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A guide to the must-win states for Obama and Romney

With eight days until the US presidential election, Mitt Romney seems to have a very slight edge in the national polls. However, every respectable poll aggregator, along with all the betting and futures…

Mitt Romney campaigns in the crucial swing state of Ohio, one of a number of states which will decide the presidency. EPA/Shawn Thew

With eight days until the US presidential election, Mitt Romney seems to have a very slight edge in the national polls. However, every respectable poll aggregator, along with all the betting and futures markets, give Barack Obama a higher probability of winning the election.

This is because the president is not elected by a simple majority of the popular vote, but by the more complicated machinery of the Electoral College. To win the election, a candidate must win 270 Electoral College votes. Currently, Obama seems to have a more realistic chance of getting those votes.

Most states reliably vote the same way from election to election, whether they be Democratic like California and New York or Republican like Texas and Georgia. The candidates will not even campaign in these deep “blue” and “red” states despite their huge populations and electoral college votes. Instead, all their attention is on the nine “swing states” that will determine the election. Here is a form guide to the states and the voters who will decide the next president.

COLORADO: 2008 Obama, 2004 Bush, 9 electoral votes. Colorado, America’s least obese state, is perhaps the closest of all the swing states, and it is a microcosm of America’s so-called “culture war”. While Colorado Springs is a major institutional centre of both the military and evangelical activism, Boulder and Aspen have long been associated with progressive counter-culture. Denver and its suburbs are closely divided. Colorado may be decided by who gets the better turnout on the day.

FLORIDA: 2008 Obama, 2004 Bush, 29 electoral votes. Romney gained a narrow lead there after the first debate and he never lost it. Romney should win Florida, the largest swing state, and he cannot win the presidency without it. Florida’s economy is based largely on the housing market, which was utterly devastated in 2008 and has been the last part of the economy to show any signs of recovery. Voters there are more receptive to Romney’s message that the slow recovery is unacceptable.

IOWA: 2008 Obama, 2004 Bush, 6 electoral votes. Iowa is synonymous in popular culture with rural life despite its increasingly diverse economy and urbanised population. Among followers of American politics, it is known for its outsized importance in party nominations and its status as a major beneficiary of agricultural subsidies. The latter could work in Obama’s favour, as Iowa was a major recipient of the “green pork” derided by Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan, and Obama has not let the state forget it. Despite its socially conservative reputation, Iowa was an Obama stronghold in both the 2008 primaries and presidential election, and Obama enjoys a small but robust lead there now.

NEVADA: 2008 Obama, 2004 Bush, 6 electoral votes. Nevada has the worst unemployment rate in the country, a considerable Mormon population, and it was a primary bulwark for Mitt Romney when he was in danger of losing all momentum to Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich. The state may seem like natural Romney territory, but it has consistently favoured Obama by a small but stubborn margin. The likely reasons are the Latino vote, which is around 15% of the electorate, and the political power of organised labor in the state, especially the Teachers' Union and Culinary Services Union. However, Romney is not giving up on Nevada. FiveThirtyEight.com considers it the second-most valuable state in terms of campaign return on investment, while the Princeton Electoral Consortium calls it the most valuable.

NEW HAMPSHIRE: 2008 Obama, 2004 Kerry, 4 electoral votes. The smallest swing state gives the third-best return on campaign investment, according to FiveThirtyEight.com. Because of its small population, the 2% lead Obama currently holds there does not seem out of reach to Romney. New Hampshire has a strong libertarian reputation, and is the home of the “Free State Project” which encourages libertarian-minded people to move there en masse. This could actually hurt Romney on election day if libertarians decide to vote for Gary Johnson or even write in Ron Paul.

NORTH CAROLINA: 2008 Obama, 2004 Bush, 15 electoral votes. This state was a surprise pick-up for Obama in 2008, a feat he seems unlikely to repeat. However, Obama is still campaigning in the state, appealing to the same coalition of minorities and college-educated workers in the “research triangle” who carried the state for him last time. North Carolina remains a conservative place with an umemployment rate above 9%, and Obama’s continued campaign presence there infuriates conservative commentators desperate for evidence of solid gains for Romney in the Electoral College.

OHIO: 2008 Obama, 2004 Bush, 18 electoral votes. Ohio is the mother of all swing states due to its size, closeness, and totemic status as the state which every successful candidate has won since 1960 (and which no successful Republican has ever failed to win). According to FiveThirtyEight’s Nate Silver, the cliches about Ohio’s importance are not always true, but this year they are. According to the Washington Post, Obama and Biden have held a combined 20 events in the state since the convention, while Romney and Ryan have combined for 46.

President Obama makes his pitch to voters in Virginia, another key battleground state. EPA/Shawn Thew

Romney has never led in Ohio, which could be the ultimate foundation of an Obama victory. Ohio did not move as far in favour of Romney as other states after the first debate. A possible reason is that Ohio voters had already seen so much of Romney, while many voters across the country were effectively seeing him for the first time during the debate. Ohio, a major manufacturing state, has had a quicker economic recovery than much of the country. The auto bailout was popular there; Romney’s suggestion to “let Detroit go bankrupt” was not.

VIRGINIA: 2008 Obama, 2004 Bush, 13 electoral votes. In 2008, Virginia was another major incursion for Obama into Southern territory that had been staunchly Republican since the 1970s. Unlike North Carolina, Virginia did not move decisively back into the red column, and it remains tied. Virginia could go either way this time, but in the long run it could prove to be one of the Republican Party’s most spectacular own goals. George W. Bush’s massive expansion of homeland security-related government agencies put thousands of additional college-educated government employees in the Virginia suburbs of Washington, where they enjoy relative job security and lean Democratic.

WISCONSIN: 2008 Obama, 2004 Kerry, 10 electoral votes. Like other upper Midwestern states, Wisconsin is politically divided between relatively liberal cities and conservative rural areas. The state was believed to be safe Obama territory until a bitter gubernatorial recall campaign this year which saw Republican Governor Scott Walker re-elected on a platform of reducing collective bargaining rights for state employees. While many Walker supporters may still vote for Obama, the fight strengthened conservative campaign infrastructure in the state. Romney’s selection of Wisconsin native Paul Ryan may also help Romney there. Obama retains a slight lead in Wisconsin, but Republicans see it as an achievable target.

The overall picture suggests that Romney leads in two swing states, Obama leads in five and two are tied. Even if Romney won the two tied states (Colorado and Virginia) he would still be 13 electoral votes short of victory. Romney needs to win more states where Obama leads, and it is almost impossible to see him getting there without Ohio, hence the fact that it has become the epicentre of the campaign.

The New York Times provides an addictive tool for exploring different election scenarios. For now it looks like Obama has the edge, but his campaign is unlikely to be sleeping comfortably on a handful of 2% leads.