Thursday, January 26, 2012

Does President Obama Have A "Cushion" In 2012???

As we get more and more polling data about how President Obama stacks up against his potential Republican rivals, it's important to remember that in many ways the national percentages are irrelevant.  Presidential contests are really state by state races.  The ultimate goal is to compile the 270 electoral votes necessary to win.  Because of the vast differences across states and regions--something that this site aspires to capture--neither Obama or Romney/Gingrich will have the same level of support everywhere.

Thus, as we begin to look to November, it's useful to look back at recent elections, especially 2008, and see how the candidates varied across the states.  This will give us the opportunity to see how likely it is that either candidate will be able to bring new states into their coalition. 

Another way to state this is: how much ground must the Republican nominee make up based upon what happened in 2008?  How much of a "cushion" does Obama have?  Does he have any realistic opportunity to build upon his 2008 margin?

To help answer this, I decided to look at how many states were actually closely decided in 2008.  These would be the main targets for both candidates, especially the Republican nominee who needs to improve dramatically on John McCain's 173 electoral votes.  I produced the following table that lists each state based upon the winning candidate's margin of victory.

What we see is that, beyond the 7% national spread between Obama and McCain, the state by state results are even more impressive for the Presdident.  If we use a spread of 5% as an arbitrary definition of a "close" outcome, we see (highlighted in yellow) that only six states were decided by such a margin in 2008.  Of these, Barack Obama won 4 (NC, FL, IN, OH) while McCain won 2 (MO, MT).  If we wanted to be a bit more generous in our definition of "close" to include states decided by 10% or less, we get an additional nine states, 4 won by Obama (VA, CO, IA, NH) and 5 won by McCain (GA, SD, AZ, ND, SC). 

In the final column of the table, I've listed the number of electoral votes that will be awarded by these states in 2012.  Here is where we can get a real sense of the magnitude of the task for the Republican nominee.  If we assume that states in 2012 will vote roughly as they did four years ago, the GOP nominee must win every state they won in 2008, plus North Carolina, Florida, Indiana, Ohio, Virginia, Colorado, AND Iowa in order to caputre the White House.

When we look at previous presidential elections, we see that there were many more "close" states than we saw in 2008.  For example, in 2004 we saw twelve states decided by 5% or less and twenty one with a 10% or less margin:

In 2000 there was a similar bunching of states, also with twelve decided by 5% or less.  Twenty two had a 10% or less margin:

When we look at the data on a state by state basis, the magnitude of each party's win over these past three cycles becomes magnified.   This is especially true, it seems, for 2008.  While Obama's 52.9% of the popular vote was the highest of any Democratic nominee since Lyndon Johnson in 1964, it is also true that he managed to win a lot of states by a large margin.  One might miss this if they were concerned only with the national numbers.

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