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.

The South would appear to be the stronger part of his argument, as many of the states in the region have significant black populations that have supported him beyond all historical comparisons in the contests to date.

But, there is far more to the story in the South, according to Tom Schaller, an associate professor at the University of Maryland at Baltimore County and the author of "Whistling Past Dixie: How Democrats Can Win Without the South."

Schaller argued that while it is "tempting to think that Southern states will be competitive, thanks to a very motivated African American base . . . two facts complicate that reality."

The first, he said, is that black voters in the South already turn out in very high numbers in presidential contests -- meaning that gains Obama made among this key community would be marginal rather than exponential. The second is that, in 2004, the higher the black percentage of a Southern state, the more strongly it went for Bush. Mississippi, for example, a state where more than 1 in 3 residents are black, according to the 2000 Census, gave Bush 59 percent of the vote in 2004.

All of that doesn't mean Obama can't be competitive in places where Democrats haven't been in recent national elections. But it does suggest that it will be far more difficult than many people imagine.

Off to the Races

Bad news for political junkies: The most competitive presidential primary season in recent memory may soon be winding down. But the good news is that lots of competitive congressional races are just getting revved up.

Here's a sample:

Illinois, District 14: This open seat, vacated by retiring Rep. J. Dennis Hastert (R), a former House speaker, has become a proxy battleground for potential White House rivals McCain and Obama. McCain dropped in last week to raise money for Republican candidate Jim Oberweis, and Obama, a favorite son from Chicago, cut a TV ad for Democrat Bill Foster.

Alaska, at-large: Rep. Don Young (R) is serving his 18th term but could be facing the challenge of his political career from Democratic state Rep. Ethan Berkowitz, given his ties to a wide-ranging corruption investigation that could cripple a once-dominant Alaska Republican Party for years.

Florida, Districts 18, 21 and 25: These three districts are held by Cuban American Republicans, Reps. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and the Diaz-Balart brothers, Lincoln and Mario, and Democrats are using a divide-and-conquer strategy in a long-shot bid to win them all. The challengers, in order, include Annette Taddeo, a Colombian-born business executive; Ra¿l Martinez, a former mayor of Hialeah; and Joe Garcia, who was director of the Cuban American National Foundation and was the Miami-Dade Democratic chairman.

Missouri, District 6: GOP Rep. Sam Graves, known as one of the Show Me State's toughest competitors, has met his match in Democrat Kay Barnes, a former Kansas City mayor looking to ride Sen. Claire McCaskill's coattails by courting rural voters with blunt, populist themes.

Georgia, District 5: Rep. John Lewis, a civil rights icon and longtime lawmaker who endorsed Clinton and then appeared to waver after his district voted overwhelmingly for Obama, has a primary challenger, the Rev. Markel Hutchins. The two Democrats will face off July 15.

104 days: The Democratic nominating contest will come to an end June 7 with a caucus in Puerto Rico. Will we have a winner? Or will the superdelegates decide the outcome?

254 days: Sick of the primary season? Never fear, the general election campaign is just starting. And there are only 36 weeks and two days before Americans pick the next president.

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