If you want to know what's going to happen in the presidential race next November, just look at the above map. It shows the results of the 2004 election, won by George W. Bush with 286 electoral votes over John Kerry's 251. Although it's hard to remember now, 2004 was a breathlessly close election, particularly for an incumbent. If Ohio had gone the other way, Kerry would have won. That's why two years later Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. was still in court trying to prove that Kerry had actually won Ohio and should be the President.
Now as Gerald Seib pointed out in Monday's Wall Street Journal, all those blue states that went for Kerry in 2004 are going to go for Obama again this year. The only possible exception is New Hampshire -- now the wealthiest state in the country, believe it or not -- but it has only four electoral votes. The Democratic states have lost population since 2004, so if the country split the same way today Republicans would win 291 to 246. But this also means the Democrats only need one big state -- 23 electoral votes -- to reach the magic number of 269.
Seib says the Democrats are targeting Florida, but I don't find that too likely. Obama's strength is with the young and if the Republican candidate, whoever he may be, picks Senator Marco Rubio as his Vice President, that could wrap it up. But any combination of two or three smaller states -- all of which went for Obama in 2008 -- could achieve the same end. North Carolina and Virginia would do it in tandem. North Carolina and Colorado would also produce the magic 270. New Mexico, Nevada, Iowa, and Indiana all went for Obama in 2008 but if Republicans can't win in these states they probably don't have much of a chance anyway. So the final battleground is likely to be North Carolina, Virginia, and Colorado. Democrats figured this out long ago. That's why they're holding their convention in Charlotte.
Now, what do these three states have in common? Very simply, they are the nation's new "suburbs," the emerging middle ground between urban centers of the East and West Coasts and Upper Midwest, all voting Democratic, and the great rural in-between that is now wedded to the Republicans. These are Joel Garreau's "Edge Cities" or David Brooks' "Latte Towns" -- take your pick -- inhabited by Richard Florida's "Creative Class." Their voters are college-educated, employed well-paying, high-status jobs, but far enough away from the media centers so that they haven't yet bought into the liberal dogma that the only way for things to be "fair" in America is to vote for Democrats.
North Carolina is the prime example. In 1959, the state ranked 47th in median income when it opened the doors to Research Triangle Park, the brainchild of Roman Guest, a textile salesman who had become impressed with how much technology was driving the textile business. Guest had noted that the state's three major universities -- Duke, North Carolina and North Carolina State -- formed a triangle and were in close enough proximity so that they might be willing to collaborate at a central facility. "The concept was to separate the thinking from the hammering," Guest wrote later. Research would concentrate on "textiles, agriculture, forestry, and tobacco."
Today Research Triangle hosts research centers for IBM, Dupont, Data General, Becton Dickinson, Glaxo, Ericsson, Battelle, Panasonic, Martin Marietta, Motorola, Cisco, Biogen, the Chemical Industry Institute of Technology, the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, Underwriters' Laboratory, the National Institute of Statistical Sciences, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Motor and Equipment Manufacturers Association, plus the National Humanities Center, which moved there from Boston in 1979. The more than 45,000 highly educated employees make an average salary of $75,000.
These newly successful people have become the pivotal bloc that swings the state between Republicans and Democrats. They are not committed to either party. They are not terribly involved with social issues. Their main worry is the economy. If Republicans make birth control and separation of church and state the major issue, they will go Democratic. If the Democrats mess up the economy and produce $4.50 gas and 8.3 percent unemployment, they will swing Republican. That will probably decide the 2012 election.
There are a handful of other states in the same position. Colorado is now the 9th richest state, with a highly educated workforce centered around Boulder. The state went for Bush in 2004 and Obama in 2008, picking a winner each time. Virginia is in even more pivotal -- a conservative Southern state that is being drawn into the center of gravity in Washington, D.C. In case you haven't noticed, Washington is the only city in the country that has prospered under Obamaism. In the latest Gallup Poll of economic confidence, every single state had a negative outlook -- from North Dakota's -13 to West Virginia's -44 -- except the District of Columbia, where the confidence rating is +11. I just finished a stint as a speechwriter for Senator Lamar Alexander of Tennessee and on my last day we had another Tennessee Tuesday, where the folks from back home are invited to meet their Senators on the top floor of the Hart Office Building. As I was chatting with a woman from Nashville, she suddenly exclaimed, "Why are there so many construction cranes around Washington? Are they still repairing all that damage from the earthquake?" A quick survey of the skyline confirmed there were construction cranes almost everywhere. It looked like a scene from Singapore. "Ma'am," I said, "that isn't earthquake damage. It's your federal government, growing before your very eyes." Virginia is now the 6th richest state and will have to decide where its true loyalties lie. Workers in Internet businesses that have grown up around Washington will probably have the deciding vote.
So the question for November will be this: "Who can reach out to these educated, upscale people who are going to be the deciding votes in the few state that are going to decide the election?"
The answer for Republicans is very clear. Mitt Romney's main appeal is to these upscale voters. In every primary, he has run best in urban and suburban areas. He appeals to people with a college education, he appeals to women, he appeals to the more affluent. These voters are not scared by his Mormonism but they are put off by social issues and are worried about the economy. Romney scores well on all counts.
Rick Santorum is the antithesis. His entire appeal is to voters from rural areas who are already going to vote Republican anyway. He appeals to people with less education who are doing far worse than everyone else and are extremely resentful of those in other parts of the country -- even though no one outside Washington is doing much better. They are passionate about abortion and social issues and want to restore religion to the center of American life. Santorum would win by a landslide in Alabama, Mississippi, Wyoming, and a few other rural outposts but would get slaughtered everywhere else. And don't be fooled by that "I won in Pennsylvania" rhetoric. The last time Senator Santorum ran for re-election in 2006-- after he had picked up the banner of social conservatism and tried to make himself a national figure -- he lost by 700,000 votes, the worst defeat of an incumbent Senator in Pennsylvania history. He wouldn't do any better in a Presidential election.
The choice for Republicans is between making a statement and winning an election. Choosing Santorum or Gingrich will give the Republicans their George McGovern moment, when they can sacrifice electability for principle. And by the way, we can thank Newt for splitting the arch-conservative vote and making it less likely either of these unelectable candidates will win. With candidates driven solely by personal ambition, ego always trumps outcome.
By choosing Romney -- who seems "not conservative enough" only when contrasted with these two -- Republicans will be getting more than just an appealing candidate. They will get an even chance or better of winning the election and taking back control of the Presidency. Compared with four more years of Obamaism, that seems like a pretty attractive choice.