In a few weeks' time, this column will begin its quadrennial series on analyzing the presidential Electoral College math. Since, as any fifth-grader will tell you, we don't have a national vote for president, tracking the race by means of national polling is almost completely irrelevant to the question of who will be in the White House after next January. The real race happens state-by-state, and we'll be engaging in close analysis of the state polling numbers soon.
For now, I'm just going to go with my gut. Paying little or no attention to actual polling (where it even exists -- it's still mighty early), instead I lay out today the states I'll be watching closely, and how I think the chips will fall in November based only on my gut feelings. If this sort of thing doesn't interest you, well, there's plenty of other stuff on the internet to look at, right?
Ahem. Moving right along, first we've got to add up how many votes both Mitt Romney and Barack Obama have already essentially locked up. Here are my lists of states I don't expect much polling from, since everyone knows how they'll vote (states are listed roughly west-to-east, for no particular reason):
Obama: Hawai'i, California, Oregon, Washington, Minnesota, Illinois, D.C., Maryland, Delaware, New Jersey, New York, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, Vermont, Maine.
Romney: Alaska, Idaho, Utah, Wyoming, North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, Louisiana, Arkansas, Mississippi, Alabama, Tennessee, Kentucky, Georgia, South Carolina, West Virginia.
Some might quibble about one or another of these states, but that's what my gut says, so that's what I'm going with. This gives Obama 196 all-but-guaranteed electoral votes, and Romney 156. Put another way, this leaves Obama with 74 votes to pick up to cross the finish line, whereas Romney will need 114.
There are also a few additional states which can be predicted with a high degree of confidence, even this far out. For Obama, this includes Nevada, New Mexico, Wisconsin, and Michigan. Romney picks up two such states, Montana and Arizona. Even more folks would probably quibble with these choices, and my gut may prove to be wrong -- the contests could indeed be close in almost any of these states. But we've got to start somewhere. This boosts the totals to 233 for Obama, and 170 for Romney. Obama needs only 37 electoral votes to win, in this scenario, and Romney needs an even 100.
This leaves ten states on the table, for a total of 135 electoral votes. Right off the bat, it's easy to see that Romney will almost have to run this table to win, whereas Obama has many various options for how he can cross the finish line even while losing important states. Five of these states my gut already feels fairly confident about (numbers in parentheses are electoral votes per state).
Colorado (9) -- Colorado is in the process of becoming a reliably Democratic state. They've been getting bluer and bluer for years, and I don't see this changing in 2012. My gut says Obama wins it by at least five points.
Iowa (6) -- Normally a pretty reliably Democratic state, Obama will likely have some problems with the evangelical vote here. Iowa will likely be very close, but the gut says it goes to Romney.
Missouri (10) -- One of the swingier of swing states, a close Senate race will boost turnout. Obama has a chance of winning here, but again I think it goes for Romney in a very close vote.
Indiana (11) -- Obama won here last time around, but only barely. I think this time Romney seals the deal and moves the state back to the red column.
New Hampshire (4) -- Obama picks up New Hampshire handily. This is the least important of the swing states (due to only having four Electoral College votes), but the media will likely pay a lot of attention to it (because it is close to New York, where they all live, and it is more fun to travel to than Indiana or Missouri).
If I'm not mistaken in any of these gut-shot guesses, this means an additional 13 votes for Obama, and an extra 27 votes for Romney, upping their totals to 246 for Obama and 197 for Romney.
This puts Obama within easy striking distance of the 270 he'll need to win. Of the remaining five states -- all with fairly hefty numbers of electors -- Obama will only need to win two to gain a second term. To put it another way, Obama can lose Ohio, Florida, and Pennsylvania if he manages to pick up Virginia and North Carolina. Let's take a look at these states one-by-one.
Florida (29) -- If Obama wins Florida, he won't even need a second state from this group. If all the other gut calls I've made pan out, Obama would have 275 electoral votes by winning Florida alone. Florida, as always, will be a very close vote, and may hinge on public perception of who will fight harder for Social Security and Medicare.
North Carolina (15) -- This may be the state pundits point to as the price of Obama coming out for gay marriage, if he loses here. African-American voter turnout could be key, and Obama's just given a lot of them a possible reason to stay home.
Virginia (13) -- Virginia has been moving steadily towards the blue, but it could easily flip back in this election cycle. Suburban turnout may be the biggest factor here.
Ohio (18) -- Another big Senate race is happening here, which means turnout may be up on both sides. Look for Obama to relentlessly campaign here on one subject: the auto bailout and how Romney would have let the auto industry die.
Pennsylvania (20) -- The Catholic vote may be the determinant here. Pennsylvania is usually reliably blue overall (there are deep blue and deep red parts of the state, but more people tend to live in the blue sections). This may not hold true in 2012, however.
OK, "final darts at the wall" time. I think Romney ekes out a win in Florida, North Carolina, and Ohio. But Obama will pick up Pennsylvania and Virginia. Final score: Obama 279, Romney 259.
You'll note that's pretty close. A flip of only 11 electoral votes would change the outcome. If any state (or group of states) with 11 votes or more goes for Romney instead of how I've called it here, then Mitt will be our next president. Of course, my gut was rather generous in awarding Mitt some of these tossups, and if Obama manages to hold on in a few states he previously won, then he could indeed win with a much more comfortable margin than 11 votes.
What does emerge from looking at the states is one factor which may override a lot of others -- Barack Obama won't be the underdog in this fight. Obama has many more achievable paths to victory than Romney currently does. Romney's got to win in a lot of states which are likely to be very close votes, with almost no margin of error. Obama can pick up states here and there and put together the required 270 votes in a number of different ways.
Of course, things change, and I do realize that it is ridiculously early to even be playing this game. But I thought it was at least worth tossing my chips down at the start, just as a benchmark for later analysis. Don't agree with my gut? Let me (and it) know in the comments!
-- Chris Weigant
Follow Chris on Twitter: @ChrisWeigant