Talk about a toxic environment for Republicans in this presidential election year. Between gas prices and the sour economy, Iraq and President Bush's dismal ratings, it seems a tuna sandwich could win the White House back for Democrats.
Don't bank on it.
Twenty weeks before Election Day, the electoral map is pointing to the potential for another general election decided by a razor-thin margin. For all the GOP woes and Democratic optimism, that map shows Republican Sen. John McCain well-positioned in enough key states to win the necessary 270 electoral votes.
Indeed, in this remarkably volatile election year either McCain or Sen. Barack Obama could plausibly win the presidency by a lopsided margin. Some analysts even see the prospect of someone winning the presidency while losing the popular vote, as Bush did in 2000.
Obama, with his swelling campaign account, talks up a 50-state campaign strategy that could win him such reliably Republican states as Virginia, Colorado or North Carolina. It makes sense. Give Obama the 252 electoral votes that John Kerry won in 2004, and 270 looks easy to reach with just a couple more states. Florida or Ohio alone would do it.
Except that Obama has no lock on the Kerry states. McCain is more popular than his party overall and could win such mega-states as Michigan or Pennsylvania, which in recent elections have gone to the Democrat.
Just as Obama is touting his prospects in North Carolina, which Bush won by double digits four years ago, McCain is campaigning in New Jersey, where Bush lost by seven points in 2004.
"Ultimately we're not looking at a map that is dramatically different from 2004, and I'd say we are on offense in as many places as the Democrats are on offense,'' said Mike DuHaime, a senior adviser to the Republican National Committee and McCain campaign. "It's a tribute to John McCain. … We selected a candidate that has the ability to get crossover votes like almost no one else in our party."
Nobody underestimates Obama's potential, however. The overall political climate gives Democrats a huge advantage, and Obama has the resources to compete in far more states than past Democrats.
"The financial disparity is going to be huge for Democrats and it's unique for our party,'' said Mark Mellman, Kerry's pollster in 2004. "If the race is close in the end, the electoral map matters a lot. And from a 270 electoral vote point of view, Obama's got a lot more opportunities than McCain does."
Among Obama's ripest opportunities to pick off states that Bush won four years ago?
• Iowa (7 electoral votes), which Bush won by less than 1 percent and where Obama won the caucuses that showed much more election-year enthusiasm among Democrats than Republicans.
• Colorado (9 votes), which now has a Democratic governor and where Obama is leading in the polls.
• Nevada (5 electoral votes), where a population boom has turned the state increasingly up for grabs.
• Ohio (20 votes), also with a Democratic governor this cycle, and where polls show Obama neck-and-neck with McCain.
• Virginia (13 votes), where 20 percent of the electorate is African-American and where upscale voters in the northern suburbs are strong targets for Obama.
"This is a year where you no longer necessarily see one party taking entire regions. You're going see splotches of red and blue throughout,'' said Republican pollster Kellyanne Conway, who still gives McCain the advantage because Obama can be cast as a classic liberal. "Obama's greatest liability is that he is more akin to the six unsuccessful Democrats who have run for president in the last 40 years than he is like the two successful ones, Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton."
Any number of developments could upend the landscape for either candidate, of course. At this point, though, Obama and McCain both appear uniquely equipped to poach for voters on the opposing party's turf; Obama is positioned to win disaffected moderate Republicans, and McCain is eager to court disgruntled Clinton backers.
The fundamental battleground map looks much the same as it always does, and within that map not all battlegrounds are created equal. Size matters. The old rule of thumb is likely to hold true that whoever wins two out the big three — Florida, Pennsylvania and Ohio — wins the presidency.
If, for instance, Obama loses Michigan — where Republicans think voters will blame state Democrats for the state's particularly grim economy — Obama would have to take Colorado, New Mexico, Nevada and Virginia to win the election without Michigan's 17 electoral votes.
Likewise, if Florida's 27 electoral votes went to Obama, McCain would need GOP wins in New Hampshire and Wisconsin, and to hold every other Bush state from 2004, to win the White House.
The McCain campaign sees Florida as competitive but far safer with Obama as the nominee than Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton. Most political analysts say Obama is more likely to pick off Ohio than Florida.
"Look at Florida," McCain campaign manager Rick Davis said in an upbeat strategy briefing sent to supporters this week. "A key battleground state in the last two presidential elections, John McCain overperforms the (generic) Republican by seven points. This is a terrific position for our campaign to be in today."
Democratic pollster David Beattie, however, sees the Sunshine State as possibly more fertile for Obama than the Buckeye State. Florida has a bigger African-American population, he noted, and as more of a growth state offers far more educated suburban voters who often don't vote.
"There's a type of voter in Florida that doesn't always vote, that lives around Tampa, St. Pete, around Orlando and Palm Beach County and Jacksonville, and those are the types of voters that are very open to Obama,'' said Beattie, whose clients include Sen. Bill Nelson and Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink.
Obama has the money, organization and potential to dramatically increase turnout not only in Florida but across the electoral map. That could be good news for Democratic candidates on the ballot. But not necessarily for instilling confidence in our winner-take-all electoral system.
Analyst Stuart Rothenberg wrote in Roll Call, a newspaper that covers Capitol Hill, about the prospect of Obama racking up big margins in Democratic strongholds, and narrowing the Republican lead in Republican strongholds but still losing those states.
"If this happens, and if Obama narrowly loses one or two larger, traditionally Democratic states, such as Michigan and Wisconsin, we could see an updated version of 2000, with McCain winning the White House at the same time that Obama gets more than half a million more votes," he wrote.
Adam C. Smith can be reached at [email protected] or (727)893-8241.