by Paul Goldman
In a well-written Wall Street Journal article this morning, UVA Political Science Professor Larry Sabato looks into his crystal ball for the 2012 presidential election. In doing so, Sabato finds mostly smoke, not much fire, as regards those in the press and politics claiming the White House is burning through its electoral college stash.
The good professor has the appropriate, necessary hedges to his November 2012 predictions. As Emerson said, “events are in the saddle and they ride mankind.” But asterisks, zigs, and a few zags aside, the UVA Professor provides, in the short space of a newspaper column, the long view of the electoral college. That is, this is the long view, short of aberrations like 1912 (TR running on the Bull Moose ticket), 1932 (Hoover clueless in the White House)], 1964 [Goldwater promising to lob a nuke into the Kremlin bathroom), 1980 (Carter serious about asking his daughter Amy for nuclear policy advice) and yes, 2008, when candidate Barack Obama ran the table on Republicans McCain and Palin as the legs of the economy wobbled badly.
But assuming that 2012 is basically within the standards of deviation acceptable to a Las Vegas casino operator, then Professor Sabato’s analysis should bring a smile to the President’s supporters in Virginia, and nationally as well.
From his perch at Mr. Jefferson’s University, Professor Sabato sees the 2012 race coming down to “seven super-swing states with 85 electors” won by the President last time: Colorado (9), Florida (29), Iowa (6), Nevada (6), New Hampshire (4), Ohio (18) and Virginia (13).
As for the other citizens, their votes don’t create any suspense up in Sabato country. Instead, Sabato finds the GOP has a “lock or lead” on 206 electoral votes, the Democrats on 247. This 453 “spoken for” electors are allocated in the predictable manner: the North goes Democratic, the Midwest returns to its normal pattern (Indiana back in the GOP column), the Great Plains and Rockies hugging the norm, the same with the Pacific Coast and the states in the South.
GOP and Democratic gurus will argue with different spokes on the Sabato Wheel of Fortune, and they can make plausible cases for saying a particular state should be in the toss-up category. So yes, one can say the Sabato analysis is too much the conventional wisdom based on too cautious conventionality, from their point of view.
But the beauty of Larry’s electoral math is this: assuming the GOP doesn’t sign up for Goldwater II, and the public isn’t in an Anybody-But-The-Incumbent mood, then his map helps cut through the 24/7 noise machine masquerading as informed commentary.
First, it shows the slow demise of Ohio’s relative importance. No Republican has ever been elected President without carrying the Buckeye State; JFK is the one Democrat who reached the White House while losing Ohio. Yet under Larry’s analysis, the new normal is Ohio no longer in the must-win camp, although still very important. Both sides can triumph next year yet still lose Ohio. That is good news, statistically, for the GOP, but not in reality one would bet.
Second, Florida is now the must-win GOP state, as long as Texas stays solid. This is why freshmen GOP Senator Marco Rubio leads the party’s short list of vice presidential candidates. The President carried the Sunshine State last time. The GOP Governor is hugely unpopular. The Republicans will have a crucial presidential primary here early in their nomination process. If one of their hopefuls shows great strength in Florida, it might indicate the party’s best choice for a nominee. McCain won the GOP fight here last time, crushing Romney’s hopes. This time, the Mittster is betting on a better result.
Third, the state of Virginia may have become, largely due to NOVA, the key to the President’s re-election. Like Florida, the Old Dominion, due to the huge growth on the Washington suburbs, no longer fits the classic Southern state political pattern. In years past, the state of Ohio has been lost to Democrats when economic and social issues turned the southern part strongly against them. Florida and Ohio were close in 2008, the Obama margin narrower on a percentage basis than Virginia. So in the Sabato analysis, they could easily swing back to the GOP.
Adding them to the GOP column gives the Republican nominee 253 electoral votes to the President’s 247. Of the remaining 5 states, Virginia would then be the largest single bloc of electoral votes. Virginia would not have enough to put either party over the top, but an Obama loss here would then require him to run the table on the remaining four smaller states to win the election, a loss in any one of them being politically fatal.
For sure, it is possible to juggle the numbers in many ways to give this or that “super swing-state” extra importance. But a solid GOP ticket in the current type of national mood would have an excellent chance of carrying both Florida and Ohio if Sabato is right.
Moreover, the anti-Washington bashing by Republicans seems to be at risk of morphing into a more direct attack on federal workers in DC metro and government-connected contractors and other entities providing a lot of employment in Virginia. All politics being local, as the adage goes, this could produce an anti-GOP backlash in NOVA, in turn pushing Virginia more into the Obama column.
To summarize: Sabato’s analysis, giving the President 247 likely electoral votes unless the arc of standard deviation from the norm really bulges out, is far more bullish for Obama’s re-election than one would imagine, given the thrilled voices on the right and the long faces on the left at the moment.
It also suggest why the President is coming to Richmond on Friday, his first stop after making the highly anticipated jobs speech Thursday.
Demographically, Virginia seems better for him than Florida or Ohio. With Sabato finding North Carolina trending Republican after going for Obama last time by a nose, the Old Dominion may have become the new Democratic “it” state for 2012.
Sure, Larry’s crystal ball could be looking in all the wrong places for 2012. But we see again why Republican Governor Bob McDonnell remains high on the VEEP list, since his winning strategy in 2009 would seem a lot better for the GOP than the ones being tried right now.
It might be that the close-fought Kaine vs. Allen Senate contest could be an early tell on the Sabato analysis. If Allen were to show unexpected strength, it could be a rising GOP tide lifting all the boats. On the other hand, Kaine showing more heft than predicted might indicate a Democratic resurgence.
So, while the Sunshine state, so cruel to Al Gore, and Samuel Tilden before that (the 1876 Democratic nominee had his election stolen in Florida, then only 4 electoral votes) could be readying yet another role in history, Virginia is gaining in that direction. And as they say, it isn’t the size of the dog in the fight that matters, it is the size of the fight in the dog.
Florida might be twice the size as Virginia. But a Democratic win in Virginia could take a lot bigger bite out of the GOP. Is it too late to switch the Democratic 2012 national convention to Richmond or Norfolk?