This article originally appeared on The Harbus, the newspaper of the Harvard Business School.
With Election Day nine months away, it is worth taking a break from the Republican primaries to look at the general election landscape. Despite a persistently weak economy, Obama can win reelection, and it is a better than 50-50 bet that he does so. Assuming Mitt Romney eventually captures the Republican nomination, it will be a close race similar in electoral strategy to the 2004 campaign. If somehow Newt Gingrich prevails, Democrats will go on a three-month bender and Obama will coast to reelection.
When it comes to the general election, you can forget about national polls; all that matters is who gets to 270 Electoral College votes. Brief primer: states get one elector for each Representative and Senator, add Washington D.C.’s three electors, and you get a total of 538. Half plus one gets you the keys to the White House. With a few exceptions, electors are awarded winner-take-all by state. In 2008, Obama got 365 electoral votes to McCain’s 173.
This system is a bit different than what many conceive as our “one man, one vote” democracy. As we saw in the 2000 election, a candidate can win the popular vote and lose the election. The Electoral College also gives a disproportionate voice to small states that have two senators regardless of population. As a result, some votes count more than others. In California, there are 600,000 people for every Electoral College elector; in Wyoming, the figure is just 200,000. For better or worse, this is the system we have and its rules dictate the field of battle for the general election campaign.
Obama starts the campaign with a solid grasp on 247 Electoral College votes from the combined total of reliably blue states including California, New York, and Massachusetts. Romney will start with a hold of 206 Electoral College votes, with Texas, the South, and the Plains states behind the likely Republican nominee. That reduces the competitive territory to the 85 electoral votes of just seven states – New Hampshire (4), Nevada (6), Iowa (6), Colorado (9), Virginia (13), Ohio (18), and Florida (29). Obama will win another term with any combination of 23 electoral votes from these seven states. Romney must win Florida, but Obama has other paths to victory.
While Obama won each of these seven states in 2008, doing so again will be an uphill climb. Florida and Nevada were the epicenters of the subprime crisis, Ohio continues to struggle with high unemployment, and Republicans did well in 2010 congressional elections in Colorado, Iowa, and New Hampshire. But Obama has three key advantages in his quest for a second term: the power of incumbency to garner media attention and financial support; a proven and vast campaign organization which is critical in close races; and unique personal rhetorical and political abilities. His central challenges will be a sideways economy, persistently high unemployment, and having to make the “it could have been worse” defense for his administration.
Romney has his own advantages, including a laudable record of personal achievement and broad public discontent with the direction of the country. His biggest weaknesses are politically expedient changes in core beliefs and an inability to make personal connections with the voters the way George W. Bush could and John Kerry could not.
Ultimately, presidential campaigns are about a story – a vision of where the country is and where it is going. The campaign that conveys its vision best in the critical seven states wins. Let the games begin.
Photo Credit: Rusty Darbonne