Thirty weeks from today, America goes to the polls.
With the exception of the farthest corners of the extreme right, it seems that more and more Republicans now are acknowledging that Mitt Romney will be their standard bearer in the fall — and that he will be the only realistic alternative to Barack Obama.
The plausible scenarios in which Romney could be denied the nomination on the first ballot are dwindling.
Thus, attention is shifting to a different kind of math from the delegate math that has obsessed Republican observers to this point — electoral vote math.
Each presidential election is unique, of course. The circumstances are unique, and the candidates, even those who are not running for the first time, are unique.
Incumbents usually have evolving philosophies shaped by their time in the White House. They learn — sometimes early, sometimes late — that things are not as simple from the inside as they appear to be from the outside. Their rhetoric tends to reflect that.
Presidential nominees who lose a general election, even one that is close, almost never get a second chance anymore, but Richard Nixon did, and he was triumphant the second time in part because of a strategy built around the idea that he was a "new Nixon" who had learned from defeat.
Nixon also followed strategies that played on lessons from history. Faced with two rivals in 1968, he devised a "Southern strategy" that exploited racism and used fear as a wedge tactic. Nixon — and, in a more primitive form and with considerably less success, Barry Goldwater four years earlier — laid the foundation for the GOP's steady takeover of the South in the latter 20th century.
Knowledge of electoral history often makes it easier to predict the outcome of a current race — in some states anyway. For example:
These are states that have regularly favored one party over the other or recent margins have been lopsided — sometimes both.
Both Romney and Obama can expect to win some states like that — and, frankly, little needs to be said about them.
Romney has 14 states in this group: Alabama (9 electoral votes), Alaska (3), Arkansas (6), Idaho (4), Kansas (6), Kentucky (8), Louisiana (8), Mississippi (6), Nebraska (5), Oklahoma (7), Tennessee (11), Texas (38), Utah (6), Wyoming (3). Total = 120 electoral votes.
Obama has 10 states (and D.C.) in this group: California (55 electoral votes), Connecticut (7), D.C. (3), Hawaii (4), Maryland (10), Massachusetts (11), New York (29), Oregon (7), Rhode Island (4), Vermont (3), Washington (12). Total = 145 electoral votes.
The outcomes in these states appear likely to favor a particular nominee, but, for one reason or another, there is some residual doubt — and that doubt likely will remain until the election is over.
Romney has nine states meeting this description: Arizona (11), Colorado (9), Georgia (16), Indiana (11), Montana (3), North Dakota (3), South Carolina (9), South Dakota (3), West Virginia (5). Total = 70 electoral votes.
- Arizona, of course, is John McCain's home state, but it probably would have supported him in 2008 even if he was from a state two time zones away. It has consistently supported Republicans for more than half a century. Since 1952, Arizona has supported only one Democrat, but that exception is noteworthy. It was Bill Clinton when he ran for re–election in 1996.
Will Arizona vote for another incumbent Democrat seeking a second term? It didn't vote for President Carter in 1980 or President Johnson in 1964.
- Colorado voted Republican in nine of the previous 10 elections before voting for Obama in 2008. It was reminiscent of 1992, when Clinton snapped a six–election Republican winning streak in the Rocky Mountain State. But Colorado turned against Clinton when he sought re–election, and it is a good bet that the same will happen this time. Colorado hasn't voted for Democrat nominees in consecutive presidential elections since the 1930s.
- I have a friend who assured me in 2008 that Georgia would vote for Obama. My friend lived in Atlanta at the time, and I think his judgment was clouded somewhat by his enthusiasm for Obama. Anyway, Georgia's black population didn't turn out to have nearly the clout he thought it would, and Georgia voted Republican, as it has in six of the last seven elections.
Georgia bucked the Republican trend in the South in 1980 when it stood by native son Jimmy Carter and in 1992 when it endorsed Clinton; other than that, it has been in the GOP column for the last three decades.
I expect Georgia to remain in the Republican column this fall, but it is possible that the progressive element in Georgia could carry the day.
- When Indiana voted for Obama in 2008, it snapped a streak of 10 consecutive elections in which the Hoosier State voted for the Republican. It seems likely that Indiana will return to its traditional ways this November. Indiana has not voted for Democrats in consecutive elections since the 1930s.
- Montana's incumbent Democrat senator is facing a tough fight for re–election, and that could mean trouble at the top of the ticket. It isn't as if Democrats have a lot of wiggle room in Montana, anyway. The state has voted Republican in 10 of the last 11 elections. As it is with Colorado, the exception is 1992, when Clinton carried Montana as the challenger.
But incumbent Democrats usually struggle there. That's not a new development for the senator, who won the seat by less than 4,000 votes, and LBJ was the only incumbent Democrat who was able to cruise to victory there in a presidential race since the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor seven decades ago.
- North Dakota has only voted for one Democrat since 1936, and Republicans usually poll in the upper 50s or low 60s there, but Obama held McCain below 55% last time.
I don't know if that will be important or not, but, if the race is as close as many observers seem to think, even three electoral votes can be significant.
- South Carolina has voted Republican in every election but one since 1960. The exception was Carter's near–sweep of the South in 1976. But the Republican share of the vote declined in 2008, which made me wonder if the times were changing in Strom Thurmond's stomping grounds.
Such thoughts seem to have been premature. South Carolina voters elected a Republican governor, re–elected a Republican senator and ousted a Democratic incumbent who was a 28–year House veteran.
- South Dakota has only voted Democrat three times since the dawn of the 20th century, but the GOP share of the vote there declined in 2008.
- Until George W. Bush won West Virginia in 2000, that state had not supported a non–incumbent Republican since before the Great Depression. It's been nearly a century since West Virginia voted against an incumbent Democrat, but the state has been trending Republican, having gone for the GOP nominee in the last three elections.
- One would expect the Democrats to hold on to Delaware. It is the home state of the vice president, and it has voted for the Democratic nominee five straight times. But Delaware is streaky that way. In five of the six elections prior to that, Delaware sided with the Republicans.
- Illinois is the state Obama represented in the U.S. Senate. He should be expected to win that one, right? He probably will, but Illinois is large enough that, if other states in that part of the country are in play, Illinois will be the target of some spirited campaigning on both sides as well. I think it will be a battleground in 2012.
- Maine wasn't always the apparently solid Democratic state it is today. Before its current five–election streak, Maine usually supported Republicans. It voted for the Democratic ticket in 1964 and 1968 (when its junior senator was nominated for vice president), but it voted heavily against Jack Kennedy in 1960, and it was one of two states (Vermont was the other) that never supported Franklin D. Roosevelt.
Recent elections would suggest that Maine will be back in the Democrats' column this fall — but if the GOP nominee is a former governor of neighboring Massachusetts, who knows (especially with an open Senate seat and the leading contender for it being a former governor who is an independent)?
- Minnesota has the nation's longest active uninterrupted streak of endorsements of Democratic tickets. The last time it voted for a Republican was 40 years ago, in 1972 — and, based on the numbers, it did so reluctantly that year — but no Democrat has received 55% or more of Minnesota's popular vote, other than Lyndon Johnson, in the last 60 years.
Minnesota probably will be in the Democrats' column in November — but it might be vulnerable if other large midwestern states are competitive.
- New Jersey, too, appears to be a lock for the Democrats. It has voted Democrat in five straight elections, but it voted Republican in the six elections before that. In fact, in the last half of the 20th century, New Jersey often gave the winners slender margins of victory — even in years when other states were voting heavily for one side or the other.
That primarily seems to be due to cultural issues. Jersey doesn't seem to be as responsive to conservative positions on social issues as other states are, and its rather large ethnic population (18% Hispanic, 13% black, 8% Asian) tends to favor progressive positions on immigration.
All that could be rendered irrelevant, though, if New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie is chosen to be Romney's running mate.
These states seem likely to vote in a certain way, but history suggests the results may be much closer than expected. Romney has two states in this column: North Carolina (15), Virginia (13). Total = 28 electoral votes. Before 2008, I would have said both of these states would be in the Republican column. North Carolina hadn't voted for a Democrat since 1976, and Virginia hadn't voted for a Democrat since 1964. But Obama won both in 2008. They weren't decisive victories, though, and there is no reason for Democrats to take them for granted in 2012. Obama has two states in this column: Michigan (16), New Mexico (5). Total = 21 electoral votes. "For a moment in history," write "The Almanac of American Politics" authors Michael Barone and Chuck McCutcheon, "Michigan was a bellwether state," explaining that, in the elections of the 1980s, Michigan voted within 1% of the national average. Those were clearly Republican years, though, and, in the elections before and since, Michigan tended to vote a little higher for Democrats than most states. A noteworthy exception was 1976, when Michigan voted for native son Gerald Ford over Jimmy Carter. Thirty–six years later, another Republican with ties to Michigan will be on the ballot. Michigan was hit hard by the recession and struggled with high unemployment. Will it vote for Obama again, or will it support the son of a popular former governor? New Mexico voted for Obama by more than 15 percentage points in 2008, but the vote is usually much closer than that. The 2008 election was the first time a presidential nominee carried New Mexico by a double–digit margin in nearly a quarter of a century. Now, if all those states really do vote as I have indicated, that would mean Romney would carry 25 states with 218 electoral votes and Obama would win 17 states worth 217 electoral votes. Which brings us to ...
I believe these eight states (worth a total of 103 electoral votes) are where the election will be won. Florida (29), Iowa (6), Missouri (10), Nevada (6), New Hampshire (4), Ohio (18), Pennsylvania (20), Wisconsin (10). If you look at the results of the last 10 elections (1972–2008), you will find that Republicans have won Florida, Missouri and Nevada seven times and New Hampshire and Ohio six times. On the flip side, although Florida voted against Clinton when he was elected in '92, it supported his bid for a second term. In fact, in its entire existence as a state, Florida has only voted against one incumbent Democrat (Jimmy Carter) seeking another term. New Hampshire, long a sure thing for Republicans, has voted for Democrats in four of the last five elections. Obama's share of the vote there in 2008 was greater than any Democrat's since Lyndon Johnson, but the 2010 vote implied that New Hampshire will probably be close this fall — a Democrat was re–elected governor, a Republican was elected to the U.S. Senate and Republicans seized both of the state's House seats from the Democrats. Ohio and Missouri have been 20th–century bellwethers. Ohio has been on the winning side in every election since 1964, and Missouri was on the winning side in every election from 1960 to 2004. Democrats have won Wisconsin seven times and Pennsylvania six times. Most people would probably concede Wisconsin to the Democrats (they've won the state six straight times), but I'm inclined to wait and see the results of the gubernatorial recall election in June. For more than 30 years (from 1976 to 2004), Pennsylvania was the scene of spirited campaigns on both sides and never voted for either party by more than 10 percentage points. In 2008, Pennsylvanians gave Obama a double–digit victory over John McCain (just barely), and most observers would probably expect the Democrats to win there again, as they have in every presidential election since 1992. But in 2010, Pennsylvania elected a Republican governor and a Republican senator. Seems to me that casts a certain amount of doubt over the eventual outcome there. Iowa has split down the middle, voting for each party five times. It tends to support most incumbents these days, but that was not always the case. Iowa voted against the last two presidents who were denied a second term (Carter and George H.W. Bush), and the outcome there may hold significant implications for the rest of the country. If history is any guide, the last four decades indicate that Republicans are likely to win 67 electoral votes, Democrats are likely to win 30, and Iowa's six will be up for grabs. But that is strictly a look at how states have voted in the last 40 years. Things can always change. If that is, indeed, how things turn out, though, Iowa's vote won't produce a cliffhanger like the one in 2000 when the press camped out in Florida for a month waiting for the historic Supreme Court ruling that determined the winner of its electoral votes. Nevertheless, it certainly isn't as cut and dried as all that. Florida's population differs greatly from other Southern states in nearly every demographic category imaginable and, while other Southern states were giving Republican nominees double–digit margins, the tallies in both Florida and Ohio tended to be much closer — less than 7% in both states in the last five presidential elections and less than 5% in both states in the last three.
Clearly, neither party can consider either state locked up until the votes are counted in November.