In 2008, John McCain won 173 electoral college votes. It is very difficult to imagine any state that voted for McCain in 2008 not supporting the GOP candidate in 2012. So that means the GOP nominee has to swipe 97 votes from the Obama column to win in 2012. Where might they come from?

First, some caveats. State head-to-head polling is very iffy this far from the election. For example, President Obama has terrible approval numbers in Kentucky, 39/56 approve/disapprove. McCain beat him there 57.5% to 41.1%. Over the past three presidential elections, Republican have won the state by an average of 17 poitns. Yet in head to head match-ups, Obama currently leads all 2012 GOP candidates. Does anyone really think Obama is going to win Kentucky in 2012?

Thus, I tend to find that approval/disapproval numbers tell us more. Yet they also have their weakness – after all, candidates run against other specifically identifiable candidates. In an election such as we should expect in 2012, much will turn on whether voters see the race as a referendum on Obama, or as a referendum on the Republican nominee’s suitability. President Obama will spend over $1 billion to make it the latter, and have tremendous help from the national press corps. Space prohibits me from talking at length about the particulars of each state’s electorate, particularly as it may react to the various GOP candidates and the issues at the fore in 2012. I do believe that past election results, however, are quite useful – in states that typically voted Republican before 2008, and voted Republican again in 2010, there is a high probability that 2008 was an aberation. With that said, here we go.

Let’s start with likely GOP pick ups.

1. The Census: States won by McCain will have 6 more Electoral College votes in 2012 than they did in 2008. So if we are correct that all 2008 GOP states will hold for the GOP, we have the GOP +6.

2. Nebraska. Nebraska is one of two states (with Maine) that splits its electoral college votes – although that hadn’t actually happened until 2008, when McCain won 4 of 5. Obama got one vote by carrying one of Nebraska’s three congressional districts. That won’t happen this time. GOP +1.

3. Indiana. Indiana politics lean slightly Republican at the state level, but in national races the state has been reliably Republican – at least until 2008, when Obama defeated McCain 49.9 to 48.9. But George W. Bush easily won the state twice, with 56.7% in 2000 and 59.9% in 2004. Before Obama’s win, the state hadn’t gone Democratic since Lyndon Johnson’s 1964 landslide over Barry Goldwater. Obama’s approval rating in the state has been hovering around 40%. Outgoing GOP Governor Mitch Daniels is popular and Mike Pence, the likely gubernatorial nominee, and long-time Senator Richard Lugar will be a popular figures on the statewide GOP ticket in 2012. GOP + 11.

4. Virginia. McCain bailed on Virginia fairly early in the 2008 race, and the state went relatively comfortably to Obama, 52.6% to 46.3%. But Bush won the state by 8 points in both 2000 and 2004, and like Indiana, we have to go back to 1964 to find the last pre-Obama Democratic presidential win in the state.

In 2009, Bob McDonald ended 8 years of Democratic rule in the Virginia statehouse by crushing Creigh Deeds by 18 points. Republicans also won 61% of the vote for the state House of Delegates in 2009, increasing their margin by to 59-39 in that Chamber, and swept the statewide offices. In 2010, Republicans picked up 3 congressional seats in the Old Dominion. Democrats took over the State Senate in 2007 but will probably lose control this year. And U.S. Senator Jim Webb will be retiring, depriving the Democrats of a well-regarded incumbent on the statewide ticket in 2012. Governor McDonald remains popular, which should help the GOP in 2012, even though he won’t be on the ballot.

The latest polling – by the Democratic firm Public Policy Polling – shows Obama with slightly higher disapproval than approval, but in a statistical tie with Mitt Romney and leading the other GOP candidates. Despite this relatively strong head-to-head polling, when push comes to shove I don’t see Obama carrying the state. GOP +13.

5. North Carolina. Obama beat McCain by 14,000 votes in 2008, 49.7% to 49.4%. As in Virginia, Public Policy Polling has Obama in a statistical tie with Romney and leading the other Republicans, but his approval/disapproval stands at 46/50%.  Bush twice won with 56% of the vote here, and like Indiana and Virginia, North Carolina also voted GOP in both Clinton elections. Before Obama, the Democrats last victory here was Jimmy Carter in 1976. In the 2012 Governor’s race, polls show Republican Pat McCrory leading incumbent Democrat Beverly Purdue by 6 to 12 points. Unemployment exceeds 10 percent. This state looks awfully good for a GOP pick up right now. GOP +15.

This gives the GOP 46 of the 97 votes needed to flip the White House.

Lean GOP Pickup

6. Florida. In contrast to Indiana, Florida has become very Republican at the state level, with the GOP holding better than two to one advantages in both houses of the legislature, but only marginally Republican in presidential races. Obama carried electoral college giant 50.9% to 48.1% in 2008. The state has been very close in each of the last 5 presidentials, with Bush’s 5 point victory in 2004 being the closest thing to a blowout. But Obama’s numbers have plummeted in recent polls, to 44-51 positive/negative in the latest Quinnipiac Poll, down 9 points since May, and only 42% thought he deserved reelection. That poll also showed him, however, with a narrow lead over Mitt Romney.

If not for the unpopularity of Republican Governor Rick Scott, I would probably put Florida in the “likely GOP” column. One caveat: if Marco Rubio is the Republican VP nominee, as many suspect, then you can definitely move the state to the “Likely GOP” column. GOP +27.

7. New Hampshire. Obama carried the Granite State by a comfortable 54.1 to 44.5% in 2008, but the GOP struck back with a vengeance in 2010, holding a U.S. Senate seat with surprising ease and picking up both of the state’s congressional seats, plus flipping both houses of the state legislature. In fact, the GOP won its largest State House majority since 1984, and its largest Senate majority since 1962. A recent Gallup Poll shows Obama’s approval at a mere 40%.  Perry might not play well with the state’s electorate, and New Hampshire is not the reliably Republican state it was just 20 years ago (the Democrats held the Governor’s office in 2010), but it looks ripe for a GOP gain in 2012. GOP +4.

8. Ohio. Ohio is another state where Obama’s approval rating is upside down and falling, but where he holds his own in head-to-head polling with GOP candidates. A late July Quinnipiac poll had his favorable/unfavorable at 46/50, with the same 46% saying he deserved re-election (vs. 47% saying he does not). In August, Public Policy Polling had him at 44/52 approval/disapproval. But he leads Romney and Perry narrowly and the others by more in match up polling.

Like many states on this list, the GOP made big pickups in Ohio in 2010. New Governor John Kasich has pushed through public collective bargaining reforms and a serious budget that hits a number of sacred cows of the left, and that has hurt his rankings. But if the reforms work, he’ll look pretty good by November 2012. Democratic Senator Sherrod Brown will be on the ballot for re-election, and he also suffers from bad numbers.

Though I’ve put them all in “lean Republican,” Florida and New Hampshire look pretty good for the GOP. Ohio is where the really hard work begins. GOP +18.

That’s 49 electoral votes I think lean Republican, which added to likely pick-ups puts the party within two of the 97 vote pick up it needs.

Toss ups

Several states are GOP pick-up opportunities, but at this point I would rate them only as toss-ups – if you’re really cautious, you can move Ohio and even New Hampshire to this category:

9. Colorado. Public Policy Polling had Obama at 46% approval in early August, while Gallup puts him at 44%. Independents are 38% approval vs. 56% disapproval.

For a decade, progressive, Democratic activists and funders engaged in a careful, well thought out plan to convert this marginally GOP state into a Democratic bastion, and by the end of 2008, the effort had yielded considerable fruit. Obama carried the state by 9 points, easily the best showing for a Democrat since Lyndon Johnson in 1964, and the Democrats had captured both U.S. Senate seats, a majority of the Congressional delegation, both houses of the state legislature, and most statewide offices.

Republicans and the business community finally began to get organized after the ’08 debacle, and in 2010 the GOP narrowly reclaimed the State House (by one seat) while making marginal gains in the State Senate and winning the Secretary of State’s office. Republicans also gained a Congressional seat. Yet signs of GOP disarray in the state remained: Don Maes won the state’s GOP gubernatorial primary and was such a bad, scandal-ridden candidate that the Party disowned him – Maes finished 3rd in the race. Tea Party favorite Ken Buck won the party’s senate nomination but was a somewhat surprisingly weak general election candidate, allowing appointed first term senator Michael Bennett to narrowly hang on.

This is a rare state where the decisive factor in 2012 may be less the President than the state parties. Does 2010 show the GOP getting its act together, or did it just benefit from a great GOP year nationally? Will the progressive Democratic machine hold together after the disappointment of the Obama years? We shall see. Potential  + 9.

10. Nevada. Here’s another traditional swing state that went to Obama with surprising ease in 2008, 55.2% to 42.7%. Picking up the seven or so points needed to swing the state won’t be easy for Republicans. Unions remain strong here, and the state’s libertarian voters may not cotton to someone of Rick Perry’s open religiousity (although Mitt Romney’s Mormon faith may play well in this heavily Mormon state; Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid is a Mormon). But Bush carried the state twice, and Obama was the first Democrat to crack 50% since Lyndon Johnson. Public Policy Polling, the Democratic firm, recently had Obama’s approval/disapproval at a horrendous 41/53, with Gallup having a slighly higher 44% approval.  Unemployment is 12.9%, highest in the nation. Potential +6.

11. Iowa. Iowa has gone Democratic in 5 of the last 6 elections, the exception being a very narrow win (49.9% to 49.2%) for Bush in 2004. Obama carried it handily, 53.9 to 44.4%, in ’08. Obama looks reasonably safe here. His 49% approval in Gallup is above his national average. Yet is doesn’t really feel like a Democratic state.  In 2010 the state’s voters sacked the state Supreme Court majority, primarily over its holding in favor of same sex marriage. Long-serving incumbent Chuck Grassley pounded out a two to one victory in the U.S. Senate race, the GOP picked up the governorship and the Secretary of State’s office, and Republicans won a majority of the state vote for the U.S. House, even though Democrats won three of the 5 seats.  Republicans hold a 58-42 edge in the State House, although Democrats hold the Senate 27-23.

Obama is at just 45% approval in Public Policy Polling August poll, yet as in so many other states, he leads his potential GOP opponents in head-to-head match ups. Even Romney trails Obama by 10. There are no other statewide races in Iowa in 2012, so this will be a straight Obama referendum. Potential +6.

12. New Mexico. New Mexico is a state where George W. Bush’s inroads with Hispanic voters helped him to a narrow win in 2004, after a narrow defeat in 2000 (Gore won the state by 367 votes). The state is basically Democratic at the local level, but Republicans have long been competitive at the presidential level and at times in other upper echelon offices. Obama won easily here in ’08, 56.9% to 41.8% (the first Democrat to get 50% since LBJ), as the Republican share of the Hispanic vote plummeted. But the GOP bounced back in 2010 state elections, with Susanna Martinez taking the Governor’s office and Republicans gaining 8 seats in the State House. Republicans also picked up a Congressional seat.

Hispanic voters here are more conservative than Hispanic voters nationwide. It will be interesting to see if Marco Rubio, if he is the GOP Vice Presidential nominee, helps the GOP, not just here but in Nevada (which also elected an Hispanic-Republican governor in 2010) and in Colorado, which both have a substantial hispanic voting population. (Rubio, of course, is of Cuban ancestry, whereas most western hispanics  are of Mexican or Central American heritage.) And don’t think it out of the question that Governor Martinez, or Nevada Governor Brian Sandoval could end up as a surprise pick for the GOP ticket, too. Either would probably pull both states, and perhaps Colorado, too, firmly into the GOP camp.

Gallup has Obama’s approval rating here at 46%. Potential  +5.

13. Wisconsin. Obama carried Wisconsin by 56 to 42% in 2008, after very narrow victories for Al Gore in 2000 (47.8 to 47.6%) and John Kerry in 2004 (49.7 to 49.3%).  Republicans made enormous gains in 2010, however, retaking the Governorship for the first time in 12 years, taking both houses of the state legislature, and defeating Senator Russ Feingold. Walker’s controversial collective bargaining reforms have knocked the GOP’s numbers down a peg, but not enough for Democrats to retake the state Senate in the summer’s recall elections, or to win an election to the state Supreme Court, despite an enormous investment of time and money in both.

I suspect that by next fall the controversy over Walker won’t matter – the bitter-enders would vote for Obama anyway, and independents will be looking at the Presidential race on its own merits in this swing state. With that, note that Obama has a relatively healthy 50% approval rating in Wisconsin (per Gallup), a less enticing 45/51 approval/disapproval from Public Policy Polling. But PPP also has him leading all of the GOP candidates, Romney narrowly, the others by double digits. Potential + 10.

That’s 36 toss up votes.

Lean Democrat

14. Pennsylvania. The Republicans have made major efforts here for each of the last several presidential campaigns, only to come up short, sometimes by considerable margins. Obama carried the state 54.5% to 44.2%; Kerry by 50.9% to 48.4%; Gore by 50.6% to 46.4%. Bill Clinton carried the state by nine points in each of his races. 

So, can the GOP really turn Pennsylvania in 2012? Well, let’s see: a Quinnipiac poll in early August had Obama’s approval at an upside down 43/54, with a “deserves reelection” number at 42%. A Muhlenberg College poll late in the  month delivered worse news for the President: a 35% approval rating, one of his worst in the country – what you’d expect to see in Alabama or some such deep red place. And while Democrats have a huge registration advantage in Pennsylvania, they tend to be culturally conservative voters. Republicans hold a comfortable majority in the state senate and regained control of the state house and the governor’s office in 2010. But so far Republicans have not come up with a top challenger to Democratic Senator Robert Casey, Jr., who ought to be vulnerable, so that help Democrats a bit.

I’m sorely tempted to put Pennsylvania into at least the “toss-up” camp, if not the “lean GOP” camp; but the GOP’s poor history in presidential races in the Keystone state lead me to keep it in the lean Obama column. Potential +20.

15. Oregon. Oregon? Oregon hasn’t gone Republican since the Reagan landslide of 1984. Obama carried it by 16 points. But Republicans should be expected to make a charge here. The state is not hopeless for the Grand Old Party – the State House is deadlocked 30-30 and the State Senate is just 16-14 Democrat. Democrats have won the last three gubernatorial races without reaching 51% of the vote. Outside of progressive Portland, the capital of Salem, and the College town of Eugene, the state leans Republican, and much of the eastern state is as deep a red as any place in Idaho or Utah. PPP has Obama at 49% approval, but Gallup gives Obama just a 44% approval score. A July poll from Survey USA mirrored Gallup, with a 44/53 approval/disapproval. Oregon has a 9.5% unemployment rate.

Can Republicans win Oregon in 2012? Hell, yes. Potential + 7.

16. Michigan. Think of Michigan as a slightly smaller Pennsylvania. As in Pennsylvania, many registered Democrats are quite conservative culturally. As in Pennsylvania, Democrats have won the last 5 presidential elections here. As in Pennsylvania, the GOP has put a lot into Michigan in the last several presidential elections, but in the end the Democrats always win, often going away. Obama won here 57.3% to 40.9%. Obama’s approval has also held up pretty well here, at 50% per Gallup.

But maybe Michiganders are fed up. Republicans made huge gains in 2010 to capture both houses of the state legislature, and won the Governor’s office in an 18 point blowout after eight years of the glamorous but utterly incompentent Jennifer Granholm (remind you of anyone?). Then there is the 10.9% unemployment.  And while the Romney name isn’t magic in Michigan – since the popular George Romney left office in 1969, Ronna Romney, Lenore Romney, and Scott Romney have all lost bids for statewide office – if Mitt Romney is the nominee, you have to think there will be more than a little nostalgia for the golden age when Mitt’s father was Governor. Potential +16.

17. Maine CD 1. Like Nebraska, Maine awards individual electoral votes for winning congressional districts. The GOP made huge gains in Maine in 2010 (see below) and could well take the electoral college vote for the First Congressional District, even while losing the state. Potential: +1

Total Lean Democrat: 44.

Others:
There’s not much point to analysing a “likely Obama” category – suffice to say that the GOP has some other potential targets, but if they can win them, it probably won’t be necessary – they’ll almost certainly have picked up the needed electoral college votes in the states above. However, among those possibilities:

18. Maine: Obama ’08, 57.7%; Approval 50% (Gallup); Unemployment 7.7%; Republicans gained 23 house and 6 senate seats in 2010 to take control of state legislature; won governship. As noted, Maine splits its electoral votes. If the Republican candidate wins the entire state, that would 3 more votes, in addition to the one discussed above. Potential +3.

19. Minnesota: Obama ’08, 54.1%; Approval 52% (Gallup); Unemployment 7.2%. Republicans gained 25 house and 16 senate seats to take state legislature in 2010. Don’t count on Michelle Bachmann winning her home state if she’s the nominee. Potential + 10

20. Washington: Obama ’08, 57.3%; Approval 50% (Gallup), 47/50% (SUSA); Unemployment 9.3%; marginal GOP gains in 2010. Potential +12.

21. New Jersey: Obama ’08, 57.1%; Approval 54% (Gallup). Only if Chris Christie is on the ticket, or the bottom falls out for Obama, could New Jersey be in play. Potential +14.

Is there any state where Obama might make a gain? I’ve assumed not, but if I were to pick one, it might be Arizona, with it’s burgeoning Hispanic population. McCain carried his home state with just 53.4%; Republican legislative gains were unimpressive in 2010; and for all the fuss about immigration, Arizona’s unemployment is high but not out of control compared to the rest of the country- 9.4%. Obama’s Gallup approval number is 44% in Arizona.

In this analysis, I’ve assumed here that the Republican candidate will be reasonably traditional – probably Romney or Perry. With a Palin, Paul, or Bachmann candidacy, for example, we’d almost have to say all bets are off (which is not to say those three, or others, can’t or shouldn’t win, just that their nominations would seem to totally scramble traditional thinking about how the election might go).

So, if we exclude Arizona and the four “likely Obama” states, we can figure that the Republican nominee – assuming reasonable competence – begins with 179 electoral votes: the 173 won by McCain, plus the 6 votes those states have gained as a result of the census. From there he or she will need another 91, from a potential pool of 169 possible. Or to put it another way, he or she will need to carry those by 91-78 or better. Is that doable? At this point, I’d say it is more probable than not.  But remember, it is going to be a very nasty campaign, and a very hard slog.

Cross posted from Division of Labour.