“If you get the votes,” Stu Spencer advised a persistent young reporter during the 1980 U.S. presidential campaign, “the map will follow.”
Spencer, the top political strategist for Ronald Reagan and one of the best ever to ply the trade, was suggesting that the fixation on the Electoral College and key battleground states is excessive. The college, or the map, invariably follows the popular vote. The only exception in more than 100 years was 2000, when George W. Bush lost the popular vote, and after a controversial Supreme Court ruling, won the presidency.
The more important focus, Spencer suggested, are swing voter groups. In 2012, if married women with children in Florida go for the Republican candidate, Mitt Romney, they probably will go for him in Ohio, too. If Obama captures suburban independents in Pennsylvania, it’s not likely to be much different in Colorado.
The same is true of each party’s base. If Hispanics are voting heavily in Nevada, the same pattern ought to hold in Virginia. A big time turnout of evangelicals in North Carolina suggests the same in Iowa.
So why all the constant attention to the electoral map and the magic figure of 270, the number of electoral votes required to be elected president?
One reason is that it’s more fun for journalists, and it’s easier to focus on states and the number of electoral votes. Also this calculus enhances the reputation of political strategists. The Republican Karl Rove, who ran George W. Bush’s campaigns, and David Plouffe, President Barack Obama’s political guru, are supposed to be masters of the map.
More important, it matters in very close contests, usually those decided by one percentage point or less, as was the case 12 years ago. In a number of the recent tight races -- 1960, 1968, 1976 and, to a lesser extent, 2004 -- the popular vote and the map were in sync.
Matthew Dowd, the top poll taker and a strategist for George W. Bush, illustrated the unusual scenario where it might matter this time. Obama won the national popular vote four years ago by a little more than seven points. Dowd took four points off the Democrats’ 2008 vote in each state, and added it to the other column, which would have given Republicans a tiny edge in the popular vote.
Under that scenario, however, Obama this time still would squeak by and win the Electoral College vote 272 to 266. He would lose Florida, Ohio, Indiana, North Carolina, Virginia and a congressional district in Nebraska, not quite enough to switch the result.
If, instead, the difference were five points for each candidate, the Republicans additionally would pick up Colorado, New Hampshire and Iowa, which bring them 15 more votes than necessary to win.
The two probable conclusions: If the race is decided by two percentage points or more the electoral map won’t matter; if it’s less than that, the president has a slight advantage with the map.
In looking at current surveys, both sides carefully examine the profile of a state’s electorate and compare it with the landscape of 2008. It’s generally accepted that voter enthusiasm for Obama, particularly among young voters whom he carried decisively last time, is diminished; it’s also true the electorate in most places is more non-white, a disadvantage for Romney.
The party preference in any poll is the best guide; with rare exceptions, 90 percent or more of self-identified partisans vote for their own side.
Three recent Quinnipiac University polls underscore this point. In Florida, Pennsylvania and Ohio the partisan breakdown is almost the same as it was four years ago. Obama has an advantage in all three, though for Ohio it is wider than in other surveys of that state.
More important than the horse race are the internal dynamics. A lot is driven by an anti-Romney sentiment. In Ohio, one third of the voters were independents, who will swing the election. They have a 44 percent to 31 percent unfavorable view of the Republican nominee. Reversing that is his challenge over the next four months.
Spencer, who recalls Reagan and Bill Clinton trailing at a comparable stage in their races, thinks it’s doable.
In a phone conversation, Spencer, at 85, seems as sharp as when he was the hottest political consultant in America, helping Reagan win the California governorship in 1966 and the presidency 14 years later.
His advice for Romney, who he says doesn’t relate well to average voters: “Stay focused on the economic issues and don’t try to change who you are.”
For Obama: “Spend a lot of time around Bill Clinton and listen. He is a master at understanding his base and understanding the rest of us.”
For both, the counsel he gave his actor-turned politician client almost five decades ago seems relevant: “Politics is just like show business. You have a hell of an opening, coast for a while and then have a hell of a close.”
(Albert R. Hunt is Washington editor at Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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