Narrows? How about razor thin?
Two years after his dramatic expansion of the electoral map paved the way to a landslide win, President Barack Obama’s reelection campaign appears likely to resemble the political trench warfare that marked the 2000 and 2004 presidential races.
Last week’s midterm elections saw the trio of conservative-leaning states Obama captured in 2008 — Virginia, North Carolina and Indiana — return to their Republican tendencies while more traditional swing states also broke sharply toward the GOP.
Perhaps most worrisome for Democrats, Rust Belt and Midwest states that had been trending toward the party even before Obama’s election saw Republicans pile up victories. In places such as Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin, where the president won with double-digit margins two years ago, the GOP captured offices up and down the ballot and demonstrated that they remain politically competitive in those states.
Midterm elections are notoriously flawed indicators for subsequent presidential races. And in an era of political fluidity, where an agitated electorate is quick to register its discontent, much can change over the span of two years.
But overwhelming Republican gains this year, combined with President Obama’s descent in the polls and an economy that is lagging badly in critical electoral battlegrounds such as Florida suggests a return to a national election measured in political inches, in which the two candidates vie for advantage on the familiar terrain of Hamilton County, Ohio, and along Florida’s I-4 corridor.
“The map does look a lot like 2004,” said longtime Democratic strategist Jim Jordan, likening the coming presidential race to the clash between President George W. Bush and Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry. “It does feel like back to the future. We’re going back to political equilibrium.”
Democratic consultant Paul Begala noted that of the eight states that went from red to blue between 2004 and 2008 on the presidential level, Democrats won either the governor’s race or a Senate race in just two of them — Nevada and Colorado — during the past two years. Combined, those two are likely to deliver just 15 electoral votes in 2012.
“If Obama holds the Kerry states and carries only the states in which Democrats prevailed in 2010, he loses,” Begala said.
What many in the party believe — and more now are willing to voice publicly — is that 2008 may have been a referendum on President George W. Bush and that Obama’s victory was owed in large part to exhaustion with the outgoing administration.
“People wanted to get rid of Bush in 2004, but they just couldn’t buy into Kerry,” said Colorado-based Democratic consultant Mike Stratton. “So effectively running against a guy who was hugely unpopular was greatly to Obama’s advantage.”
“A ton of people who were for him just hated Bush,” added Jonathan Prince, another veteran Democratic strategist.
Prince suggested that the 2008 race didn’t represent a shift away from the previous red-and-blue trends but rather reflected the voters’ response to a deeply unpopular president and a lackluster GOP nominee.
“All the anger that built up favored the Democratic side and opportunities opened up that don’t normally happen and shouldn’t happen,” he said.
The three most extraordinary wins came in Virginia, North Carolina and Indiana — none of which had been carried by a Democrat presidential candidate in decades.
Yet the swing voters who lifted Obama in these states — which are likely have a combined 39 electoral votes in 2012 — wholeheartedly supported the GOP last week, leading local party officials to warn that Democrats must find a way to appeal to the political center again if they expect to compete there in two years.
“It’ll be more difficult,” conceded Indiana Democratic Chairman Dan Parker, adding that Obama must make progress on job creation and deficit reduction to win back the moderates who fled the party last week.
What worries Parker, though, is the view among some liberals that the party shouldn’t tolerate the sort of centrist Democrats who populate the Hoosier State.
“Does the Democratic Party want to be a progressive party or a majority party?” he asked, lamenting “the vilification of moderate Democrats.”
Gary Pearce, a longtime North Carolina Democratic strategist, said he was also worried about some of the finger-pointing at the Blue Dogs in Congress.
“If we win fewer states, we’ll be stronger — somebody needs to explain that to me,” Pearce said.
Noting his state’s growing minority population, he argued: “It would be a huge mistake for Democrats to abandon us.”
If there was any good news to be found by Democrats in an election defeat that Obama himself referred to as a “shellacking,” it was that the election returns reiterated the GOP’s long-term demographic trends: Older voters made up an outsized share of the electorate, younger Americans voted in smaller numbers than in 2008 and Hispanics were pivotal in a handful of key Democratic victories.
Even as the industrial states of the heartland look more difficult for Obama after this year, much of the West showed signs of promise. With fast-growing populations of voters with loose political allegiances, the region could offer the president a bulwark.
“That’s where long-term demographic destiny will show itself most immediately,” Jordan said.
Most reassuring to party strategists about last Tuesday was the exit poll data that showed Hispanics breaking overwhelmingly for Democrats in the region.
“The key to Democrats in the long run are Hispanics,” veteran consultant Harold Ickes said. “They are clearly an offset against losses in other segments of the vote.”
If he can hold all the western states he won in 2008 and pick up Arizona — which, as John McCain’s home state, wasn’t competitive last time — Obama will have likely won 109 electoral votes. That’s over one-third of the 270 he would need to be reelected.
“Part of President Obama’s remarkable victory in 2008 was how he spread the field,” Begala observed. “f I were advising him, I would tell him to press that strategy; do not retreat to fighting only in Ohio and Florida (although they’re critical). The demography of many of the Obama states that went red in 2010 is working in favor of Obama and the Democrats — in 2012 and beyond.”
But filing suit against the controversial immigration law in Arizona — a state in which voters ousted two Democratic House incumbents and elected a Republican governor — may forestall party progress there. And the massive losses the party suffered on the other side of the Mississippi River, especially in the heartland, remain a troubling omen.
Parker pointed to Indiana communities filled with automotive workers whose jobs were saved thanks to the president’s rescue of domestic car companies.
“That these counties voted overwhelmingly Republican is a problem,” he said.
Another experienced midwestern Democratic political operative fretted about how much more difficult 2012 could be following GOP gubernatorial wins in Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Iowa and Wisconsin — which together will likely make up 70 electoral votes.
“Having a map that doesn’t include those states seems impossible,” the operative said.
But, the source added, “If you still win Ohio, you can get to 270.”
Buckeye State Republicans, however, say that task will be considerably more difficult in 2012 than it was when Obama carried the state by 4 percentage points two years ago.
“We didn’t just kick in their firewall, we obliterated that firewall,” crowed Ohio GOP Chairman Kevin DeWine, touting the party’s historic gains in the state, which included the ouster of five Democratic House incumbents and Democratic Gov. Ted Strickland, as well as an easy victory in the state’s open Senate race.
Noting that Obama has been in the state 12 times during the past 18 months, DeWine said Republican John Kasich’s gubernatorial win had dealt the president a blow.
“They know the power of having the infrastructure of state government echoing a president’s campaign message,” he said.
The Democrats’ best hope may be for the economy to improve so Obama can make the case to voters that he’s making progress.
“How’s that old song go?” asked Virginia Democratic chairman and veteran state legislator Dick Cranwell before offering a Southern-accented rendition of “Time Is On My Side.”
Republicans have a ready answer for that message, rooted in their big victories this year.
“I’ll make the case that John Kasich is responsible for any economic improvement,” DeWine quipped.
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