With the starter’s pistol fired, it’s worth doing a deep dive into the map that elected President Obama with 365 electoral votes in 2008 — and analyzing whether he can do it again in 2012.
Let’s start as broadly as possible.
In 2008, Obama won 28 states and the District of Columbia. That’s nine more states than Sen. John Kerry (Mass.), um, carried in 2004 and eight more than then Vice President Al Gore won in 2000.
Obama’s 365 electoral votes were the most for a Democratic nominee since Bill Clinton’s 1996 reelection race and the fourth most for a Democrat since Lyndon Johnson’s massive 486 electoral vote sweep in 1964.
Those numbers explain the scope of Obama’s 2008 victory. But what do they tell us about where the map is headed in 2012?
To figure that out, we took Obama’s performance in the 28 states he won in 2008 and overlaid it with historical voting patterns at the presidential level for each of those states — in hopes of using the past and the present to help us predict the future. (Nerd alert!)
Of the 28 states Obama won in 2008, he carried 19 of them with 55 percent or more. (He won 10 of the 19 with more than 60 percent). Of those 19 states, 17 also went for Kerry in 2004, suggesting that they are somewhere close to reliably Democratic heading into 2012. (The two outliers were Nevada and New Mexico where the Democratic presidential nominee last won in 1996 and 2000, respectively.)
So, let’s grant Obama those 17 states (although to do so gives him victories in Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Michigan that Republicans are likely to dispute.) Those 17 states account for 229 electoral votes — 41 short of the 270 Obama needs to be re-elected. (If you take Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Michigan out of that reliably Democratic category, Obama would stand at 183 electoral votes and would need 87 more to win a second term.)
That leaves us with 11other Obama states — New Mexico and Nevada as well as nine where he won with 54 percent or less — that seem likely to be the swing states of 2012.
They are: Colorado (54 percent), Florida (51), Iowa (54), Indiana (50), Minnesota (54), New Hampshire (54), New Mexico (57), Nevada (55), North Carolina (50), Ohio (52) and Virginia (53).
In nine of those 11 states, Obama was the first Democrat to carry them in at least two — and often more — national elections. (The exceptions were Minnesota and New Hampshire, both of which Kerry won in 2004.)
A Democrat last won New Mexico and Iowa in 2000 and last carried Florida, Nevada and Ohio in 1996. Colorado hadn’t been won by a Democrat since 1992 and the last Democrat to win in North Carolina had been Jimmy Carter in 1976. In Virginia and Indiana, Lyndon Johnson — way back in 1964 — was the last Democrat before Obama to win.
By those numbers alone, Iowa, Minnesota, New Mexico and New Hampshire are the most likely to stay in Obama’s camp in 2012 while Indiana, North Carolina and Virginia will be the heaviest lifts.
But, of course, numbers can only tell us so much.
* Obama’s strength in the African American community coupled with changing growth patterns — and partisan identity — make Virginia a genuine swing state and give Democrats some reason for hope in North Carolina.
* Kerry’s geographic proximity to New Hampshire may have skewed the state’s competitiveness somewhat in 2004 and both parties will almost certainly spend heavily to win the Granite State in 2012.
* Sen. John McCain’s home-state appeal in Arizona played a major role in Obama’s loss there in 2008 but the President contest it in 2012. Clinton carried Arizona in his 1996 reelection race.
Still, viewed broadly, the numbers suggest a playing field remarkably similar to those that have dominated American electoral politics for the better part of the last decade. Florida and Ohio are the most competitive of the competitive — complemented by a handful of southwestern/western states (Colorado, New Mexico, Nevada and Arizona).
Watch those states. The presidency will almost certainly be decided in them.