Democrats can be forgiven for panicking at reports that Team Obama is trying to figure out how to win in November without winning Florida. Or Ohio. Or even Pennsylvania.
Admittedly, it was an “alternative” scenario that Illinois Sen. Barack Obama’s campaign manager David Plouffe discussed with activists Friday at the Capitol City brew pub in Washington.
“You have a lot of ways to get to 270,” Plouffe said, according to the Associated Press. “Our goal is not to be reliant on one state on November 4th.”
Plouffe’s remark may have been nothing more than an expression of his candidate’s “organize everywhere” philosophy.
Yet if it was more than that — if his comments signaled a willingness of the Obama campaign to cede major battleground states to Arizona Sen. John McCain — Democrats could be in for their third consecutive presidential disappointment this fall.
As a matter of mathematical calculation, winning the White House without the major “swing” states is possible. As a matter of practical politics, however, it’s not bloody likely.
A QUICK LOOK at the latest Rasmussen Electoral College poll shows why. As of Monday, 22 states with a combined 174 electoral votes were rated “safe” or “likely” for the Republicans, while 14 states and the District of Columbia with a combined 185 electoral votes were rated “safe” or “likely” for the Democrats.
With 270 Electoral College votes needed for victory in November, this means that — barring a surprising loss of either candidate in one of his party’s “safe” or “likely” states — Obama must pick up some combination of the remaining 14 “swing”states with at least 85 votes to win the White House.
McCain, starting from a lower base of “safe” and “likely” electoral votes, would seem to have the tougher row to hoe in order to reach the magic 270. However, Florida is the biggest prize of the battleground states, and it’s ranked by Rasmussen as “leans Republican.”
Polls show McCain well ahead in Florida, a state won by Sen. Hillary Clinton in a primary that was disallowed by the Democratic National Committee, which has stripped the state’s delegation of 50 percent of its vote at the party’s August convention in Denver. Given how Democrats screamed about “disenfranchisement” during the long 2000 Florida recount, Obama could have a tough time competing in the Sunshine State this fall.
If Florida could be counted securely within McCain’s column, that would put the Republican at 201 “safe” or “likely” Electoral College votes, and put his Democratic opponent at a serious disadvantage.
Then there’s Michigan, also stripped of half its Democratic convention votes by the DNC. Though Michigan is rated by Rasmussen as “leans Democrat,” some polls in May showed McCain with a slight lead there.
If Obama has to fight McCain for the 17 electoral votes of a traditional Democratic bastion like Michigan, that’s a significant advantage for the Republican.
Mounting a serious campaign in those states would be a logistical problem for Obama, drawing the candidate away from the key battlegrounds of Ohio and Pennsylvania.
If Florida proves to be out of reach for the Democrat, Ohio’s 20 electoral votes will become almost essential, as they were in 2004. Most polls in recent months have shown McCain leading in Ohio, although he’s far from a cinch.
Ohio, like neighboring Pennsylvania, was carried by Hillary in the Democratic primaries, with exit polls showing weak support for Obama among working-class voters. Pennsylvania’s 21 electoral votes haven’t gone to a Republican since 1988, and the Real Clear Politics average has Obama comfortably ahead there, in a state ranked “leans Democrat” by Rasmussen.
As recently as April, however, some polls showed McCain leading Obama in Pennsylvania, and it would seem far more likely a Republican could win the Keystone State than for the Democrat to win in some of the states named as possibilities last week by Obama’s campaign manager.
Plouffe was certainly correct in identifying Virginia as a battleground for 2008. After decades as a GOP bastion, Virginia has recently trended toward Democrats, and one recent poll showed Obama leading 49-42 percent in the Old Dominion.
Yet Bush beat Kerry 54-45 in Virginia four years ago, and the McCain campaign is prepared to fight to keep the commonwealth in the Republican column.
BEYOND VIRGINIA, HOWEVER, Team Obama’s ambitions for a “fundamentally different” electoral map seem grandiose.
According to the Associated Press, Plouffe thinks Obama could be competitive in Georgia, and said that the campaign would “keep an eye on” Mississippi and Louisiana.
Bill Clinton twice won Louisiana, but no Democrat has Mississippi since Jimmy Carter, and Clinton only carried it once, in the fluke 1992 election. Real Clear Politics poll averages show McCain with double-digit leads and above the 50-percent mark in all three of those states.
While Obama certainly can expect to benefit from a larger-than-normal turnout by black voters in the Deep South, Democratic victories in such Republican strongholds are possible only in the case of an unimaginable McCain meltdown this fall.
Unimaginable meltdowns can happen, but it’s far easier to imagine a meltdown for the novice Obama and his relatively inexperienced campaign team, which recently talked up plans to send their candidate on a summer world tour, rather than campaigning in the battleground states.
Meanwhile, Hillary Clinton’s supporters have coalesced into a PUMA (“Party Unity, My Ass”) coalition, which on Monday sent an angry letter to DNC Chairman Howard Dean, complaining that “the party’s nominee was selected…by means of a series of inappropriate actions and inactions.”
Amid such troubling omens, enthusiastic talk of remaking the Electoral College map — coming from Obama’s strategists in their first try at running a national campaign — should scare the Democrats witless.
Team Obama’s new map could very well lead Democrats down the familiar well-trodden path — to defeat.