The true key states for Obama in '12

By Chris Cillizza
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 27, 2011; 6:33 PM

Defining the playing field on which the 2012 presidential race will be fought is critically important to understanding Republicans' chances of defeating President Obama.

Will it be the playing field of 2004, in which a few large and traditionally competitive states such as Florida, Ohio and Pennsylvania decided the outcome?

Or will it be the wider playing field of 2008, in which Obama used his financial and organizational advantage to cruise to a 365-electoral-vote victory?

Much depends on the health of the economy as well as the relative strengths of the president and the eventual Republican nominee when voters start paying close attention.

But in politics, past is often prologue, so it's worth comparing Sen. John Kerry's performance as the Democratic presidential nominee in 2004 with Obama's showing in 2008.

In 44 of 50 states, Obama did better than Kerry (Mass.). In 28 of those 44, Obama was five or more percentage points ahead.

Adjusting for some bias - Obama had 18 points more than Kerry in his childhood state of Hawaii - the state with the biggest difference in performance between the two Democratic nominees was Indiana, where Obama took 11 percent more of the vote than Kerry had four years earlier. (Indiana was one of nine states that Kerry lost but Obama won.)

In North Dakota, Obama did 10 points better, and in Delaware - the home state of Vice President Biden - and Nebraska, Obama improved on Kerry's take by nine points.

(Interestingly, of the 10 states where Obama outperformed Kerry's 2004 showing by at least eight points, he lost four: Montana, Nebraska, North Dakota and Utah.)

Many of the traditional swing states featured far smaller variations between Kerry and Obama.

In Florida, Obama had four points more than Kerry, but that improvement was enough to tilt the Sunshine State to him. Ditto in Ohio, where Obama outperformed Kerry by just three points. In Pennsylvania, a state both men carried, Obama outdid Kerry by three points as well.

Of the six states where Kerry did better or matched Obama's showing, five are either in the deep South or the southwestern plains. Obama took six points less in Arkansas than Kerry had four years earlier; he fell two and one points short of the Massachusetts senator's total in Louisiana and Tennessee, respectively. (In Massachusetts, Oklahoma and West Virginia, Kerry and Obama received the same percentage of the vote.)

Given Democrats' struggles at the ballot box in 2010, it's virtually impossible to imagine Obama re-creating the map of 2008 - a map that featured not only wide but also deep gains when compared with Kerry's performance four years earlier.

A place like North Carolina, where Obama had nine points more than Kerry and still eked out only a 14,000-vote victory, will be a difficult hold for the incumbent in 2012. Ditto Indiana, where despite his 11-point improvement over Kerry, Obama still won only 50 percent of the vote.

Losses in both states would still give Obama plenty of margin for error, however. The bigger questions when it comes to the president's chances in 2012 are in states such as Colorado, Nevada and Virginia.

In each, Obama improved on Kerry's number by eight or nine points, winning with 53 to 55 percent of the vote. Split the difference in each state between how Kerry did in 2004 and how Obama performed in 2008 and the president hovers at or near the 50 percent mark.

It's in those split-the-difference states where the 2012 presidential contest will truly be fought. If Obama can win a majority of them, he is virtually assured a second term.

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