This item is by TDS Co-Editor William Galston.
A Gallup report out today–a 50-state synthesis of the past six months of surveys–provides both a revealing snapshot of Barack Obama’s current political vulnerability and an X-ray of the emerging shape of the 2012 campaign. The report finds that during the first six months of 2011, the president’s national approval ratings averaged 47 percent (it stood at only 42 percent last week). His approval in the states ranged from a high of 60 percent in Connecticut to a low of 27 percent in Idaho.
As the general election nears, the president’s job approval tends to converge toward his eventual vote total. Right now he enjoys majority support in 16 states plus the District of Columbia, totaling 215 electoral votes and trails in the other 34. If an election between Obama and a Republican the people regarded as a credible occupant of the Oval Office were held tomorrow, the president would probably lose.
That’s the snapshot. A finer-grained analysis yields the X-ray. Suppose use the Gallup findings to divide the states into the following categories: (1) Obama won in 2008 and will win in 2012; (2) Obama lost in 2008 and will lose in 2012; (3) Obama won in 2012 but will lose in 2012; (4) Obama lost in 2008 but will win in 2012; and (5) states that are clearly in play based on the combination of the 2008 results and the Gallup numbers.
We can dispose of category 3 quickly: there are no states Obama lost in 2008 that he seems even moderately likely to win next year. Category 4 has one entrant: Obama prevailed in Indiana last time by the narrowest of margins but won’t get close this year unless the Republicans commit creedal suicide during their nominating process. Category 2 (lose in both elections) contains 21 states, including Missouri, in which McCain earned a razor-thin edge but which seems out of reach this time around. Combining 2 and 4, the 2012 Republican nominee will begin with a base of 175 electoral votes.
That leaves the dozen states with a total of 148 electoral votes that will decide the election. Obama carried 11 of them, and McCain just one. I’ve listed then in descending order of presidential approval, with Obama’s 2008 percentage in the next column and the difference in the last.
Some of these results were predictable: states such as Ohio and Pennsylvania are typically within hailing distance of the national total and outcome. (Indeed, John F Kennedy was the last Democrat to win the presidency without Ohio, and no Republican ever has.) Other findings are more surprising and raise intriguing questions:
Is it possible that Obama is stronger in Georgia than he was three years ago? If so, a major investment there could counterbalance the loss of either Virginia or North Carolina.
What’s happening in the Rockies and Southwest, where Obama’s decline has reached double-digits in key swing states? I suspect some combination of disaffection among independents and declining enthusiasm among Latinos.
And what accounts for Obama’s collapsing support in Oregon and New Hampshire? In these states, the desertion of independents is the most likely culprit.
Even at this early stage, two things are clear: The Obama campaign has its work cut out for it. And his strategists had better abandon fantasies of expanding the playing-field and focus their attention and resources on the states without which they are unlikely to prevail. As is so often the case, that begins (though doesn’t end) with Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Florida.