As the 2008 general election campaign kicks off, both major candidates are surveying the smorgasbord of states before them and see a table groaning with possibilities.
Both Democrat Barack Obama and Republican John McCain see openings in states won by the opposing party in recent cycles. For Senator Obama of Illinois, demographic changes have made red states such as Virginia, Colorado, and North Carolina competitive. For Senator McCain of Arizona, Obama's poor primary showing among some traditional Democratic constituencies in crucial blue states such as Pennsylvania and Michigan has created an opening.
One need look no further than the two presumptive nominees' schedules to see the strategies in operation. This week, Obama is in Missouri, Iowa, and Wisconsin – only the last of which was won (barely) by Democratic nominee John Kerry four years ago. Last week, Obama launched his general election campaign in Virginia, a state that President Bush won four years ago by 9 points, and which both 2008 campaigns now consider competitive – the most dramatic entry into the ranks of battleground states.
McCain's presence Wednesday in Philadelphia, where he will hold a town-hall meeting, signals his intention to poach a blue state rich with Reagan Democrats – and a critical 21 electoral votes of the 270 needed to win the presidency.
"It is an absolute must-win state for Obama; if he loses it, I think it's almost impossible for him to win the election, because he's also likely losing Ohio and Florida," says Terry Madonna, a pollster at Franklin and Marshall College in Lancaster, Pa.
McCain is competitive in Pennsylvania, Mr. Madonna says, "because he is able to attract independents."
But for now, analysts say, the overall electoral map tilts toward Obama. The floundering economy, the Iraq war, and an unpopular Republican president all work against McCain, and if Obama can secure the states that Senator Kerry won in 2004, that's already 252 electoral votes – with just 18 to go for the presidency. Ohio alone (20 electoral votes) gets him there. So does a combination of Iowa (7), Colorado (9), and Nevada (5) or New Mexico (5), all states considered ripe for the picking by Obama.
The Obama campaign, flush with cash and fresh off a highly competitive nomination race that required organization building in every state, is promising a 50-state effort in the general election.
"Today, I am proud to announce that our presidential campaign will be the first in a generation to deploy and maintain staff in every single state," Obama's deputy national campaign director, Steve Hildebrand, announced Monday in an e-mail to supporters.
All campaigns, of course, say they are competing everywhere; there's no point in discouraging core voters in safe states, and making those electoral votes less than automatic – or missing opportunities in the opposition's seemingly safe states. But this time around, with the environment weighing so heavily in the Democrats' favor, a 50-state strategy may seem a bit less pie in the sky.
Republicans have lost three normally safe congressional seats this year in special elections, and signs point to another "wave" election, following the wave of 2006, when the Democrats swept the Republicans out of the leadership in both the House and the Senate.
Even though McCain is competitive with Obama so far in national polls, he faces a generic Republican vs. Democrat environment that favors the Democrats by a double-digit margin.
Also in Obama's back pocket is a large pool of unregistered black voters in states he hopes to make competitive. As of 2004, according to Census numbers, Georgia alone had 500,000 African-Americans who were not registered to vote. The Obama campaign is aggressively courting those voters with the prospect of electing the nation's first black president – and thus many political handicappers put Georgia in the "lean McCain" column, not in his base.
North Carolina, Mississippi, and Louisiana are also in same boat, with large untapped populations of black voters that could make those states competitive. Even if Obama does not win there, he could force the less-well-funded McCain to divert resources to them.
David Bositis, an expert on the black vote at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies in Washington, notes that the states with the biggest black populations are also the most racially polarized.
"Senator Obama is not going to win these states just with black voters," he says. "He has to have some prospect of doing reasonably well with white voters."
Mississippi may be beyond reach, but states like North Carolina and Georgia, with influxes of upper-income, young, and educated white voters could become competitive with a large-enough black turnout.
"If they [the Obama campaign] can turn out enough new voters and combine them with progressive whites and even bring back some Reagan Democrats, they can be competitive," says Kerry Haynie, a political scientist at Duke University in Durham, N.C. "The economy is in the tank, and it gives them an opening."