Just How Big is the Presidential Battleground?

Earlier this week, the Obama campaign released its map of battleground states.  According to the campaign Florida, North Carolina, Virginia, Ohio, Wisconsin, Iowa, New Hampshire, and Colorado are all toss-up territory.

But the Obama campaign isn’t the only one with a hypothesis about the map.  Over at the New York Times’ FiveThirtyEight blog, Nate Silver has a simulation model that seems to suggest fewer states are in the “nearly 50/50” category.  His model suggests that only Colorado and Ohio fall into that category with Iowa and Virginia slotting in as more 60/40 propositions.

Real Clear Politics has another map, listing 12 toss-ups: Arizona, Colorado, Florida, Iowa, Michigan, Missouri, Nevada, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Ohio, Virginia, and Wisconsin.

So what should we believe?  The answer is probably a little of both models.

With five months to go until the election, there’s still some chance we could see a landslide one way or another.  That would require some major news event or a total melt-down by one of the candidates or campaigns.  It’s unlikely to happen (“the private sector is doing fine” notwithstanding), but if it did then all 12 states on the Real Clear Politics map could go for one candidate.

The more likely event, looking at all of the polls both nationally and in the states, is a narrow campaign that hinges on just one or two key states—something that looks a lot more like the FiveThirtyEight map.

So let’s examine the four “close” states on that map in more detail:

  • Ohio: Ohio went to Obama in 2008 with 52% of the vote, but has since elected a Republican governor.  Right now polling shows another close race with Obama leading by less than two points in the RCP average but Romney leading in the two most recent polls.
  • Colorado: Another Obama state in 2008 and one with a sitting Democratic Governor and two Democratic U.S. Senators, polling still suggests that Colorado is a close race in 2012.  The RCP average is within two points and the latest poll, from this month, shows a tie.
  • Iowa: Another Obama state in 2008 (sense a pattern here) and another one that elected a Republican Governor in 2010, Iowa may be in play.  Two recent polls show a tie and a ten point Obama lead.
  • Virginia: Just to simplify things, Obama state in 2008, Republican Governor in 2010, polls within three points.

It’s pretty easy to see the trend that emerges when you survey the battleground.  Obama won these states in 2008 but is polling well under 50% in each and is within points of Romney.

If we add in more states like Florida, North Carolina, Wisconsin, or New Hampshire, we’re adding even more 2008 Obama states to our list.

This far out from the election, there’s a lot we don’t know.  One thing we do know  is that the President is playing defense rather than offense.  Or maybe he’s just leading from behind–something he seems to be pretty good at.

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