The Battleground States That Will Decide the Election

A tight race, but Obama's huge margins of victory in key swing states have vanished.

Now that the debates are over, the most significant information Americans will get regarding how the candidates are doing will be from the polls. If those polls are any indication, it is Republican challenger Mitt Romney who has been the beneficiary of a bump that most likely came from his obvious win in the first debate, followed by two debates in which no clear cut winner emerged. This week Romney moved above 50 percent in his favorability rating with the voters for the first time. Yet it is no secret that this election will be decided by 11 battleground states. Those states are Colorado, Florida, Iowa, Michigan, Nevada, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia and Wisconsin. The current polling numbers, according to the Real Clear Politics website (RCP), which averages the polling data from a number of independent sources, reveal an incredibly close and intense race between the president and Mitt Romney. Of particular note is that President Obama has seen his once-huge margins of victory against 2008 challenger John McCain virtually vanish. Yet it is far from certain that this will translate into a victory for 2012 GOP nominee.

In Colorado (9 Electoral College votes at stake), where Obama beat John McCain by 9 points in 2008, the race is a virtual tie, with only two-tenths of a percentage point separating the candidates. If there's any momentum evident at all here, it is due to the first debate, which was held in Denver. Prior to the debate Obama had a three-point lead. Colorado has been a historically Republican state, but a growing Latino population in one of the fastest growing states in the nation has moved it towards the Democratic column. Like most states, the economy is the number one issue, but environmental concerns are also important.

In Florida (29), RCP gives Romney a 1.8-point lead in a state Obama won by 2.8 points in 2008. The issues in this state revolve around the economy, as unemployment remains higher than the national average. Two voting blocs, Jewish Americans and the elderly, will likely have enormous influence on the outcome. Their concerns include, among other things, Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid and Israel. Another factor is the reality that Florida was one of the hardest hit states in the nation with respect to the housing crisis. That crisis has abated somewhat, but substantial numbers of Floridians remain  underwater on their mortgages.

That Iowa (6) remains a tight race is relatively surprising, since Obama won the state by a 9.5-point margin in 2008. Currently the president maintains a lead of two percentage points there. Despite a large population of evangelical Christian voters, Democrats have carried five of the last six presidential elections. The issues that concern Iowans are healthcare, due to the nation's fifth largest number of residents over 65, federal subsidies of certain crops, and renewable energy sources, of which Iowa is a net exporter.

Michigan (16) currently leans Obama by five points, despite a landslide 16.4-point victory in 2008. A Romney win here would be a big upset, given that Michigan has voted Democrat in the last five presidential elections, and remains a state where union workers, especially those in the auto industry, remain tried and true Democrats. The only thing likely to change that dynamic between now and the election would be unequivocal evidence that the economy is stalling--or that GM is irrefutably headed for bankruptcy again. Neither scenario seems likely to occur before November 6th.

Nevada (6) is a state where the race has tightened in recent weeks, with Obama holding a 2.8-point lead in a state he won by 12.5 points four years ago. Nevada has both the highest unemployment rate and the highest home foreclosure rate in the nation, thus jobs and real estate values are the most presiding  issues. Immigration reform is also important in a state where more than a quarter of the residents are of Hispanic origin.

New Hampshire (4) is another state where the race has tightened considerably in the last two weeks, despite a 9.6-point Obama victory in 2008. On October 6th, the president was up 50-44. As of yesterday that lead had been narrowed to 1.4 point margin. Key issues in New Hampshire are the residents' dislike of taxes, debt and big government, favoring Romney, and their liberal attitude towards social issues, including abortion rights, and a 2010 law legalizing same sex marriages, that favor for Obama.

In North Carolina (15), where Obama eked out a razor thin 0.3 percent victory in 2008, the move has been solidly in Romney's direction, from a dead heat three weeks ago to a 5-point lead. On Monday, Democrat campaign strategist Paul Begala admitted to CNN's Wolf Blitzer that the Obama camp had given up on the state where Democrats held their national convention. Considering that North Carolinians have voted Democrat only twice in 40 years (Carter was the other winner) and economic issues dominate, it is a move fueled by campaign spending allocation issues.

Ohio (18) is a state where the president's lead has fluctuated from a high of 5.5 points to 1.9 points currently. Obama beat McCain by almost five points in 2008, and like Florida, Ohio is one of the key states that could tilt the election one way or the other. No Republican has won the presidency without winning Ohio. The key to taking the state is winning the working class vote, which can only happen for Romney, who has trouble connecting with such voters, can convince them Obama's economy is worse than the one he would create. Ohio's current unemployment rate is 7.5 percent, down from 9 percent last year. Obama wants to convince Ohioans that he's responsible for the drop. Romney wants to convince them that Republican John Kasich should get the credit. Whoever wins that argument will likely win the state.

In Pennsylvania (20), the president's lead has narrowed from almost nine point to 4.8 in a state he carried by a comfortable 10.3 percent margin in 2008. Pennsylvania has gone Democrat in the last five presidential elections. Labor union members and the elderly comprise the nation's fourth highest percentage of both groups, yet the vote here likely comes down to major urban centers where Obama reigns supreme, versus the suburbs and rural areas where small business owners are feeling the economic pinch, and the administration's environmentally driven “war on coal” works in Romney's favor.

Virginia (13), is another state where the race has tightened, from a five-point Obama lead in September, to a 48-48 dead heat. Virginia is traditionally a red state whose only Democratic presidential vote in the last 40 years went to Obama by 6.3 percent in 2008. The key to winning this state likely comes down to whether or not Obama can maintain the coalition of minority and college-educated people he won in 2008 -- and get them to turn out in the same numbers -- or Romney can siphon off enough disaffected voters. Three third party candidates could also affect the outcome.

In Wisconsin (10), a state Obama won convincingly by almost 14 points in 2008, a 6-point lead as of two weeks ago has dwindled to 2.7 points. Wisconsin's travails over the past two years have been well documented, and no other battleground state has seen more erosion for the president than this one. Yet Wisconsin hasn't gone Republican in a presidential election since the 1980s. Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan's selection as the VP candidate may change that dynamic, but the state was polarized by the fight between Gov. Scott Walker and government employees. Unions are itching for revenge, yet it remains a reality that given a choice, Wisconsin voters opted to keep Republican Scott Walker in office. Which faction turns out the most voters on November 6th will likely be the key.

The overall key is momentum. Romney generated a considerable amount of it after the first debate, but reality suggests he must keep the pedal to the metal if he hopes to prevail on November 6th. While the overall voter preference leans his way, the the battle for 270 electoral college votes is another story altogether. RCP's average -- minus the toss-up states which include all of the above except North Carolina which "leans Romney" -- the Republican challenger holds a 206-201 edge in Electoral College votes. Yet if all the toss-up states stay exactly as they are now, Obama prevails with a 281-257 margin, and is re-elected. It's going to be a long two weeks.

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