Michigan: The Make-or-Break State for McCain?

John McCain campaigned in Michigan on Wednesday, which probably makes this a good time to examine just how crucial the

John McCain campaigned in Michigan on Wednesday, which probably makes this a good time to examine just how crucial the state is to his fall prospects. Michigan hasn’t voted for a Republican presidential candidate since 1988, and if McCain doesn’t break that streak it will be very difficult for him to assemble 270 electoral votes.

The basic problem for McCain is that there aren’t many real opportunities for him to expand the electoral map, meaning that the 286 electoral votes that George W. Bush racked up in 2004 essentially represent his ceiling. By contrast, Barack Obama has multiple opportunities to flip over states that voted for Bush in both 2000 and 2004.

If we use the 2004 results (a 286-252 Bush victory) as a starting point and then list the states most likely to switch partisan hands, a pattern quickly emerges: They are all red states. Iowa (7 electoral votes), Virginia (13), Ohio (20), Colorado (9), Florida (27), New Mexico (5), Nevada (5), North Carolina (15), Indiana (11), Missouri (11), and maybe even Montana (3), Alaska (3), and the Dakotas (3 each) are all – according to numerous polls in each state – ripe targets for Obama. And, with his essentially unlimited bankroll, he has the means to target each one of them without steering precious resources from other battleground venues.

If Obama were to win all of these while holding on to all of John Kerry’s ’04 states, it would produce a landslide – 33 states worth a combined 387 electoral votes (which would be the best showing for a Democrat since Lyndon Johnson in 1964). Obviously, though, Obama is highly unlikely to win all or even most of the Bush ’04 states that he is contesting. Florida, for instance, continues to be close in polls, but McCain is clearly favored to win there. The same can be said of North Carolina and probably Missouri, along with the very small red states (like Alaska) on Obama’s target list. He seems destined to run better in these states than most recent Democrats, but not well enough to actually win them.

Still, with so many targets and so much money to throw at them, it also seems inevitable that Obama will break through in several. His prospects in Iowa and Colorado seem especially strong, while polls in Virginia (which last sided with a Democrat in ’64) have been dead even for months. If we’re working off the ’04 map and we pencil in Iowa for Obama, he moves to 259 electoral votes – 11 shy of victory. Give him Colorado and the magic number drops to two. At that point, he’d only need one other state of any size – it wouldn’t matter if it’s Ohio or Montana. And that’s just to hit 270. Add a few more states to his column after that, and Obama would have some padding, too.

McCain, then, badly needs to flip over some of Kerry’s ’04 states, to balance whatever gains Obama makes in the Bush states. This sounds simple, but there aren’t many viable targets. The McCain campaign talked early of going after Oregon, Washington and California, but those states are pretty much lost for the G.O.P. at this point. They also made the usual noise about competing in New Jersey, but that’s not happening either. And Pennsylvania looks like it is to McCain what Florida is to Obama – a state where he can stay within striking distance, but not win.

What does that leave? New Hampshire (the only Bush ’00 state to switch to the Democrats in ’04) is potentially competitive, although Obama has led in polls there, too. McCain supporters like to point out that their man won the New Hampshire Republican primary while Obama lost the state’s Democratic contest – but they forget that Obama actually received more votes in his losing effort than McCain netted in his winning one. Also, even if he flipped it, New Hampshire would only produce an extra four electoral votes for McCain. McCain’s folks also like to talk up Minnesota and Wisconsin, but polling in both states shows clear Obama advantages (one Minnesota survey showed a tight race recently, but five of the six polls that preceded it put Obama ahead by double-digits).

And that brings us to Michigan, where the polls have been tight all year (with McCain even enjoying a few leads). Michigan is much more winnable for McCain than Pennsylvania, Minnesota or Wisconsin. And the state’s 17 electoral votes would afford him badly-needed breathing room in the face of Obama’s incursion into Republican turf.

If, as above, we use the ’04 map as a baseline and then award Obama Iowa and Colorado, the electoral vote count falls to 270-268 for the G.O.P. In other words, McCain would then need to hold every single other red state targeted by Obama – or lose the election. But now let’s give McCain Michigan. The G.O.P. advantage instantly jumps to 287-251 – enough of a pad to absorb, for instance, a loss in Virginia, or (for instace again) losses in both Indiana and New Mexico.

With Michigan, McCain can survive the loss of a handful of Bush states. Without it, he can’t.


Michigan: The Make-or-Break State for McCain?