Less than five weeks before Election Day, Barack Obama is taking the fight to scarlet red Republican territory, adding several states won by George W. Bush to his list of potential takeovers. In the process he is contradicting both conventional wisdom and the many pundits who assumed the fight would ultimately focus on the usual suspects, including Ohio and Florida. Democratic Senate candidates too are not shying away from previously unthinkable GOP targets, and they now have a shot at a filibuster-proof 60-vote majority. All told, 20 states are currently at high risk of loss by the Republican party in either the presidential election, the Senate race, or both. How is that for expanding the playing field?
The Obama campaign's confidence appears to rest on the fact that since April, well before he clinched his party's nomination, he has been ahead of John McCain in average general election match-ups for all but 10 days, right after the GOP convention produced a short-lived burst of excitement about Sarah Palin. At this point he appears to be ahead nationally by about 5%, about the same as Bush was around this time in 2004.
This advantage has been reflected in state polling: the 10 states most likely to switch from one party to another since 2004, according to current polling, are all states won by Bush four years ago. Two of those, Iowa and New Mexico, are all but certain to be won by Obama, who leads there by wide margins. The other eight most likely to switch are all too close to call and include such shockers as Indiana (Bush won by 21%), North Carolina (Bush by 12%), Virginia (Bush by 8%) and Missouri (Bush by 7%).
Practically, this means that Obama has far more paths to victory than McCain. In fact, besides Iowa and New Mexico, Obama needs to win just one other of the states most likely to switch to be elected president, even if he loses New Hampshire, the only state won by John Kerry that is currently at risk of flipping (Obama leads by 2.) For all the hoopla surrounding Ohio and Florida (which are also among the Bush states most likely to go Democratic), Obama could lose both and still win comfortably overall. That is not to say those states don't matter: McCain basically has no shot at the presidency if he does not win both.
McCain has so little room to maneuver because Democratic states long-targeted by his campaign have mostly been coming home to Obama in recent weeks: he leads by comfortable and growing margins in Michigan and Pennsylvania, for instance. It is not inconceivable that Minnesota or Wisconsin (both Kerry states) may end up being close again, but at this point there are more than a dozen Republican states that are at more risk of switching. One of them is West Virginia, in which recent polls have showed the race to be far tighter than expected (Obama down by 5%), especially since he was trounced there by Hillary Clinton in the primary, and Kerry lost the state by 13% to Bush.
Overall, Obama's improvement so far over Kerry's 2004 performance is such that he polls lower than the Massachusetts Senator in just one state: Massachusetts (he is still ahead by 18 points, however.) This, of course, means that McCain at this point is faring worse than Bush in nearly every state, sometimes shockingly so. In addition to Indiana and North Carolina, there are double-digit swings away from the Republican in places as red as North Dakota, Texas, Wyoming, Nebraska, Montana and Utah. Obama will most likely lose big in most of these places, but the symbolism of the shift is nonetheless powerful and shows that Democrats should not give up on any one state. If there has been any benefit to McCain's selection of Sarah Palin, it is that it blunted some of Obama's momentum in a few small Western states that had become unexpectedly competitive, including Alaska, the Governor's home state, North Dakota and Montana, in all three of which McCain had been unable to pull away until the GOP convention.
This Democratic strength is reflected in a growing number of Senate races. The picture here is just as depressing for Republicans: all 10 of the Senate seats most likely to switch are currently held by the GOP and seven of those feature incumbents running for reelection. Just one Democratic seat was thought to be at risk, that of Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, because of the state's increasingly conservative bend, post-Katrina demographic changes and a relatively strong party-switching adversary. In the most recent polls, Landrieu leads by an average of 15%, and the seat is now considered safely hers.
It has long been assumed that Republicans would have a tough time holding on to open seats in Virginia, New Mexico and Colorado, and this has borne out: the first two are done deals for the Democrats and Colorado is likely to fall too, although polling there is closer. Then there were the most at-risk GOP incumbents, in New Hampshire, Alaska and Mississippi, for a variety of reasons, but with one thing in common: strong Democratic challengers. Although these races have tightened, in two of the three the Democrat is still favored (Mississippi will be tough although not impossible for the Democrat, former Governor Ronnie Musgrove, who has fallen behind recently.) Two other GOP incumbents, in Oregon and Minnesota, have long been considered endangered, although they are fortunate to have somewhat flawed Democratic opponents, including comedian Al Franken, a pretty tough sell for Senator regardless of his actual capability.
Where it gets really scary for Republicans is the rapid disintegration of the reelection campaigns of two party elders: Elizabeth Dole in North Carolina and Mitch McConnell of Kentucky. In a matter of weeks, as the economic crisis has worsened, both have gone from solid front-runners to struggling for their political life. Two other Republican-held Southern seats are starting to look wobbly, a dim prospect in this deteriorating anti-GOP, anti-incumbent climate: in Georgia, where Republican Senator Saxby Chambliss has seen his once strong lead all but evaporate in a couple of weeks; and in South Carolina where limited polling is showing that McCain pal Lindsey Graham may have an unexpected race on his hands against a Ron Paul supporter turned Democrat. Look to Texas next for a possible surprise: Republican Senator John Cornyn has long been ineffective, unpopular and, well, dumb. His opponent, Rick Noriega, is underfunded but otherwise serious.
We have been told for so long that the Obama-McCain race is a "tie" (just as the debate was a "tie") that it is easy to forget that Obama's polling track so far has actually been even better than that of Bush in 2004. Bush and Kerry swapped leads throughout the summer until the incumbent president opened a gap in September that the Democrat was never able to close. McCain has never really held a lead in the general election. That said, while the race may not be a tie, or even that close right now, it is volatile, not least because of the dramatic economic situation. It also bears to remember that only one Democrat has won more than 50% of the vote in a presidential race since 1964, and that no Republican has won less than 48% in a two-person race (which this essentially is) also since 1964. That does not leave Obama a big margin for error, no matter how good things currently look.