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McCain, Obama Aim to Redraw Electoral Map

June 9, 2008 at 6:15 PM EDT
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Presumptive presidential candidates Sen. John McCain and Sen. Barack Obama both claim that they can redraw the electoral map this year by courting voters from the other party's traditional base. Political analysts Stuart Rothenberg and Amy Walter discuss the 2008 electoral map.

JUDY WOODRUFF: As the general election campaign between John McCain and Barack Obama kicks off in earnest, both candidates claim that they can poach voters from the other’s turf and redraw the electoral map.

Well, here to tell us which states they see as the battlegrounds heading into November are Stuart Rothenberg, editor and publisher of the Rothenberg Political Report, and Amy Walter, she’s editor-in-chief of the Hotline, National Journal’s political daily.

Hello to both of you. And before we look at this map and how you think these states are leaning, we’re almost five months away from the election. Tell us what you’re basing these estimations on at this point, Amy.

AMY WALTER, Editor-in-Chief, The Hotline: Well, the one thing that we shouldn’t base them on today is looking at polling. There are a whole bunch of people who are looking at…


AMY WALTER: Should not, because it’s still way too early. Most of these polls that have been taken in these states, for example, they were a month or two months old. And they really reflected, I think in many ways, what was going on in the primary election between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, not so much about where voters necessarily sit today. So I’m a little wary about using the polls there.

But I think you need to look at a couple of things, obviously, past election results, and not just the Bush number or the Kerry number or the Gore numbers, but look at how they played in 2006, how federal candidates did in some of these states.

And then demographic changes, some states that were competitive even in 2004 have changed dramatically because of influx of new voters or just in terms of where the issue focuses today. It makes a state that maybe looked more reliably situated in one party leaning toward the other.

JUDY WOODRUFF: What would you add to that?

STUART ROTHENBERG, Rothenberg Political Report: I’d simply add to what extent we are looking at some polling, and that’s the national numbers, because when you look at states, you compare them to the national performance and to other states.

So I assume — I think both Amy and I are figuring that this contest, at this point, looks close. Therefore, you have to look to the swing states that in the past, the past few election cycles, have really been in the middle.

And as Amy points out, you look to changes. So we look at, for example, Virginia and Colorado, where Democrats have done very well in some of these recent statewide races, and we see something else going on.

There’s one other thing, Judy, some seat-of-the-pants analysis. So Barack Obama does not do very well among blue-collar, working-class, white Democrats. That gets our attention. We look at West Virginia and Kentucky, where they’re important, and we downgrade, I think, his showing there.

Republican and Democratic states

Amy Walter
The Hotline
Turning out just a couple percentage points more of African-American vote may not make Barack Obama the winner in some of these [southern] states, but it sure could help a Senate candidate or a House candidate.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So you're factoring in how he's doing in some of these -- both of them are doing in these demographics. All right, let's remind everybody you need 270 electoral votes to win.

Let's talk, first, about the Democratic -- the states that you both agree are either reliably Democratic -- those are darker blue here -- or leaning Democratic.

Stu, no disagreement between the two of you, Minnesota, New Jersey?

STUART ROTHENBERG: I don't think there's much disagreement here. These are states that have been performing Democratic. They generally are liberal. They are voting Democratic in election, no matter how close -- even in good Republican years, they tend to stay Democratic.

A few years ago, Oregon and Washington were on everybody's target list as toss-up states, competitive states. You know, they could be. In a really good Republican year, they certainly could go Republican. But in this environment, it seems less likely.

AMY WALTER: Right. I mean, I think these states are so much tougher for John McCain than we're going to talk about the Republican states that could be in play for Barack Obama.

But you look at a place like New Jersey, which, you know, back in 1992, that was considered a toss-up state. I mean, the Electoral College does evolve every four years, in terms of which states are supposed to be battlegrounds.

And New Jersey -- in many ways, we say, well, this is a place where a moderate Republican should be able to do well, right? He should be able to do well among suburban voters here. There are a lot of Republicans who sit in the delegation in New Jersey.

And at the same time, we just had a race in 2006 where you had a moderate Republican running in a very bad environment and lost the Senate race.

JUDY WOODRUFF: All right, now, let's look at those states that, again, both of you agree these are either reliably Republican or leaning Republican. And these add up to, what, 185 electoral votes.

Amy, what's interesting here? You've got several Southern states in there.

AMY WALTER: Right, I think...

JUDY WOODRUFF: I mean, as not reliable...

AMY WALTER: As not reliable.

JUDY WOODRUFF: ... but just leaning.

AMY WALTER: Right. I mean, you're looking at places, when you think about Arkansas or Georgia, Mississippi, Louisiana, obviously significant African-American population.

When I look at these states, I'm not thinking so much that Barack Obama wins these states, as his impact potentially on lower -- on the lower-ballot candidates, people running for the Senate or the House. Turning out just a couple percentage points more of African-American vote may not make Barack Obama the winner in some of these states, but it sure could help a Senate candidate or a House candidate.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And the total, Stu, 185. It's a little bit less than what you were giving the Democrats.

STUART ROTHENBERG: Yes, we're talking about, I think, 23 states with 185 electoral votes. This is a pretty solid chunk. Both parties begin with pretty good cores to begin with. And it's going to come down to about a dozen states, probably, the election.

The battleground states

Stuart Rothenberg
The Rothenberg Political Report
They are battlegrounds. And that means there are toss-ups, so that we can't tell right now which party can win.

JUDY WOODRUFF: All right, well, now let's talk about the states that we're going to be spending most of our time on for the next four or five months, the battleground states.

Now, these are not all -- just to clarify here, Stu -- these are not all pure toss-ups, are they?


JUDY WOODRUFF: I mean, some of these are states that -- we may say they're battlegrounds, but...

STUART ROTHENBERG: Well, no, they are battlegrounds. And that means there are toss-ups, so that we can't tell right now which party can win.

But there are also a handful of states here that both parties are going to need to target, that the Republicans know they're behind the curve in a state like Pennsylvania, but it is the kind of state that I think they're going to spend resources in, that John McCain thinks he needs to win.

And, conversely, there are some Republican states here -- Virginia, North Carolina -- the Democrats think they can actually pick off. So these, I believe, are -- I think battleground is a great way of describing them.

JUDY WOODRUFF: All right, then, what -- for example, I mean, let's look at a state like Pennsylvania. I mean, the Democrats are pretty confident about Pennsylvania. But the Republicans, as you just said, think they've got at a shot.

STUART ROTHENBERG: Well, when you look at Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Michigan -- these are the three states that we have on here that Republicans are targeting -- if you look back, the Democrats have been winning these states the past few presidential elections.

But they have often been competitive. They've often been on these lists the past few cycles of the states that could go either way. Democrats have been winning, but when you look at the make-up of them, they include a lot of these blue-collar Reagan Democrats that it looks like John McCain should be able to attract.

We don't know whether there will be enough. We don't know at the end of the day whether they will be, how competitive they'll be. But they're in play now.

AMY WALTER: Well, and that's part of the discussion -- it kind of goes back to this polling question, which is we've been focused almost exclusively in this Democratic primary on demographics, right? Every time we come on here, we've just been slicing and dicing on demographics, not on issues.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Gender, age, income, et cetera.

AMY WALTER: Right. And whether you're a white, working-class voter, whether you're a female, white, working-class voter, now, for the first time, we're going to see issues actually playing in this campaign.

I mean, the fact that issues between Barack Obama and John McCain, where they are on complete opposite ends of the spectrum, I think that's the kind of thing that we have to look for.

So if, right now, we've been focused so much on this demographic, I'm curious to see in places like -- all right, when we talk about Wisconsin and Pennsylvania and Ohio, where the economy is the number-one issue -- it's a driver in every state, but, you know, you're talking about Ohio especially -- is that issue going to be more important to these voters, these demographic groups, than what it was a few months ago, back when it was a Democratic primary?

McCain transcending the Bush brand

Amy Walter
The Hotline
[New Hampshire] is an interesting place to sort of test the John McCain theory, which is, you know, look, I have a personal identity and branding that's different from George Bush.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, again, in terms of the states you see Republicans looking to pick off, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Michigan, did I leave anything out? I mean, they're looking to pick off all of them, no, but...

AMY WALTER: New Hampshire is a fun place to look at.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And New Hampshire, which went Republican the last time, had been...

AMY WALTER: Well, it went Republican, then Democrat.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And then Democrat.

AMY WALTER: And this is an interesting place to sort of test the John McCain theory, which is, you know, look, I have a personal identity and branding that's different from George Bush.

George Bush, not only did he lose New Hampshire in 2004, but his party got wiped out in 2006. There were only two members of Congress in New Hampshire. They both lost. They lost control of the state legislature. This was ground zero in 2006.

How does John McCain survive here? Because he has a base here, his two wins in the primaries. He thinks that that can transcend the brand. And if he can do it there, then that's going to be very good news for him.

JUDY WOODRUFF: All right, from the other perspective, Stu, some of the states the Democrats covet that have gone Republican?

STUART ROTHENBERG: Well, they want to win back Iowa, New Mexico, states that they've had a bit of an edge recently that they lost last time. Certainly, they want to hold Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.

But they want to try to win Colorado, which has been a pretty Republican state recently, where they have had gains in legislative offices, statewide offices. The kinds of voters there, the suburban voters, the upscale white voters who have been voting for Obama in primaries, are there, as well.

They're hoping to go toward the South. Virginia and North Carolina are two states they think they can play in. I think North Carolina is an awful tough haul. And Virginia is not easy, either, but, again, recent elections, Kaine, Warner. Virginia are showing something for the Democrats.

1980 sweep or 2000 split?

Stuart Rothenberg
The Rothenberg Political Report
It looks like a squeaker now, but, of course, this could be 1980, when voters [...] at the end of the campaign, they decided, "We want change, and Reagan is good enough." They went for him en masse.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Now, Stu, you have projected, I guess -- among one of the things you've said is that it's possible in this -- of course, anything is possible -- but that Obama could end up winning the popular vote and McCain the electoral vote? So a reprise of...

STUART ROTHENBERG: If you start with the 2000 map, Judy, there, where the Republicans won the Electoral College and the Democrats won the popular vote, there are only a handful of states that are likely to move.

And, you know, look, it's very early. Nobody is making any predictions here.

But given the relatively few states in play, the fact that Obama seems quite strong in the popular vote, but has a more difficult time -- Democrats waste votes in the Electoral College.

So Senator Obama will rack up big margins in Illinois, and New York, and probably California, and a bunch of those states. But if John McCain squeaks by in Pennsylvania, squeaks by in Michigan, holds Ohio narrowly, and Florida, yes, that's part of the reason why I think we're headed to a very interesting election.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And what could change all this between now and November the 4th?

AMY WALTER: Everything, of course.

I mean, we keep saying that, but...

JUDY WOODRUFF: We're going to have this conversation 17 times.

AMY WALTER: Many, many, many times. Obviously, the issue environment is going to play a big part. And I think we keep coming back to the fact that we just haven't had for voters a real discussion between the two candidates about this election yet.

And so I think that could -- you know, you could start to see some of these states moving in and out of the battleground, but I think we're still going to see -- because I take Florida as one example.

Are Democrats really going to -- if they see themselves doing well in some of these other states, are they going to spend the money it takes to win in a place like Florida, if they feel like they have enough of them in the bag?

STUART ROTHENBERG: It looks like a squeaker now, but, of course, this could be 1980, when voters -- if you think back to 1980, they were uncertain about Ronald Reagan. They were sticking with Jimmy Carter; they weren't thrilled with him.

At the end of the campaign, they decided, "We want change, and Reagan is good enough." They went for him en masse. The election turned. Democrats are hoping the same thing happens this time.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And we are -- as we say, 17, 25 more times between now and election day, we're going to be doing this. But thank you for talking to us on June the 9th. Stu Rothenberg, Amy Walter, thank you both.

And on our Web site, by the way, you can calculate how battleground states may influence the general election by using our interactive map. And analysts Mark Shields and David Brooks are going to be taking your questions on the campaign in our Insider Forum. It's all at