Obama’s Electoral Map

May 27, 2008 3:28 p.m.
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As TPM Election Central first reported a week ago, Obama is on a purple Western state campaign swing this week, targeting New Mexico, Nevada, and Colorado.

TPM Reader BC makes an interesting point:

I think there’s a bit more than meets the eye to Obama’s swing through New Mexico, Colorado and Nevada this week. Of course, he wants to start wooing swing states for the general election. But I suspect he began with these three because he also wants to start shifting the media narrative about where he needs to win in November to capture a majority of electoral votes.

One of the subtle advantages Hillary has had in making her “I do better in the swing states” argument is that her potential path to electoral victory looks much more like the traditional Democratic map. Above all it hinges on Ohio and Florida, which have been seared into traumatized Democrats’ minds as ground zero for narrow defeats (or stolen victories). The press, always eager for a simple, dramatic narrative, has happily indulged Clinton’s emphasis on these states, and will likely continue to do so when the focus shifts to Obama vs. McCain.

Obama’s challenge is that he has an equally legitimate path to victory, but it runs through states that neither the media nor the Democratic base readily conceive of as pivotal. Together, New Mexico, Colorado and Nevada offer 19 electoral votes — only one less than Ohio. Add in Iowa, where Obama also shows unusual strength, and you get up to 26 — one less than Florida.

Obama can afford to lose one of those “traditional” swing states if he makes it up in these states where he seems to have unique appeal. But if the campaign press corps decides to go spend the next six months camped out in Ohio and Florida filing hand-wringing stories about his struggles with “white working class” voters or elderly Jews, he never gets to make that case, the narrative about his campaign’s chances will be much more dour, and some of that pessimism may sink in with the electorate.

Campaign tours like this one — not to mention last Tuesday’s primary night victory speech in Iowa — are a subtle way to start putting these “Obama swing states” on reporters’ radar screens and prime them to tell a different electoral story.

If BC is right, then the Obama camp is aiming its meta-message at people like me. I look at the Obama electoral map and just scratch my head. Can a Dem really win the White House while losing Pennsylvania, Missouri and Florida? Or winning only one of Ohio, Florida, and Pennsylvania?

As SurveyUSA found in a state-by-state electoral college breakdown back in March, Obama could pull it off, at least in theory. But it’s not a tried and true path to the Presidency for a Democrat. That doesn’t mean it can’t happen. But it is a high stakes gamble, the kind that looks brilliant if it works and, well, probably pretty idiotic if it doesn’t. Not that Bill or Hillary would ever say I told you so.

Late Update: Dissent, from readers.

TPM Reader JE:

You badly misrepresent the Obama electoral map strategy. He’s not visiting western purple states and ignoring Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Florida. Before this western state trip he went to Florida and had what, by all accounts, was a enormously successful set of events, impressing several audiences he supposedly will have trouble impressing. Obama isn’t gambling anything, and he will run hard in Florida and Pennsylvania and Ohio. But he will not cede a number of other states that Democratic candidates haven’t taken seriously in recent elections. His strategy is to increase the number of states that can reasonably be called competitive. By labeling this a “gamble,” you miss the bigger point and play right into a silly MSM talking point.

TPM Reader SR:

David, I don’t know why you’re “scratching your head.” The simple fact is that what you’re calling “the tried and true path to the presidency for a Democrat” has never actually worked! Ever! Carter won in 76 by carrying the South. Johnson won in 64 by carrying everywhere. Kennedy? Well take at look at his map, it’s like some alternate universe. http://www.presidentelect.org/e1960.html

“The only time your “tried and true” path more or less worked was in ’92 and ’96 and, in both case, it only worked because of Ross Perot, the most successful third party candidate in history. Both times, Bill failed to win an electoral majority in many of the key states on the “tried and true path” by a wide margin.

Obama’s electoral map is not about brilliant or stupid. Its about how doing the same thing over and over again expecting a different result is the definition of stupidity, not insanity. (The definition of insanity is making up your own facts, or your own math, and insisting they’re as good as anyone else’s facts/math.)

Likewise, TPM Reader CN:

Would Obama’s pursuit of electoral-college victory based on non-traditional swing states really be a “high-stakes gamble”? High stakes, sure; it’s a presidential election so the stakes are always high. But I don’t see the gamble: each state produces a known quantity of electoral votes, and I have heard nothing to suggest that voters in NM or CO are less persuadable than voters in FL and OH. If the polls show that Obama’s clearest path to victory is through a “new” electoral map, wouldn’t the real gamble be to ignore his unique strengths and try to win through the “traditional” map? Sounds like that meta-message to the press is needed.

Remember that Obama also used a non-traditional path to victory in the primary: organize every state, relentlessly organize the caucus states, and prepare for the long haul. Hillary put all her money on the “traditional” path to the nomination, believing it was the only winning path. She was surprised, to say the least. Will McCain also discount Obama’s strategy?

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