With barely two weeks left before the November 6 balloting begins in earnest, most pundits have narrowed the presidential race down to just a handful of swing states, most notably Ohio and Florida. It's generally agreed that if Romney loses Florida, with its 29 electoral votes, his path to victory dims dramatically.
However, if Romney loses Ohio but wins Florida as well as Virginia and North Carolina (the latter seems especially likely), he would still have to compensate by winning Wisconsin, Colorado and either New Hampshire or Iowa.
The way the polls are moving -- mostly in Romney's favor in these states compared to a month ago -- this latter path to victory, once dismissed as a long-shot, must now be considered plausible. (For example: Wisconsin, which Obama won by 14 in 2008, is now too close to call).
And yet, it turns out that these states are not the only ones still "in play." There's been a surprising -- but largely unacknowledged -- movement in a handful of other states that political experts have hitherto considered either reliably "Blue" or "Red."
In fact, what happens, seemingly on the margins, in these "spoiler" states could prove just as important to the outcome of the race as the high-profile action in the swing states that's still garnering the lion share of the media attention.
Consider just three of these potential spoiler states -- Pennsylvania, Minnesota, and Arizona -- with a whopping 41 electoral votes along them:
The Keystone state hasn't gone Republican since George H.W. Bush's election in 1988. Every four years since then, the GOP has entertained the idea that it might win back the state -- where Democrats enjoy a substantial advantage in voter registration -- only to see their hopes fade in the final weeks of the campaign.
Romney's gains are even more surprising because his campaign largely abandoned the state over a month ago, to concentrate its resources on Ohio. However, the candidate's message on energy, especially coal and natural, resonates with voters in the southwestern part of the state, and in Pittsburgh. Sensing an opening, Paul Ryan stumped in Pennsylvania two weeks ago, and Romney will soon follow suit.
For Obama, Pennsylvania, unlike other Rust Belt states, poses a challenge, because the auto bailout that helps him in OH and MI, for example, isn't a big factor here. In addition, unemployment in the state (8.2%) remains relatively high.
Here's another highly reliable Blue state that increasingly looks like it's becoming a toss-up. How reliable is Minnesota? Even in the Reagan landslide election in 1984, Minnesota was the one hold-out state for Democrat Walter Mondale. In fact, the last time it went Republican was 1972.
Obama's had a steady lead here for months but in the latest Rasmussen poll, Obama's 10 point lead is now down to 5.
Political independents have become more of a factor in MN than in earlier years. Witness the election of politicians as diverse -- and quirky -- as political science professor and US senate candidate Paul Wellstone in 1990 and former professional wrestler Jesse Ventura as the state's governor in 1998.
However, the biggest factor seems to be the election of so many conservative state legislators in the Tea party wave of 2010. That's given the GOP a grassroots political network it didn't have before. It's also provided support for voter ID laws that will have the effect of suppressing election-day turn-out for Obama.
Here the pattern is reversed: a normally reliable red state is turning purple, it seems. John McCain, who's still the state's popular senior senator, carried it handily over Obama in 2008. It was the only Southwestern battleground state that he won, in fact. Arizona, with 11 electoral voter, compared to Colorado's 9, New Mexico's 5, and Nevada's 4, is the biggest prize in the region.
It's not hard to figure out why Obama is threatening. About 15% of the Arizona electorate is Latino, and the group is boiling mad over Arizona's harsh crackdown law SB 1070, which was partially upheld by the US Supreme Court. Mitt Romney once extolled the virtues of the law, but Latinos overwhelmingly oppose it.
The latest poll in Arizona has Obama up by 2, with 14% still undecided. A shift in the Latino vote seems to be the driving factor. A separate poll of Latino voters has Obama leading by a whopping 80%-14% margin, a huge increase from the 56% share of the vote that Obama received in 2008.
Another factor is the bitterly contested Senate race, which pits conservative Jeff Flake, who now opposes an immigration amnesty, against the former U.S. surgeon general Richard Carmona, who is Latino. Carmona formerly trailed Flake but appears to have pulled ahead. Why? A surge in Latino voter support for Carmona.
On balance, these developments seem to bode poorly for the president. Pennsylvania threatens to upset the applecart entirely. Capturing its 20 electoral votes, for example, would compensate for a possible Romney loss in Ohio, where the president continues to enjoy a slight advantage. Minnesota, with 10 electoral votes, would offset a possible Romney loss in Colorado, where the race is deadlocked.
On the other hand, for Obama, a victory in Arizona could prove decisive Let's return to the plausible scenario sketched above: : Romney wins VA, NC and FL but loses OH. He also wins WI, CO and NH but loses IA and NV. That would place the electoral balance at 266 Obama, 260 Romney. Thus, whoever wins Arizona would also capture the White House.
Sound far-fetched? Only because all of the attention is currently on the big swing states. However, if those big swing states simply go more or less as expected, look for surprise developments in the spoiler states to provide the actual margin of difference.
And consider the political ramifications. An upset Romney victory in PA could alter the partisan political calculus about the Rust Belt -- and white working class voters -- for a generation, maybe longer.
Likewise, an Obama victory in Arizona would dramatize the rising power of the Latino vote and would confirm once and for all the toxic self-destructiveness of the GOP's tolerance for xenophobia and nativism.
A presidential race decided by a single immigration law? It could change US politics -- and break the logjam on immigration policy -- virtually overnight. But with record numbers of white voters potentially flocking to Romney, it could also leave the country more ethnically and racially divided than ever.