POLITICO; by David Paul Kuhn; May 23, 2008
It sounds crazy at first. Amid dire reports about the toxic political environment for Republican candidates and the challenges facing John McCain, many top GOP strategists believe he can defeat Barack Obama — and by a margin exceeding President Bush’s Electoral College victory in 2004.
At first blush, McCain’s recent rough patch and the considerable financial disadvantage confronting him make such predictions seem absurd. Indeed, as Republicans experience their worst days since Watergate, those same GOP strategists are reticent to publicly tout the prospect of a sizable McCain victory for fear of looking foolish.
But the contours of the electoral map, combined with McCain’s unique strengths and the nature of Obama’s possible vulnerabilities, have led to a cautious and muted optimism that McCain could actually surpass Bush’s 35-electoral-vote victory in 2004. Though they expect he would finish far closer to Obama in the popular vote, the thinking is that he could win by as many 50 electoral votes.
By post-war election standards, that margin is unusually small. Yet it’s considerably larger than either Bush’s 2004 victory or his five-electoral-vote win in 2000.
“A win by 40 or 50 electoral votes would be an astonishing upset, just a watershed event with all the issues that were stacked against him from the very beginning,” said David Woodard, a Republican pollster and Clemson University political science professor. “But it could happen. I know this seems like wishful thinking by Republicans. I’m thinking that Republicans could win by 40 electoral votes. But I dare not say it,” he added. “Certainly what is possible could come to pass.”
A top strategist with the Republican National Committee, who asked that his name be withheld to speak candidly, explained that by his own examination, “we’re actually sitting pretty well in most states.”
“There are a lot of scenarios that look good for McCain, and I almost would go so far to say that there are a lot more scenarios [than for Obama],” the strategist added. “I don’t think anybody over here wants to let themselves get too excited about it. It is an eternity between now and November. But McCain looks a lot stronger than our prospects as a party.”
It is virtually impossible to find an established GOP strategist who believes McCain will win in a landslide. But in light of the circumstances, more than a few Republicans are pleasantly surprised to find that McCain is at all situated to defeat Obama.
“The broader environment clearly favors the Democrat,” said Whit Ayers, another veteran GOP pollster. But Ayers argued that “a state-by-state analysis actually makes McCain a narrow favorite to win the Electoral College majority.”
“That would certainly run against the grain of history, if he pulled that off,” Ayers added. “But it’s also clearly plausible and a manageable outcome partly because of John McCain’s strength among independents and partly because of Obama’s weakness in culture, ideology and association.”
Some Republican strategists can envision a scenario in which Obama wins the popular vote but loses in the Electoral College — he might galvanize Southern black turnout, for example, but still fail to switch a state in the region.
Among the 10 strategists interviewed by Politico for this story, there was near-uniform belief that had any other Republican been nominated, the party’s prospects in November would be nil.
“No disrespect to the other candidates,” said GOP pollster Glen Bolger, “but if anyone else had been nominated we’d be toast.”
The case they make for a comfortable McCain win is not beyond reason. Begin with the 2004 electoral map. Add Iowa and Colorado to Obama’s side, since both are considered states Obama could pick off. Then count McCain victories in New Hampshire and Michigan, two states where McCain is competitive. In this scenario, McCain wins the Electoral College 291-246, a larger margin than Bush four years ago.
If Obama managed only to win Iowa from Republicans and McCain managed only to win Pennsylvania, McCain would still win by a much greater margin than Bush — 300-237.
“McCain is in a remarkably strong position for how poor the political environment is right now,” said Brian Nienaber, a GOP pollster. “McCain could win Pennsylvania, Ohio, Colorado and Nevada with a high Hispanic population. It really does scramble the map of where Obama does find those electoral votes.”
Naturally, Democrats do not concede the point. But conversations with several Democratic strategists reveal that many acknowledge that the Republican scenarios are at least reasonable, though they say less likely to occur because Obama has the potential to dramatically alter the map, putting some nontraditional states in play at the same time. The bottom line, though, is that McCain’s ability to compete in some big industrial states offers a ray of hope in an otherwise dismal election cycle.
“We have to hold Michigan and Pennsylvania. McCain wins one of those states, we are in trouble. They have to hold Florida and Ohio or they are trouble,” Democratic pollster Paul Maslin said. “The truth about this race [is], this is the year that we shouldn’t lose, and we could lose.”
The GOP scenarios do not rely on some game-changing event but rather the possibility of Obama failing to overcome his own and his party’s weaknesses. Obama has long been thought by analysts to have a higher electoral vote ceiling as well as a lower floor than Hillary Clinton.
It is that potential Obama floor that increasingly occupies the minds of Republicans studying the map. Even the potentially dramatic rise in turnout of African-Americans may only gain Obama 1 percentage point in many swing states, according to Maslin. Yet Obama’s weaknesses may end up neutralizing some of those relatively modest gains.
Since 1968, Democrats have had a deficit with whites, particularly men. Some Republicans believe that Obama may exacerbate those Democratic challenges, especially in key rural regions like Appalachia, struggle to win back Hispanics or some women, and dash Democratic prospects during their most favorable landscape in at least three decades.
“There is a one in four shot that McCain can win an electoral majority in excess of 50 electoral votes, which by most recent standards would be a blowout,” Republican pollster Tony Fabrizio said. “Considering where the Republican brand is right now, that’s pretty phenomenal.”