Politics

05.03.12

Michael Tomasky: The GOP’s Impending Electoral College Meltdown

Only six months till November, and the Electoral College is looking like Barack Obama’s best friend. Has the Republican Party already blown its chances?

It’s now officially not too early to start thinking about the Electoral College map. First of all, the election is just six months away, which provides pundits one of those symbolic but meaningless pivot points to a new phase. But more than that, certain patterns are just starting to emerge. Mitt Romney has been the putative nominee for a month now, ever since his Wisconsin win (if not before). Barack Obama has taken some whacks at him now, and certainly vice versa. We’re in the general-election campaign. So what do we know right now? Chiefly, this great and very amusing irony: that the Electoral College, that bane of good-government liberals for decades (and especially since the 2000 fiasco), is Obama’s best friend. He has the hate-and-anger party to thank for that. But the implications for the fall campaign may be ominous.

At the precise moment that I am writing this sentence—11:45 am on Wednesday—I glance at the new poll “bumpers” or whatever you call them on the home page of Talking Points Memo: little boxes across the top that stay up for a few seconds and then rotate, showing important poll results. The TPM Obama-Romney national average has it Obama 47.1, Romney 45.3, giving Obama a 1.8 percent advantage. That’s no lead at all. Within the margin of error. Real Clear Politics gives Obama a 3.7 percent national lead. Bigger, but still margin-of-error territory. So nationally, it’s a close race.

But when you look at the likely swing states, it is not right now a close race at all. RCP’s Electoral College map gives Obama 227 electoral votes from states that are solidly or pretty clearly leaning in his direction. It gives Romney just 170. It lists 11 toss-up states: Arizona, Colorado, Florida, Iowa, Missouri, Nevada, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Virginia. You can then click on all the recent polls in those states. So I did. Here’s what I found.

Obama leads in nine of the 11 states. Romney leads only in two, and he leads in the two whose mere presence on a list of swing states suggests trouble for him—Arizona and Missouri. Romney’s lead in those states is small (3.2 percent in the former, 3.0 in the latter). Of the nine states in which Obama leads, he is ahead by outside your typical three- or four-point margin of error in four: Colorado (9.5 percent), Nevada (6.7 percent), Pennsylvania (6 percent), and Ohio (5.3 percent). Obviously it would be premature to say that Obama is certain to win those states. But given these leads, let’s just give him those states’ 53 combined electoral votes for the sake of argument.

The GOP message in recent years has been: “If you’re gonna let all those brown people and wine-sipping brainiacs into your states, then we don’t want you voting for us anyway!”

As you’ve already figured out, 227 plus 53 equals 280, which means Obama wins (270 needed). Now here’s what’s really interesting about this hypothetical. Look at the list of states Obama does not need to win under this scenario: Florida, Iowa, North Carolina, and Virginia. That’s 63 electoral votes he can give away, from three states (all of them but Iowa) that political journalists are always insisting are crucial to Obama’s hopes. And from four states he carried in 2008. Just think of it. It’s election night. The cable nets call Virginia for Romney. And North Carolina! Obama is doomed, doomed! Then he wins—and in fact, if he manages to eke out Florida, wins easily, even after dropping those two “must-win” states. Put another way: There appear to be lots of ways for Obama to get to 270 losing either Ohio or Florida. But there appear to be almost no plausible ways for Romney to get to 270 without winning both of them, and one or two major swing states besides, states where he is behind right now.

So, two questions: first, how did the electoral map come to favor Democrats? And second, what are the implications for the kind of race we’re going to see?

On the first question, we know all about the demographic changes of recent years, identified most comprehensively by Ruy Teixeira and John Judis. But there’s more to the story than that. Demography didn’t have to be destiny. If the Republican Party of the last few years hadn’t done everything it could possibly imagine do to alienate Latinos, “new-economy” professionals, and young people, the party would have remained competitive in Colorado (which, by the way, doesn’t really seem like much of a swing state to me) and some Great Lakes-Rust Belt states. That party would have easily maintained its historic advantage in Virginia and North Carolina. But the Republicans chose not to be that party. They decided to be the hate-and-anger party, and they veritably shoved states like those I just mentioned into the Democratic column. The GOP message has been: “If you’re gonna let all those funny-talking brown people and wine-sipping brainiacs in your states, then we don’t want you voting for us anyway!”

And as to the kind of campaign we can expect: I’d say the most negative in history. Barring some huge catastrophe, the only way a not-well-liked candidate like Romney can make up five to seven points in expensive-market states is through massive doses of attack ads, both from his campaign and from the various Super PACs, which may spend a combined $600 million or more—solely on negative ads and chiefly in six or eight states. Hate and anger aren’t going anywhere.

TWO NOTES: First, The American Prospect, the liberal opinion journal I once edited, remains in danger of closing its doors; please read this and think about how you can help.

Second, I suppose it’s time to announce that I’m starting a blog next Monday. I’ll continue to write the three longer pieces a week that I do now. But in addition to that you’ll now have even more Tomasky to kick around in the form of a few posts a day, flogging the usual dead horses and a few others besides.