There's good news for President Barack Obama as he sweeps into Florida today to raise money in a state where barely four in 10 voters approve of his performance: He can lose Florida's 29 electoral votes and still comfortably win re-election in 2012.
Thanks to the expanded political playing field he helped create three years ago, even a long-standing presidential election axiom — whoever wins two out of three between Florida, Pennsylvania and Ohio wins the White House — is out the window.
Obama could lose all three of those mega battleground states, 67 electoral votes combined, and still have more than enough to win the required 270. That's because in 2008, Obama overwhelmingly won the electoral vote, 365 to John McCain's 173.
Now the bad news for Obama: It's absolutely plausible nearly one year out from the election that he will lose all three of those states — and a whole lot more. His approval ratings in Pennsylvania and Ohio are just as bad as in Florida, and his poll numbers are grim throughout the Midwest and mid-Atlantic regions.
No question the headwinds are against Obama compared with 2008, when he was the outsider campaigning on change, and his campaign is carving out multiple paths to 270. But in a wave election amid a harrowing economy, even the deepest electoral vote cushion may not be enough to deliver a second term.
"You look anywhere except the northeast and the extreme left coast and Obama's got a problem," said Republican strategist Carl Forti, who is working for the Restore Our Future political committee supporting Mitt Romney. "Look at the states McCain won, and Obama currently has problems in Virginia, North Carolina and Florida. All of the sudden the GOP doesn't have to get a whole lot more to reach 270."
And more bad news for Obama: Census shifts since the last election netted six more electoral votes to states McCain won in 2008. (Florida's population gains increased its electoral vote prize from 27 to 29.)
On top of that, Republican leaders in Pennsylvania are considering making their electoral votes go to the winner of each congressional district rather than to the popular winner statewide. That means the 20 electoral votes of a state that has gone Democratic in the past five elections could wind up closely divided between the Republican and Democratic nominees.
For all the attention on national polls, presidential elections are really a series of state contests. Republicans have reliably red states, Democrats have reliably blue states, and the battle invariably is for the eight to 12 states that can go either way.
Rather than try to thread the needle to reach 270 electoral votes as most Democrats have attempted in recent decades, Obama is again preparing a "50-state strategy" focused on more than the deep blue Democratic states and swing states. Obama, who has two Orlando fundraisers today, has the luxury of competing in traditionally Republican states because he expects to raise more than the $750 million he raised in 2008.
"Our goal is to build the biggest organization as possible to ensure we have the widest playing field as possible in 2012,'' said Ben LaBolt, national press secretary for the Obama campaign. "Not only does that mean not walking away from any state, but it means contesting heavily on a wider map."
While no one expects heavy Obama resources devoted to overwhelmingly Republican states like Idaho or Alabama, the campaign expects to have resources to work with supporters wherever they are.
"When you've got 500 volunteers who want to help out in what's typically been a red state, we think there ought to be a way for them to do that," said LaBolt.
Republicans dismiss the notion that Obama has multiple electoral options.
"President Obama is losing ground with Democrats and independents rapidly in key battleground states like Florida, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Michigan," said Republican National Committee political director Rick Wiley. "This free fall is requiring his campaign to try and expand the map into non-traditional states."
In 2008, Obama won a number of traditionally Republican states, including Indiana, Virginia and North Carolina. Almost no one sees Indiana within his reach this time, though Obama has the resources to be flexible should any state become more competitive as the election approaches.
What's more, the Obama campaign sees Arizona and Georgia as potentially competitive given their growing populations of Hispanic and African-American voters. There are also optimistic demographic changes and growing suburban populations in states like North Carolina, Virginia, Colorado and Nevada.
"This is not as easy as his people make it out to be," said Forti, the Republican strategist. "What they're not showing is he's also probably going to lose at least 5 percent of the white vote, which I'm not sure they can overcome."
Obama supporters note that even in the Republican wave of 2010, Democrats won Senate re-election in the critical swing states of Colorado and Nevada as evidence of their shift toward the Democratic column. But Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet barely won re-election in a state Obama won by 9 percentage points and Nevada Sen. Harry Reid spent a fortune to win re-election in a state Obama won by 12 points.
Democratic pollster Dave Beattie of Florida noted that the entire Nevada electorate is the equivalent of the West Palm Beach media market.
"If you spent the same amount Harry Reid spent in his Senate race per voter in Florida, you would spend $230 million," Beattie noted.
Obama can afford to lose Florida but it would still be a huge blow, Beattie said. The re-election campaign can't assume he'll sweep the number of states he did four years ago, and it takes multiple states to equal Florida's 29 electoral votes. Fortunately for Obama, Beattie said, it will ultimately come down to a choice between two candidates.
"It comes down to is Obama better than the other guy,'' Beattie said. "It's not just up or down on Obama, it's is he better than Romney or is he better than (Rick) Perry or whoever the nominee is."
Adam C. Smith can be reached at email@example.com.