The almost-competitiveness of Arizona and Pennsylvania

September 28, 2012

We're getting to that point in the presidential campaign when we start second-guessing ourselves about which swing states are, well, swing states.

Just this week, Democrats have started whispering (again) that they might try to expand the map by pursuing red-leaning Arizona, and Mitt Romney said Friday that he expects to win in a blue-leaning state, Pennsylvania.

The argument in both cases goes that, by putting more states in play, it makes the electoral math easier for either side.

That's true. But putting a state "in play" is a lot harder than it sounds.

Here's a breakdown of each state, including the case for their competitiveness, why it's unlikely, and a look at the polls:

Arizona

The case for competitiveness: Democrats point to the growth in the Latino population in recent years, with 160,000 Latinos registering to vote since 2008. Obama lost Latinos by around 200,000 votes (9 percent) to Sen. John McCain (R), but the Mexican border state of Arizona is McCain's home state, so he likely over-performed.

Why it won't be: While Democrats expect the state to trend Democratic as the Latino population grows, we haven't really seen that shift play out yet. The state government is still dominated by Republicans, and Democratic voter registration has dropped from 31.9 percent in the 2010 election to slightly more than 30 percent today, while GOP registration has held steady. Right now, the shifting politics of Arizona is still very much theoretical.

What the polls show: There's not much data to work with here. An automated poll from bipartisan pollster Purple Strategies last week showed Romney ahead by just three points. But a poll from Democratic-leaning automated pollster Public Policy Polling earlier this month showed Romney up nine.

Pennsylvania

The case for competitiveness: The Keystone State has long been just out of the GOP's grasp, almost taunting it with its 20-plus electoral votes. Democrats took 51 percent in both the 2000 and 2004 presidential races and were under 50 percent in a three-way race in 1996. Many parts of the state are very conservative, and Republicans made huge gains here in the 2010, taking five House seats and a Senate seat from Democrats.

Why it won't be: Philadelphia. This is where Democrats run up the score and offset their losses elsewhere in the state. Democrats have 1 million more registered voters than do Republicans, and they haven't lost the state since 1988. They also won it big -- by 11 points -- in 2008.

What the polls say: Four polls this week show Obama leading by between seven and 12 points, while a poll from Republican-leaning pollster Susquehanna shows Romney within two points. Thus far, the latter is a bit of an outlier, and it seems pretty apparent that Obama leads by right around double digits.

Even if these states do wind up being competitive in the presidential race, it's unlikely that they would be the difference-makers.

If a state like Arizona goes for Obama, it's probably because he got such a boost that he swept all the competitive states and was already on course for victory even without Arizona.

Similarly, it's hard to see a scenario where Romney wins in Pennsylvania without also carrying the biggest swing states on the map -- Florida and Ohio. And, if Romney wins in Florida and Ohio, he's already in very good position to win nationally, likely needing just 17 more electoral votes in the remaining swing states.

When it's this late in the presidential game, it's very hard to shift the playing field in any meaningful way (emphasis on "in any meaningful way"). The states that we currently rate as competitive will, in all likelihood, determine who wins the presidential campaign.

Campaigns will always keep an eye out for new opportunities -- that's their job -- but they're unlikely to find them in Arizona and Pennsylvania.

Aaron Blake covers national politics and writes regularly for The Fix, the Post’s top political blog.
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