Could Obama Turn Red States Blue?

By Chris Cillizza And Shailagh Murray
Sunday, February 24, 2008

As Sen. Barack Obama creeps ever closer to the Democratic presidential nomination, the eyes of The Fix are more and more diverted to what a general election matchup between the senator from Illinois and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) might look like.

Obama's campaign has insisted that he has the ability to drastically expand the general election playing field beyond the 19 states (plus the District) that Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) won in 2004.

"The right Democrat, like Barack Obama, can carry red states, just like the 14 Democratic governors elected in states won by George Bush in 2004," said Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius, an Obama supporter and one of those red-state governors.

Obama's campaign released a memo shortly after the Feb. 5 Super Tuesday votes that made a similar case, noting that in six states carried by President Bush in 2004 -- Colorado, Georgia, Iowa, Missouri, North Dakota and South Carolina -- Obama received more votes than the top two Republican finishers combined. (Since that memo, the trend has held true in Nebraska, Louisiana and Virginia.)

"Barack Obama is the candidate best suited to win Independents, play well in red states, and beat John McCain in November," the memo said.

So, is it true? Is Obama a potential map-breaker for Democrats -- able to win previously non-competitive states in the South and the Midwest?

Let's look a bit closer at the numbers.

Of the 24 states Obama has won, 14 were carried by Bush in the 2004 general election. Bush won 55 percent or less of the vote in four of those states (Colorado, Iowa, Missouri and Virginia), while he took better than 60 percent of the vote in seven (Alabama, Alaska, Idaho, Kansas, Nebraska, North Dakota and Utah).

Of the 14 red states Obama has won in this nominating contest, half of them haven't voted for a Democrat for president in a general election in more than 40 years. Lyndon Johnson in the 1964 campaign was the last Democrat who won Alaska, Idaho, Kansas, Nebraska, North Dakota, Utah and Virginia. Meanwhile, five states have backed a Democratic presidential candidate sometime in the past 20 years: Colorado (1992), Georgia (1992), Missouri (1996), Louisiana (1996) and Iowa (2000).

Put all of that data together, and they seem to somewhat contradict Obama's argument.

It's obvious that a handful of red states -- Colorado, Iowa, Missouri, Virginia -- are almost certain to be competitive whether Obama or Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.) is the Democratic nominee. The demographics in those states have shifted toward Democrats of late, and the party made gains in each in 2006.

A far more debatable premise is whether Obama is uniquely suited to put red states in play.

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