-rich Florida or Ohio, Obama would have to try to piece together 270 in a much more difficult way.
Let's say that Obama holds the 18 states that, along with the District of Columbia, Gore and Kerry won, and that he takes the three swing states of Iowa, New Hampshire, and New Mexico. At that point, Obama would trail McCain by 10 electoral votes. Then, if Obama could pick off Nevada's five electoral votes, the race would be a 269-269 tie. This general election could get really interesting.
This article appears in the May 31, 2008, edition of National Journal.