The Monday Fix

Electoral math adds up to a hard-to-topple president

Now that the 2010 midterm elections are over, tongues have already started wagging over who the potential Republican presidential candidates may be in 2012.

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By Chris Cillizza
Monday, January 24, 2011

When Barack Obama won the White House in 2008, it was widely regarded as a landslide victory over Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.).

Two years later, though, many analysts and observers have forgotten the breadth of Obama's victory in the wake of the devastating and across-the-board (not to mention down-the-ballot) losses the Democratic Party suffered in the 2010 midterms.

And yet, a detailed examination of the national map heading into 2012 suggests that the president still sits in a strong position for reelection - able to lose half a dozen (or more) swing states he carried in 2008 and still win the 270 electoral votes he needs for a second term.

To understand the relative strength of Obama's upper hand, let's compare his electoral performance in 2008 with that of his two most recent Democratic predecessors.

In 2008, Obama carried 28 states and the District of Columbia. Sen. John F. Kerry (Mass.) won just 19 states plus the District in 2004, and Vice President Al Gore carried 20, and D.C., in 2000.

Obama's 365 electoral votes in 2000 were 114 more than Kerry won and 99 more than Gore received. The total marked the highest number for a Democrat since Bill Clinton's 1996 reelection, when he won 379. Clinton took 370 electoral votes in his 1992 win against President George H.W. Bush. Before that, the last Democrat to garner more electoral votes was President Lyndon B. Johnson, who claimed 486 in 1964.

Such a large margin gives Obama significant room for error - or loss - as he and his team begin plotting the path to 270 in 2012.

Take Florida and Ohio, for example. The Sunshine State was the hub of the 2000 contest, while the Buckeye State was the definitive swing state of the 2004 race.

Let's assume Obama loses them both - plausible if not certain, given where he stands in polls in each state. If he managed to hold the 26 other states he won in 2008, Obama would be reelected with 318 electoral votes - 32 more than George W. Bush won when he was reelected in 2004 and 47 more than he won in 2000.

Of course, given Obama's slippage in traditional Republican redoubts at the presidential level, it's hard to imagine that he would hold together the rest of his state-by-state coalition if he lost those two states.

So let's add Indiana (11 electoral votes), North Carolina (15) and Virginia (13) to his potential 2012 losses. (He was the first Democratic presidential nominee to carry Indiana and Virginia since 1964 and the first one to win North Carolina since 1976.)

Take those five states from Obama and give him the 23 others he won in 2008 and he will be reelected with 279 electoral votes. Throw Nevada - a true swing state at the presidential level - into the Republican nominee's category and Obama will still win, with 273 votes.


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