There’s no question that President Obama faces one of the most challenging political environments in modern memory as he prepares to try to win a second term next November.
But with one year to go before the 2012 election, a state-by-state examination of the battleground map suggests that the president still retains several plausible pathways to the 270 electoral votes he needs.
“Although Obama has historically awful numbers, it still requires a herculean effort to defeat him,” said Steven Law, the president of American Crossroads, a conservative group pledging to spend upward of $200 million on the race. “He will have the resources to contest and even give up huge chunks of territory — Florida, Ohio, Virginia and North Carolina — and still win.”
To understand how Obama can maintain that edge — despite opinion polls showing that a majority of Americans think the country is on the wrong track and disapprove of the job he is doing — you need to start with the fact that he won 365 electoral votes in 2008, the largest haul since President Bill Clinton’s 1996 reelection.
Obama won three states — Indiana, North Carolina and Virginia — that no Democrat had carried at the presidential level in at least two decades, and he scored victories in six other states (Colorado, Florida, Iowa, Nevada, New Mexico and Ohio) that George W. Bush had won in 2004. Those nine states will account for 112 electoral votes in 2012 and stand at the center of the fight for the presidency.
If Obama loses every one of them but holds on to the others he won, he will drop to 247 electoral votes and Republicans will win the White House. (The decennial reapportionment of congressional districts after the 2010 Census subtracts six electoral votes from states Obama won in 2008.)
But with the exception of Indiana and its 11 electoral votes, Obama is very much in the game in those states. In several, even Republicans acknowledge that he is favored.
In New Mexico (five electoral votes) and Iowa (six electoral votes), Obama has an edge.
New Mexico’s substantial Hispanic population — and Obama’s dominance among that community in 2008 — makes it a tough pickup for Republicans.
Iowa is more competitive — Republicans won the governorship there in 2010 — but Obama has long had a connection to the state that his advisers think is lasting and strong.
Assuming Obama can win those two states again — and hold the 19 other states he won that also went to the Democrat, Sen. John F. Kerry (Mass.), in 2004 — he would be just 12 electoral votes shy of 270.
That means Obama would need to win only one of the following states to be reelected: Florida, North Carolina, Ohio or Virginia. (If he won Virginia and lost Colorado, Florida, Indiana, Nevada, North Carolina and Ohio, his electoral vote total would stand at 271 — the same number Bush won in 2000.)
“The 2012 playing field is much closer to 2008 than 2004,” Democratic strategist Tad Devine said. “In fact, Obama has many more targets than [Vice President Al] Gore or Kerry.”
What would mess up that math for Democrats, however, is if Obama were not able to hold some of the states that backed both him and Kerry .
The epicenter of that potential Democratic problem is in the Rust Belt, where an aging white population, the continued struggles of the manufacturing economy and large numbers of rural voters could make for a dangerous electoral brew.
Taken together, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin will award 46 electoral votes in 2012.
No Republican since George H.W. Bush in 1988 has won Michigan or Pennsylvania, and Ronald Reagan was the last GOP presidential candidate to win in Wisconsin, in 1984.
But there have been close calls in the not-so-distant past.
In 2000, George W. Bush came within 5,500 votes of carrying Wisconsin. In Pennsylvania, he took 49 percent in 2004. And Republicans made gains in the three states in the 2010 election, winning the governorship in each and claiming Senate seats in Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.
Democrats insist that they will be competitive in 2012 in Arizona and Georgia — states that the GOP presidential nominee has carried in each of the past two elections. If true, that would give Obama more of a cushion.
The grim economic state of the country has created a toxic political environment for Obama.
But the ground on which the 2012 election will be fought still favors him and should give Democrats some hope that he can claim a second term in a year’s time.