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December 27, 2006

Barack Obama and the Electoral Map

by Nicholas Beaudrot of Electoral Math

I want to make it very clear that this is not part of any effort here at Unofficial Edwards Central to sow doubt on the hypothetical Obama candidacy (which currently looks more than hypothetical; I mean, why else have the Sun write a four-pager on your foreign policy advisers?). I don't have an axe to grind with any of the candidates at this point; I think they all might make good Presidents (including Hillary, though obviously the further left-of-center your personal politics are, the less appealing President Hillary is). But I would like to take an as-dispassionate-as-possible look at the Presidential electoral map, to see what the value ad of an Obama candidacy would be from a tactical electoral standpoint. Does he expand the offensive map? Can he put competitive blue states out of Republican reach? Or is the Obama effect actually quite small? For purposes, I've split states into seven categories based on their competitiveness in 2004:

  • Midnight Blue: HI, CA, IL, NY, DC, MD, CT, VT, MA, RI, ME  (154 Electoral Votes)
  • Royal Blue: WA, DE, NJ, (29 EVs)
  • Pale Blue: OR, MN, MI,  (34 EVs)
  • Purple: NM, IA, WI, OH, PA, NH (67 EVs)
  • Pale red:  NV, CO, FL (41 EVs)
  • Ruby red: AZ, MO, VA (34 EVs)
  • Crimson red: AK, ID, MT, UT, WY, ND, SD, NE, KS, OK, TX, AR, LA, TN, MS, AL, KY, IN, WV, GA, NC, SC (179 EVs)

Further, a look at the Bush's November approval ratings shows Ohio, Missouri, New Mexico, Nevada, and Arkansas as the red states most unhappy with Bush. So keep that in mind.

  1. What blue states turn a deeper shade of blue?
  2. What red states turn a lighter shade of red?
  3. Is there any backlash that causes some blue states to become lighter blue, or red states to become deeper red?

Assume McCain does not win the nomination (since McCain changes the map dramatically). This is a discussion thread. Kick start it with my answers below.

I suspect that Obama's candidacy would help immensely in the Royal & Pale Blue states like Washington, Oregon, and Minnesota, which would immediately become uncompetitive. It might also make Wisconsin and Iowa more friendly territory. But without any clue what his message is, it's hard to tell how else he might expand the map, beyond using pure charisma to woo the public to his side. This makes him look more like a Savior than a Counter. But there are some possibilities:

  • One possibility is that Obama's candidacy inspires minority voters, particularly African-Americans, to vote in heretofore unseen numbers. That might put parts of the Deep South into play, notably Mississippi (37% African-American), Georgia (30% African-American) and South Carolina (29% African-American), as well parts of the Southwest. However, across the South, there is a direct correlation between the concentration of African-Americans and white preference for the Republican party; the most competitive state for Democrats is Arkansas (16% African-American), the least is Mississippi. So the places where this strategy would raise turnout the most are the state that are currently some of the least competitive in the country. What's more, as Galston and Kamarck detailed back in the '80s, hypermobilization doesn't really work as an electoral strategy; any sufficiently large mobilization effort requires tremendous resources and would attrack national attention, leading the opposition to ramp up their own mobilization efforts. For this strategy to be successful, it would require engaging the Latino population as well, which might put Arizona, Nevada, Colorado, and Texas (yes, Texas) into play.
  • Another is that gen-Y breaks heavily for Obama, in the way gen-X broke heavily for Bill Clinton (though the Perot portions of gen-X have since become Republicans). But the youth vote is a small portion of the population, and more or less uniformly concentrated throughout the country. So I can't see how that helps him win any particular state either.
  • The more intriguing possibility is that Obama pleases the Amy Sullivans of the world and annoys the Duncan Blacks, convincing 10% of the regular church-going population to vote for him through faith-infused appeals on AIDS, poverty, whatever, coupled with vigorous support for voluntary school prayer. That would really change the map substantially, putting Arkansas, Tennessee, Virginia, West Virginia, and perhaps more states into play.
  • I can't see any real backlash from the Obama candidacy, but perhaps I am too optimistic about the number of people who would simply refuse to vote for the African-American candidate. Beyond currently uncompetitive states, it might hurt in parts of Ohio, maybe elsewhere in the Midwest. But Obama's "he's so articulate!" persona innoculates him from many race-baiting attacks.

So, I think the gain from an Obama candidacy is really minimal, unless he succeeds in wooing regular church going voters. That does not mean he would have to pander to the absolutist religious right; it just means treating religious issues with respect, framing debates in terms of morality rather than policy, and, yes, not using the phrase "separation of church and state").


December 27, 2006 | Permalink


I think it's a lot harder to pick out tactical, state-by-state disadvantages than it is to pick out advantages. Doesn't take a genius to figure out that H.R. Clinton and Kerry wouldn't do well in places like Virginia.

In general, Obama's main electoral assets are that he's just so damn likable while being sufficiently complex to avoid pigeonholing.

He's like our Reagan.

Posted by: Geek, Esq. | Dec 27, 2006 3:33:47 PM

Any republican will be able to defeat Obama across the country.

Sorry guys, I don't see the Obama appeal.

His selling points seems to be that he is an African American success story and he is good giving speeches. He is also the current press darling.

This isn't going to be enough for him to win the Presidency. He lacks the gravitas needed to win a presidential election in post 9/11 world.

The primaries are more than a year away. The press infatuation with him will end by that time. They will eventually tire of his bromides and start treating him like any other politician.

"He's like our Reagan."

Forget it. What helped Reagan win was the conservative infrastructure in place in 1980. Conservatives started building an infrastructure in the 60s and 70s and by the time Reagan came along the infrastructure was ready to elect a right wing president.

Another thing; Reagan was white.

The country was culturally receptive to Reagan's John Wayne shtick. I don't think they will be culturally receptive to Obama.

Don't underestimate the race factor or the fact that Obama comes from a muslim background.

Posted by: DonB | Dec 27, 2006 3:57:56 PM

I hate to say it, but I think the bigotry factor deserves a bit more weight.

Posted by: fiat lux | Dec 27, 2006 3:58:45 PM

I think it is pretty hard to analyze Obama now. No one has had any need, or interenst in, pointing out his weaknesses. That will change somewhat as the primary heats up and a huge amount should he win the nomination and go on to the general election. It is unlikely that the Obama that exists now will exist in Nov 08 should he run. Right now he is somewhat of an empty vessel, into which all sorts of people can pour their hopes and dreams.

This is a result of his not really having much of a political campaigning history. He became a Senator without any real opposition, which is somewhat unusual. That is something that would make me very nervous about his nomination if I were a Democrat, especially if the primary battle is not hard fought. Expirience at campaigning is an invaluable asset. This leaves aside his reletively short history of governance as well.

I like Obama, he seems like a very good guy, and I think he has a bright future. I don't think he is ready for the Presidency though. If I were him, I would either be looking at the Vice Presidency or Governor of Illinois.

Posted by: Dave Justus | Dec 27, 2006 4:01:55 PM

"I can't see any real backlash from the Obama candidacy, but perhaps I am too optimistic"

Boy, you are naive.

You really believe that the religious voters of the south will go for Obama even after they find out about his cocaine use, pro abortion position and the fact that both his father and step father were muslim?

They will go for Obama even though in GOP they will have their anti choice, intelligent design dream candidate?

"faith-infused appeals on AIDS, poverty, whatever,"

Religious right voters don't care about AIDS or poverty. They are mostly focused on regulating sexual behavior. They see AIDS as just punishment for promiscuity. If Harold Ford couldn't win over church goers Obama has no chance.

Posted by: DonB | Dec 27, 2006 4:06:58 PM

"It is unlikely that the Obama that exists now will exist in Nov 08 should he run."

This is what a lot of people don't understand.

Obama of December 2006 - Unexamined, untested media darling on a book tour repeating harmless talking points like "lets all get along".

Obama of 2008 - By the time primaries arrive the media infatuation will be over. His every gaffe will be magnified a thousand times over. Remember the Kerry botched joke? He will participate in debates and start answering hostile questions. His past including coke use and sweetheart real estate deals will be examined.

In short Obama of 2008 will not be the Obama of December 2006.

Obama of 2006 is an empty vessel into which people project their hopes.

Posted by: DonB | Dec 27, 2006 4:16:22 PM

Don, Obama wouldn't be running for the Republican nonmination.

I think Dave J sums up Obama's position well enough.

Posted by: Sanpete | Dec 27, 2006 4:17:27 PM

"Don, Obama wouldn't be running for the Republican nonmination."

I thought we were asked to predict his electoral prospects in the general election.

He would be lucky to get Mondale level electoral votes.

Posted by: DonB | Dec 27, 2006 4:22:44 PM

MA is missing; there are 50 entries, but one is DC.

Posted by: DonBoy | Dec 27, 2006 4:30:44 PM

Massachusetts isn't in your list.

Posted by: weboy | Dec 27, 2006 4:31:05 PM

He lacks the gravitas needed to win a presidential election in post 9/11 world.

Unlike the winner of the 2004 Presidential election....

Posted by: Thlayli | Dec 27, 2006 4:32:57 PM

Okay, MA is midnight blue. Shocker, I know.

Posted by: Nicholas Beaudrot | Dec 27, 2006 4:46:57 PM

I'm tired of people extolling the importance of gravitas - we have as current White House resident one of the most unserious, vehemently unintellectual Presidents of the past 50 years. And remember, one of the big questions people kept coming back to during the '04 elections was which candidate you'd rather have a beer with. I don't see gravitas being the deciding point in '08, not by a longshot. It's, of course, quite possible that the GOP candidate will try and run on such a platform, but McCain's Daily Show appearances and Giuliani's pictures in drag and appearances on SNL should really negate that.

Posted by: Jon O. | Dec 27, 2006 5:13:15 PM

Obama has the kind of gravitas that probably matters most. He presents as serious and as a heavyweight thinker. We'll see what goes with that in terms of substance.

I think Obama is as likely to put swing and Southern states in play as Edwards, judging from how things look now. Both have broad appeal, and as NB says, tere's the possibility that Obams would energize the black vote more than usual. I don't see much trouble among anyone actually likely to swing in terms of race or Muslm parentage. But it's still very early. And we don't need the redder Southern states to win. Florida would be good.

Posted by: Sanpete | Dec 27, 2006 5:21:56 PM

"we have as current White House resident one of the most unserious, vehemently unintellectual Presidents of the past 50 years."

True, but the fratboy was packaged and sold by the corporate media as the second coming of Winston Churchill.

Read the first two books by Bob Woodward. He portrays Bush as a Churchillian figure we are lucky to have as Commander in Chief. The rest of the MSM has been echoing this sentiment since 9/11.

It is starting to change. American people on their own are starting to figure out that Bush is not the fearless leader the MSM sold to them. But lets face it, for 4-5 years Bush was able to fool most of the people most of the time, with help from MSM.

Posted by: DonB | Dec 27, 2006 5:23:50 PM

True, but the fratboy was packaged and sold by the corporate media as the second coming of Winston Churchill.

Baloney. No one, not even Fox, tried that. He was recognized as a mental lightweight even by most of those who voted for him. Polling showed this at the time.

Posted by: Sanpete | Dec 27, 2006 5:29:24 PM

A small quibble. I live in NC. We've had a Dem governor for the last four terms, Dems control both houses in the legislature, we have a Dem Chief Justice. We have 14 House members, and seven are Dems. The state does tend red for Senate and President, but even in the Senate, where Jesse Helms held down one seat for 30 years, we've had at least one Dem Senator for 18 of the those 30 years (Ervin, Sanford, Edwards. That ain't crimson.

Posted by: Paul | Dec 27, 2006 6:05:55 PM

I don't think anybody can predict how bigotry would effect an Obama candidacy. It's easy to say that his race would hurt him in Virginia and turn a purple state back to red, but I don't know if it's true. It's possible that the GOP would manage to use other issues as proxies for race, that many voters would oppose him because of his race while claiming, and even believing, that they're opposing him because of "inexperience" or "national security" or his ties to "special interests."

I know this: I'm looking forward to watching the Obama-Sharpton dance during debates.

Posted by: david mizner | Dec 27, 2006 6:58:23 PM

Don't you guys don't remember the convention? I had tears in my eyes. Republicans on CNN were calling him the first black president. Then I was like, hey, did he actually say anything?

Obama will test one hypothesis -- whether the present media will give a candidate enough uninterrupted access to the voter to allow them to base their opinion on the way they feel listening to the candidate's speech. No one stops Obama if they do; he will get soundbit to death if they don't. My bet: they don't.

Unlike Dan Quayle, Barak Obama may be Jack Kennedy, but we are not the electorate of 1960. Love to see him try though.

Posted by: RW | Dec 27, 2006 7:22:09 PM

"And we don't need the redder Southern states to win."

Hey Sanpete, do I read your use of the word we correctly to indicate that you are a democrat?

Posted by: RW | Dec 27, 2006 7:31:52 PM

Harold Ford won 48% in Tennessee as a young, black bachelor. Obama is a much stronger candidate who projects authenticity much more convincingly.

Posted by: Geek, Esq. | Dec 27, 2006 8:09:31 PM

RW, yes, I'm a Democrat.

Posted by: Sanpete | Dec 27, 2006 8:22:15 PM

Yes, DonB, do you really think Obama in "trying" cocaine managed to use more than Dubya has?

I really wish people would stop equating regular churchgoers with the religious right. No one is talking about Democrats reaching out to the religious right. The discussion is about reaching out to Christians like those who voted for Carter and Clinton.

I do wonder how much he'd really energize black voters, since he's not exactly a typical African-American, being the son of a white American mother and a Kenyan father, and growing up in Hawaii and Indonesia. Is there any polling on that?

Posted by: KCinDC | Dec 27, 2006 8:26:23 PM

It is true of course, that it this point Obama is somewhat of an empty vessel being filled with the hopes and dreams of many voters. What I find strange though, is the assumption by most Obama-debunkers that when he is subjected to intense scrutiny, the empty vessel will necessarily be revealed as an empty suit.

That may be, but it also may well not be. We still have almost two years till election day, which is plenty of time for Obama to unveil all those parts of himself which may possibly demonstrate that he has the wisdom and the intellegence and the judgement to be an excellent president.

Or he can be an empty suit. None of us really know how it will turn out - and it sure will be fun wathcing.

What isnt fun, or even interesting, is to listen to those who pompously pronounce what some inevitable outcome will be.

Posted by: John | Dec 27, 2006 11:00:47 PM

The American public has shown that - for President - they prefer completely and totally unknown candidates with almost no experience and a relatively blank record. Reagan, Clinton, Bush - all relative unknowns who never committed to anything real.

This is THE huge advantage of Obama. It should not be overlooked because we want to pretend Americans are better than they are.

Obama is black, and he's not a right-winger. The entire South is basically out of the running. Seriously people, Virginia, the Carolinas, Missouri - all gone. Race-based voting is not enough to lose us all the other States, but it basically eliminates any chance of winning those states.

Posted by: MDtoMN | Dec 27, 2006 11:55:29 PM

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