Note to Obama Skeptics: This Is Not a Fad

Barack Obama launched his Presidential exploratory committee this week as a top-tier Democratic Presidential candidate, a status he currently shares with Hillary Clinton and John Edwards.

Contrary to the hardening conventional wisdom that his candidacy is of the flash-in-the-pan variety, Mr. Obama’s path to a general-election victory in 2008 is, by some measures, more clear for him than it is for his principal rivals.

Just consider the state-by-state electoral map, which seems frozen in place—a fitting reflection of a cultural and political divide that doesn’t appear to be easing.

Between the 2000 and 2004 elections, only three states switched partisan hands. (New Mexico and Iowa went from the Democrats to the G.O.P., and New Hampshire went the other way.)

That kind of inertia suggests that almost any Democrat—Mr. Obama included—would be likely to enter the fall campaign with a considerable chunk of the magic 270 electoral votes already in hand, simply by virtue of his party affiliation.

True, Republicans like John McCain and Rudy Giuliani might be more acceptable to these blue-state electorates than George W. Bush, but in this era of polarization, labels tend to trump personal popularity. Just look at former Senator Lincoln Chafee, a liberal Republican who enjoyed a 60 percent approval rating in Rhode Island and yet was still routed on Election Day.

With that base in hand, the Democrats would be left to scrap for additional votes in the same battleground territories in which John Kerry and Al Gore did most of their fall politicking: the Upper Midwest, the Pacific Northwest, Ohio, Florida and perhaps a few other states. They might also make a play in select Rocky Mountain states and Virginia—traditionally Republican areas that are fast emerging as Democratic targets.

Partisan polarization cuts both ways, of course, and the Republican nominee in 2008, whomever he is, will probably be able to pencil in just as many electoral votes as the Democrat, meaning that, as in 2000 and 2004, only a handful of states figure to be competitive—and decisive.

But while Mr. Obama, Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Edwards would face the same basic electoral-map strengths and liabilities, it is the Senator from Illinois who could be best positioned to expand on the party’s near-misses in 2000 and 2004.

Consider that Hillary’s staunch centrism and bent toward bipartisan cooperation these past few years has been part of a forward-thinking strategy designed to convince swing voters in the heartland states that the former First Lady isn’t the culturally incompatible Wellesley feminist they perhaps thought she was. For all her troubles, though, her national poll numbers haven’t moved; most people have already made up their minds about her.

The prospects of a general-election victory wouldn’t necessarily be much better for Mr. Edwards, despite his Southern drawl and brief history in North Carolina politics. (His presence did nothing for the Democratic ticket in the South two years ago, and he likely would have lost his Senate seat had he tried to defend it that year.)

His sharp moves to the left will certainly help him during the primary. And his outspoken economic liberalism and recently staunch opposition to the continuing American presence in Iraq will appeal powerfully both to heartland Democrats and Net-based party activists. But his maneuverings will make him an awfully inviting target for a G.O.P. machine that will paint him as a slick trial lawyer and a political opportunist.

So what of Mr. Obama, whose inexperience, funny name and race are supposed to make him unelectable in the general election?

It’s early, but there has been little indication so far that any of that has been a cause for immediate concern in what figure to be the ’08 battleground states. (Witness the way that Mr. Obama became one of the single most-sought-after campaign surrogates for Democrats in the 2006 elections.)

And even if Mr. Obama’s unusual background does stir an underground backlash elsewhere—a questionable notion—it’s likely those states wouldn’t be part of a winning Democratic coalition anyway.

Yes, Mr. Obama’s brief public record is unmistakably liberal. But his campaign is being propelled by his inspiring personal story and a winning personality that, at least for now, defies ideological lines. It’s a formula that has been known to change the electoral map in funny ways.

After all, deep into October 1980, Ronald Reagan was still being written off as too conservative to defeat Jimmy Carter. Then, in a memorable TV debate, voters were introduced to Reagan the man: a warm, quick-witted, grandfatherly figure. Ideology aside, they liked him.

A week later, he won in a landslide. Note to Obama Skeptics: This Is Not a Fad