By Dan Balz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 8, 2008
The 2008 general election will pit the best-organized nomination campaign in the history of modern Democratic politics against the battle-tested machinery of the Republican Party, with both Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) determined to shake up an electoral map that has been virtually static over the past two elections.
Democrats enjoy a highly favorable electoral climate at this start of the general election, created by gloomy attitudes about the state of the country and economy, President Bush's low approval ratings and negative perceptions of the GOP. But as Obama shifts his attention from his primary victory over Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.) to his test against McCain, the electoral map nonetheless foreshadows another highly competitive race in November.
McCain and Obama offer a rare combination of nominees able to poach on the other party's turf. Both have proven appeal to independents. McCain will target disgruntled Clinton supporters; Obama will target disaffected Republicans. Women, Latinos and, especially, white working-class voters will find themselves courted intensely by the two campaigns.
On issues, the differences are stark, beginning with views on Iraq but also including the economy, now the dominant issue in virtually every region of the country.
Officials from both campaigns confidently predict that they will steal states that have been in the other party's column in recent elections, and an early analysis suggests there will be new battlegrounds added to the map this year, with Virginia, Colorado and Nevada among them. The Midwest remains the most concentrated competitive region of the country, but advisers to McCain and Obama agree that the election could turn on the outcome of contests in the Rocky Mountain States and the South.
Obama plans to deploy his grass-roots forces, now hardened by the grueling campaign against Clinton, to every corner of the country. "We're going to be playing a lot more offense than they are," Obama campaign manager David Plouffe predicted.
Obama advisers hope the energy and enthusiasm around the senator's candidacy will not only help him win the White House but also aid down-ballot Democrats, even in Republican states that may be out of reach in the presidential race. "We will have organizations in all 50 states," Plouffe said. "Some will be battlegrounds; some won't. But all will have something to contribute."
Plouffe said Obama's route to the necessary 270 electoral votes starts with holding every state won by Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) in 2004 and then focusing on a handful of red states that Obama advisers think are ripe for conversion.
The Kerry map gives Obama 252 electoral votes. To pick up the next 18 electoral votes, Obama will target Iowa, Virginia, North Carolina, New Mexico, Nevada and Colorado. His list also includes Ohio, where he lost the primary to Clinton but which, in the 2006 midterms, shifted dramatically toward the Democrats.
McCain's advisers expressed equal confidence that their candidate can hit the 270 mark, despite a political environment that Rick Davis, McCain's campaign manager, called "a major hurdle for us."
McCain's team thinks that his potential appeal to independents and some Democrats makes it possible to prevail in what otherwise looks to be a very tough year.
"We understand how to do this," said Mike DuHaime, a senior adviser to both the McCain campaign and the Republican National Committee. "We have operatives who understand how to do this. . . . It's going to give us a tremendous opportunity to turn out voters who wouldn't normally be Republicans."
McCain hopes to tap potential divisions within the Democratic Party by aggressively targeting disaffected Clinton supporters. "I would not have said that we would have targeted Democratic voters in the numbers we're looking at six months ago or four months ago," Davis said, adding: "We've seen significant movement in our direction."
McCain hopes those voters will help him hold on to Ohio, which has been critical to Republican success in the last two elections, and convert Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin to the GOP column.
Merle Black, a political science professor at Emory University and co-author with his brother Earl of the book "Divided America," said that at this early stage, Obama might have more opportunities to put together an electoral majority than McCain.
"I think Obama has got a much clearer path to the presidency than McCain," he said.
McCain advisers expect things to get worse before turning back in their direction, as voters give Obama a boost from his victory over Clinton. "There's no doubt in my mind he'll probably get a record bounce," senior adviser Charlie Black said, pointing to the historic implications of Obama's victory in the primaries.
But the McCain adviser predicted that, when voters take a deeper look at their choice, they will find McCain more appealing, in part for ideological reasons. "The country is still a slightly right-of-center country," he said, "and [voters] think McCain is slightly right of center, and they think Obama is way off to the left."
For all the talk about an expanded electoral map with a host of new battlegrounds, the candidates are looking at a fairly traditional landscape.
While Obama has talked about competing in nontraditional states, there already are some states that were on both parties' target lists in past campaigns but that may be out of reach for him.
One is West Virginia, which Republicans have won in the past two elections and which Obama lost to Clinton in the primary by a stunning 41 points. Another more significant one could be Florida, although Obama intends to compete hard there. "I wouldn't feel as good [about Florida] if Hillary were the nominee," one McCain adviser said.
An analysis of past elections shows remarkable stability. States the Democrats have won in four of the past five elections add up to 255 electoral votes; states Republicans have won in five of the past seven elections (including two Ronald Reagan electoral landslides) account for 269 electoral votes. New Hampshire, New Mexico and West Virginia, representing 14 electoral votes, fall into neither category.
In 2004, 13 states were decided by seven or fewer percentage points: Colorado, Florida, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New Mexico, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.
McCain sees potential to make his greatest inroads in the industrial heartland. Obama stumbled in Ohio and Pennsylvania and never competed in Michigan. Of those, Pennsylvania may be the most difficult for McCain.
In Michigan, the weak economy is likely to help Obama, but because the state is in the hands of Democratic Gov. Jennifer Granholm, McCain will try to appeal to voters who fit the "Reagan Democrat" mold.
Democrats would love to pick off Ohio after their near miss in 2004, but Obama's weakness in rural and Appalachian areas of the state makes the challenge greater. "The $10 million question is to what extent race will play an important role," said Kevin Boyle, a history professor at Ohio State University. "In a state like Ohio that's been so close every single recent election, the loss of even a point on something like race will potentially be devastating."
Elsewhere in the Midwest, Obama demonstrated significant strength in three states that were battlegrounds in the past two elections: Iowa, Minnesota and Wisconsin. He also carried Missouri narrowly and will compete harder there than Kerry did.
Obama's rally Thursday in Northern Virginia signaled his intention to make the commonwealth and its 13 electoral votes a major battleground. Changing demographics and growing Democratic strength in the Washington suburbs make it possible for him to win Virginia, but McCain advisers think that he, too, can compete in the suburbs and has a natural base of strength in the military community.
Whether Obama can make other Southern states competitive is questionable. Florida will remain on everyone's targeting map, but McCain is a clear favorite there. Obama advisers hope to make North Carolina and possibly Georgia competitive. A large African American turnout could change the equation in both.
Of all the regions in the country, the Mountain West has emerged as the one that may be changing most politically. Fast growth, a rising Hispanic population and disaffection with Republicans have altered expectations in the region.
Both candidates expect fierce competition for the electoral votes of Colorado, Nevada and New Mexico. All three went for Bush four years ago.
Analyzing the state of play at the start of the general election, one top McCain adviser said: "I think some people have thought that this was going to be a drastically redrawn map. I think it's going to be . . . tweaks around the edges."
Staff writer Alec MacGillis contributed to this report.