The debate over what constitutes a battleground state isn't just taking place between Barack Obama and John McCain. Increasingly, it’s also a point of disagreement between news outlets. It seemed to take only minutes after Hillary Rodham Clinton officially conceded the primary election before numerous media types were hawking their "definitive" lists of the states that will decide the election.
But, before you spend any more time shading your blue and red states on the interactive electoral map on your computer, it’s important to think about just how these states got here -- or missed the mark -- in the first place.
1. Don’t put too much stock in state polls at this point.
Most were taken weeks ago, when the Obama-Clinton battle dominated the landscape. Demographics, not issue differences, defined that contest. And, while there’s little doubt that Obama’s association with the Rev. Jeremiah Wright and Tony Rezko, as well as his feelings about “bitter” rural voters, will be part of the general election campaign, so will the significant policy differences between the two candidates. McCain’s strength with moderate, suburban voters, something that’s taken as a given today, will also be significantly challenged in the coming weeks.
Of course, the fact that McCain is tied with Obama in national polling -- and even holds a lead in states that President Bush lost in 2004 -- suggests that the November contest will be competitive. After all, if voters saw McCain as a “generic” Republican, he’d be 10 points (or more) behind in national polls and certainly wouldn’t be ahead in any state -- well, except maybe Utah.
2. Remember that past performance does not indicate future success.
How Obama or McCain fared among primary voters is a flawed guide to how they will perform in these states come November. Black turnout was a key factor in Obama’s big North Carolina win, but he can’t win the state again without getting somewhere between 35 percent and 40 percent of the white vote.
In Pennsylvania, talk of Obama’s “white working-class” problem ignores the fact that McCain has his own challenge in holding the increasingly Democratic-trending suburbs outside of Philadelphia.
In New Hampshire, McCain has a reservoir of good will built on two big primary wins in the state. But in 2006, deep family ties and a moderate profile weren’t enough to save 12-year incumbent Rep. Charlie Bass (R) from defeat.
3. Appreciate the impact of demographic changes and be willing to re-examine past assumptions.
Just because a state was considered a battleground in 2000 or 2004 doesn’t automatically make it a battleground today. The same goes for the idea that a state is "off-limits" to one candidate or the other.
On its face, Virginia looks like a tough target for Obama, especially given his challenge in attracting white, rural voters. Yet two recent Democratic candidates have proven that there’s more than one way to win here. In 2001, Democrat Mark Warner won his race for governor by running strong in Northern Virginia but also in the more rural stretches of the state. Four years later, Democrat Tim Kaine lost the Warner rural vote but outperformed the former governor in the D.C. exurbs. This means that Obama doesn’t need to win over all the Warner NASCAR voters, though he also can’t get crushed there, either.
Florida is another misunderstood state. Cubans and Jewish voters, both heavily concentrated in South Florida, get lots of attention. But the race is won and lost in North Florida. On its face, of course, this area (which includes the Tallahassee, Gainesville and Jacksonville TV markets) seems far too conservative for a traditional Democrat. But a closer look at the demographics shows that it’s actually well-suited to Obama. The highest percentage of black voters and college students in the state are found here. As in Virginia, Obama wouldn’t need to win a majority of the votes in this part of the state, but he also couldn’t afford to lose it by a big margin, either.
4. Remember that campaign resources are finite.
Just how many of these states remain on the front lines in the battle for the White House depends on how much money either campaign can afford to spend there. Sure, the McCain camp would like to put New Jersey in play. But, given their resource challenges and the fact that the state straddles two of the most expensive media markets in the country (Philadelphia and New York), is that even realistic? The Obama campaign, meanwhile, brags about having a “50-state strategy,” but not all of these states will be treated equally.
As the campaigns start to engage, the list of battlegrounds will evolve. It’s important to check many of your old assumptions at the door -- but hold onto a healthy bit of skepticism as well.