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Seven States that Will Decide the Election

The Electoral College is what it is: an antiquated system that irks both political parties at times. But it is still, as the Boston Globe’s Jeff Jacoby pointed out last month, “the best system for picking a chief executive suited to a nation like ours: a geographically large, ideologically diverse, socially complex federal republic.” It won’t be eradicated or severely amended anytime soon, so it’s time to begin to embrace it, at least when November 4 rolls around.

Though the cliché “my vote does not matter” argument is short-sighted, it is true that, as in many recent elections, only a handful of states will decide our next commander in chief. All the polling and punditry is nonsense, when in fact race, gender, and so on matter far less than locale.

As someone who has lived in ten states, driven through all the lower 48, and visited every “major” U.S. city not named Spokane or El Paso, I’ll endeavor to explain why seven states will essentially outrank all others in importance come the fall.

President Bush, in his 2004 triumph, won six of these states.

In 2000, then Gov. Bush won five of those states; thus, the election was much closer.

In 1996, Pres. Clinton won six of these states and thumped Sen. Bob Dole.

And in 1992, then Gov. Clinton won five of those key states.

Let’s take a look at them, in order of importance (electoral votes):

Florida (27)

Florida was not very close in 2004, with President Bush winning by five percent. The Sunshine State, where I resided for six months in 2006, is very unique. It is a diverse state — racially, culturally, economically, and certainly geographically. In Florida, north is south and south is north. The Panhandle is full of conservatives and military towns across I-10 from Pensacola to Jacksonville, and even in mid-Florida along the I-4 corridor from Dayton Beach through Orlando to Tampa, politics are center-right. But down south, where wealthy northern transplants dominate a 90 mile stretch along both coasts, politics tend to lean left.

Hispanics, more prominent in Miami, are not the La Raza Reconquista types you might encounter in Southern California denouncing America; they’re Caribbean, mostly Cuban. And the Cubans, having escaped the horrors of Communism, very often vote Republican.

Retirees are extremely key. They may be politically centrist overall, but they’re conservative fiscally. And despite the clamoring for a senior organization like the AARP to endorse Obama, the AARP never endorses candidates. Even if they did, wouldn’t McCain’s age finally benefit him?

Over 30% of Floridians were born before the end of the Second World War. Generally, fiscal matters and health care are the elderly’s most important issues. Elderly Floridians aren’t likely to be enamored by the misogynistic, racist lyrics of Ludacris in support of Obama. And even some African-Americans, more than 16% of the state’s population, have shown angst toward the Illinois freshman senator.

“I can only go by the polls, which show McCain winning the state handily,” Joe Kaufman, of the civil rights organization Americans Against Hate, told me recently.

In South Florida, Matt Brooks, head of the Republican Jewish Coalition, explained in late June that the Democratic nominee cannot just count on Jewish support, especially when Obama has been endorsed and supported by some of Israel’s (and America’s) foes. The Jerusalem Post said the same thing a few days later, though Obama has persisted in showing support for Israel — both in Florida and the Holy Land. Of course, the more religious the Jew, the more they favor McCain and question Obama’s commitment to Israel.

Mr. Kaufman, who is Jewish, believes that “if Senator McCain is truly getting such a large percentage of the Jewish vote, it’s probably an indicator that heavily Democrat areas of Florida will not hold up for Senator Obama and will cause Obama to lose the state.”

Former Israeli Cabinet Minister and Soviet dissident Natan Sharansky recently claimed Obama “has no record on foreign policy” and that an Obama presidency would “constitute a political gamble for Israel.”

By contrast, Sharansky characterized John McCain as less risky, calling him “a person of principle … who has a great record of supporting Israel.”

Popular Republican Gov. Charlie Crist, considered a potential McCain running mate, traveled to Israel on a trade mission last year and, according to Republican Party of Florida Deputy Press Secretary Carla Rivera, “understands that Israel is our strong ally and is committed to protecting the Jewish State.” She added, “Obama has vowed to meet with Iranian leaders who have called Israel names that I prefer not to repeat.”

“We are very optimistic,” Rivera continued. “Many Democrats are unhappy with their party’s decisions and hundreds have called our offices and have stated their support for McCain.”

If Republican optimism is strong in south Florida, it’s even stronger in the northern areas. Jacksonville, Florida’s most populous city, has the nation’s third largest naval installation. And in the northwestern corner of the state, Pensacola, where President Bush garnered two-thirds of the vote in 2004, is staunchly conservative and one of America’s largest naval towns.

“Veterans understand that McCain has been in their position before,” said Rivera. “The country-first mentality is a common factor for many vets and military and they know that McCain has the experience needed.”

The GOP also is working for the Hispanic vote, rather than assuming they have it.

“Many Latinos (not only Cuban-Americans) are realizing what Senator Obama is about,” Rivera notes. “Obama has stated on several occasions that he would meet with leaders such as Fidel Castro without preconditions. Many Latinos are noticing what is happening with leaders such as Chavez or Evo Morales and they oppose Obama’s plans and can see that he does not have the experience needed to deal with Latin America.”

Finally, as Obama is even being urged by his supporters to drop his reticence to debate, Florida Republicans are motivated.

“The situation in congress demonstrates the lack of interest for the environment and our energy crisis and people are becoming more aware of what is happening,” said Rivera. “The American people deserve a commander in chief who puts their country first ahead of party, politics, and self-interest. Senator Obama is slowly revealing himself to Americans and many do not like what they see.”

Also, the sizeable Colombian population has been very enthusiastic about the Bush Administration’s friendship with President Uribe and support of the anti-terrorist movement. They’re equally disappointed with the Democrats refusal to support the Free Trade Agreement and appeasement of the FARC terrorists.

Florida, it would seem, is McCain country.

The Florida Democratic Party declined to comment when contacted for this article.

Ohio (20)

As my July article elucidated, the Buckeye State seems to have too many moderates uninterested in a celebrity for president. Fancy planes won’t impress them either. McCain needs to emulate Hillary Clinton, who had success here, and strike while the proverbial iron is hot. If coastal Democrats and infuriated Hillary supporters are considering McCain, so will midwesterners in towns like Toledo and Youngstown. Remember, not since 1960 has someone won the presidency without this state. Bush won here twice — even when unpopular in 2004 — so the centrist McCain, closer to a Democrat than Obama in the eyes of many, shouldn’t struggle.

However, Democrats are still confident, mostly due to the economy.

“In Ohio, kitchen table issues are dominant. Ohio has lost 250,000 manufacturing jobs to places like China and Mexico due to the failed Bush economic policies that John McCain promises to continue,” said Alex Goepfert, communication director for Barack Obama in Ohio. “There isn’t an attack ad in the book that can save John McCain if Ohio voters walk into the voting booth thinking about their jobs, their mortgages, their gas tanks, or their grocery bills.”

But many, like actor Jon Voight, question whether Obama’s solutions are better. A financial planner from Akron told me, “Jobs have disappeared abroad mainly because unions require $35 per hour salaries (with pensions and vacations) for 55 year olds who watch machines all day and take long lunches. Think that flies in Beijing?”

Interestingly, with major successes in the Iraq war recently, that issue, which had been a centerpiece during the 2004 and 2006 races, has become secondary — at least to Democrats, as Goepfert twice refused to answer my queries on the topic.

“The Democrats cannot use gas prices and heating bills as reasons veterans will discount John McCain, who has spent nearly his entire life in service to his country,” noted Kathy, a lifetime Dayton resident whose late husband worked locally at Wright Patterson Air Force Base. “Words like duty, honor, and country belong in a much more powerful context to men who have fought for our freedom.”

As someone who works with the military daily, I’ll vouch for the idea that enduring torture due to one’s dedication to the protection of our nation means a great deal to active military and veterans.

The Ohio Republican Party declined comment for this piece.


Virginia (13)

Virginia is more than DC-area suburbs, Hampton Roads, and inner-city Richmond. In fact, the Commonwealth, physically, is mostly mountainous and rural. Culturally, it is overwhelmingly southern. Politically, much of it is military, religious Christians, and Civil War historians. The Richmond suburbs, especially the more middle-class ones, are conservative, as is their newspaper — a rarity these days.

Ninety percent of Virginia — from its summer humidity and mild winters to its hospitality and lush terrain — is southern to the core. Aside from Lyndon Johnson’s blowout win in 1964, Virginia has not voted for a Democrat in a presidential election since 1952, long before the transforming of political roles in the south and the implementation of Nixon’s Southern strategy. There usually is as good a chance of Virginia supporting the Democrat nominee as Maryland going for the Republican.

“Mitch,” who worked at the Pentagon during the Bush and Clinton terms, believes there is “no way that Obama will win in Virginia,” but he thinks it could be close. While he does agree that some of Virginia has become more left-leaning over the years, he clarifies that “it is almost entirely due to the northern Virginia area, the only area that’s truly liberal.”

Mitch also spoke about how many Democrats, when polled, “say they will vote for Obama, but these same people will condemn Obama amongst their friends. … So the polls might not be as accurate as we think.”

Others have brought up this “Bradley effect,” named after the five-term Los Angeles mayor who lost the 1982 California gubernatorial election even though he was ahead in the polls throughout the final days before the election. The conclusion, and this is surely germane to Virginians today, was that many Caucasians did not want to seem “racist” when asked who they were voting for. Yet when they got in the booths, they did not pull the lever for Bradley, who was black.

Veteran political staffer Gary Welsh of Advance Indiana recalled more frequent inaccurate polling after Evan Bayh confirmed he wouldn’t be Obama’s running mate earlier this month. He claimed that “in every single presidential election I’ve observed, the Democratic candidate has always had a significant lead over the Republican candidate.”

But Obama will not give up without a fight, especially since most polls have Virginia as close as ever. While former Gov. Mark Warner has insisted he is not a vice presidential candidate, the Obama campaign has persistently tried coaxing him to reconsider. The current governor of Virginia, Tim Kaine, has long been a well-publicized frontrunner to be the Illinois senator’s running mate.

All this attention proves Virginia is crucial to Obama’s plans. He has even chosen Warner to deliver the keynote speech at the Democratic convention, and has zeroed in on the Commonwealth as a state he can steal — even if history is not on his side.

Missouri (11)

The Show-Me State is a lot like Pennsylvania, with Kansas City playing the role of Pittsburgh and St. Louis that of Philadelphia. In between, it’s a lot like Alabama: very conservative and quite rural. Much of Missouri has a southern feel as you move south and west toward the Ozarks and the home state of Mike Huckabee and Bill Clinton (Arkansas). Just over the state line sits Walmart’s national headquarters. Fearing further unionizing, especially in Missouri where over 100 stores are located, the superstore is aggressively supporting McCain.

Though Clinton won here twice, that was before the post-9-11 hard push left of the Democratic Party, as evidenced by the 2008 candidate, the party chair, committee chairs, and Obama’s competitors in the primaries. Though Missouri was arguably Obama’s most impressive primary win, he’s no shoo-in here as McCain leads in most polls. Religious conservatives are abundant in Missouri, where the so-called Bible Belt “buckles.” If you talk to most residents, they’ll tell you they already have a Savior.

“Faith is important to all Missourians in every corner of the state,” said Tina Hervey, communications director for the Missouri Republican Party. “Missourians are looking for a candidate who understands the importance of faith in everyday life.”

Of the state’s 114 counties, only four went to John Kerry in 2004, thus prompting the question: How will America‘s most liberal senator win here? Common sense says he won’t, especially with odd remarks and orders that may play well in Springfield, Illinois, but not Springfield, Missouri. You likely cannot count these folks among the 35% who had a positive opinion of Obama’s recent sojourn to Europe.

Also, thousands of active military in the Show-Me State likely will not be enamored with any hostile rhetoric from Obama or any cuts to funding. The FDR Dems and big labor, who kept Missouri somewhat close at seven percent in 2004, likely won’t go Obama’s way as easily in 2008.

“As he makes more gaffes during the campaign, and looks more like a rock star than a president, his lack of depth and understanding of most critical issues will become apparent,” Noah, a graduate student at Washington University in Saint Louis, told me. “In the home state of John Ashcroft, where a Republican governor has helped grow the economy, Missouri is McCain country.”

“The Missouri electorate is a very informed electorate,” Hervey added. “To win here you must appeal to both the metro and rural voter. This is why Missouri is a bell-weather.”

The Missouri Democrat Party declined to comment.

Iowa (7)

No one can ignore that Obama won the Iowa caucus while McCain finished a distant 4th in January. Polling data consistently shows the Illinois senator with a lead in Iowa. But that caucus was the first of them all — and seven months ago. Looking back, Hillary Clinton held a similar lead to Obama’s in Iowa before she started acting like the Democratic nomination was hers for the taking — and lost.

When it comes to Iowa, few know the state better than lifetime resident Tom Lindaman, who lives in the state’s largest city and is the editor of Common Conservative. He recently shared his insights with me:

Iowa can be a hard state for the self-styled experts to figure out because we have a surprisingly diverse electorate: College students and clergy. Farm workers and union workers. Country folk and city slickers. In short, if ever there was a “purple state,” it would be Iowa.

With the number of college students in Iowa, it’s not surprising that some polls show Iowa leaning toward Obama. Consider, also, that Obama is from a neighboring state, although it didn’t work wonders for Richard Gephardt in 2004. The interesting question will be whether Obama can appeal to the Democrats who supported Hillary Clinton, who are going to be a tough sell. One of her core voting blocs in Iowa was the aged, and if a significant number of them decide to stay home, vote for John McCain, or vote third party, it might be enough to give McCain the victory in Iowa.

Because of the state’s Katrina-level flooding in June and the potential use of ethanol as a gas alternative, Lindaman claims “farmers will be watching for the candidate who will extend his hand to help them. They cannot be overlooked.” He adds a word of warning to the candidates: “Iowans, especially farmers, can spot fakes. Be honest, or be gone.” From the department of honesty, Lindaman analyzes Obama’s recent European vacation. “Being a middle American, seeing someone who isn’t even officially the candidate acting like he’s already won the election is a major turn-off because it comes off as arrogant and presumptuous,” he notes. “Iowans expect our leaders to be humble and accountable, not a rock star.”

As odd as it sounds listening to the media, Iowa’s economy hasn’t been that bad. That works in McCain’s favor, provided Iowa voters see through the gloom of the media and notice how well they’ve weathered the economic storms.

“The Iowa economy is better than much of the country,” said Stewart Iverson, chair of Iowa’s GOP. “It is slowing, just not as much. I think it may be somewhat of an advantage but it is still to early to tell. Senator McCain is working hard in Iowa and I think he will do well in our state.”

The extreme social liberal views of Obama will hurt in states where Judeo-Christian values matter. Obama is still an unknown, who’s been prone to gaffes and backtracking in this, his first rodeo. “Independent voters are beginning to hop off the Obama bandwagon as they learn more about his liberal voting record and recognize his lack of experience,” Nathan Treloar, communications director for the Republican Party of Iowa told me. “Groups that I do see as potential pickups for John McCain are women and ‘Reagan Democrats.'”

Though Iowa’s Hispanic population is less than five percent, the GOP is confident in McCain’s ability to attract their votes, locally and nationally. “John McCain’s bipartisan immigration plan has been well received by many in the Latino community, evidenced by McCain’s dominance in winning the votes of Latino Republicans during the primary and caucus season,” said Treloar.

In terms of the economy, Treloar has recent reasons to be optimistic. He notes:

Many voters are starting to pay attention and are startled by what they’re finding. Putting Nancy Pelosi in charge of the U.S. House was supposed to bring ‘hope’ and ‘change,’ but Americans are not seeing it. McCain believes we need to employ a number of strategies to combat high energy prices … and will not exclude any idea from the debate if it holds the promise of contributing to the solution. Nancy Pelosi and other Democrat leaders will not even allow the issue of drilling to come up for a vote. That reeks of partisan politicking and the last thing voters want more of is hypocrisy.

I’ve driven through left-leaning cities like Iowa City and Des Moines, blue collar towns along the Mississippi like Davenport and Dubuque, and small counties out west near the Missouri River and Nebraska border which all went to Bush. “Be honest or be gone” resonates here.

Though neither Republican party official would make a prediction, Treloar quipped, “If the best solution that Obama has is to check the air pressure in your tires, then we’ll be seeing lot more John McCain barn signs in the fields along Iowa’s highways.”

New Mexico (5)

Arizona, where McCain is a four-term senator, borders New Mexico. And though the populations are somewhat different, the lay of the land, priorities, and history, mirror each other to some degree.

Obama struggled mightily during the primaries in diverse states like California, New York, and Texas. He also lost New Mexico, and with McCain being a neighboring senator and frequent visitor, the winds might favor the Republican. But polls have been close all summer, often leaning Obama’s way.

Demographically, fewer than three percent of New Mexicans are black, which is not even half of Iowa’s black populace. Like Iowa and New Hampshire, the parties have split the past two elections in the Land of Enchantment. President Bush won here by fewer than 10,000 votes in 2004 and lost a very close 2000 race by fewer than 400 votes (closer than Florida). Polls show it’ll be tight again.

The northwest corner of New Mexico, bordering Utah, has a large Mormon influence. “Most of the eastern border of the state is conservative as well, especially down in the southeast quadrant of the state where it is rural in the West Texas sense: very conservative, small towns with lots of oil and that love high school football,” Brent, a state demographer in Albuquerque told me. “It is doubtful the ranchers will go for Obama.”

Artsy locales like Santa Fe and Taos are very liberal, but the rest of northern New Mexico is very rural. New Mexico has three air force bases and 8,000 active duty servicemen and women. There are a high number of veterans as well, many of whom are Hispanic.

Latinos make up 38.7% of the total voting age population in New Mexico, and Conchita Cruz, press secretary for the Democratic Party of New Mexico, is confident. “The Latino/Hispanic/Mexican American Vote is largely Democratic by registration and geography,” she notes. “While heavily Hispanic counties voted for Clinton during the 2008 Presidential Preference Caucus, the Obama campaign is running a robust Hispanic outreach program.”

Though New Mexico is west of the “Bible Belt,” there is a religious presence. Catholicism is the most prevalent religion, though about 25% identify themselves as Evangelicals. The strongest Catholic presence is among Hispanics in the northern corridor of the state. And Native Americans, often Catholic as well, constitute nearly 8% of the voting population in New Mexico. “The Native American Community in New Mexico is heavily registered as Democrats,” Cruz explained. “These communities will definitely play an important role in turning New Mexico blue this fall.”

But Shira Rawlinson, press secretary for the New Mexico GOP, begs to differ. “There are a large number of independent voters in Albuquerque and Las Cruces, and Sen. McCain has a proven ability to connect these voters,” she told me. “He also has great appeal to Native Americans, and we therefore expect him to perform better with the Navajo Nation and among New Mexico ‘s Pueblo Indian population.”

Recent polling shows that moderates are moving to Sen. McCain. Is that because he’s regarded as a maverick, or is it due to the inability of the Democrat-led congress to solve the energy crisis? Rawlinson believes both. “Conservative Democrats appreciate Senator McCain’s willingness and ability to reach across the aisle, a skill Obama has never shown, which reinforces his status as an unknown and incredibly inexperienced presidential candidate,” she said. “McCain is willing to explore all options to create a comprehensive and successful energy plan for America. Barack Obama, on the other hand, continues to simply say ‘no’ to common-sense energy solutions that could reduce gas prices now and reduce our dependence on foreign oil.”

At home, the parties both believe their candidate is most in touch.

“Voters in New Mexico share the same concerns as small-business owners, families of servicemen and women in Iraq or as commuters having a hard time paying for higher gas prices,” said Brian Colón, chairman of the New Mexico Democrats. “Barack Obama is a candidate who will prioritize the concerns of working class families.”

Republicans, who have faced an uphill climb at the state level for nearly a century, prefer to look to moral matters.

“Voters who honor the life of the unborn and support traditional marriage will support Senator McCain in large numbers,” Rawlinson affirmed. “Obama, as with so many issues, shows his incredibly liberal viewpoint on social issues that are so important to voters with a strong faith. While a state senator, he voted against allowing medical care to babies who survive an abortion procedure; it’s hard to get farther left than that.”

New Hampshire (4)

A very small state, New Hampshire is also one of the most politically astute. After brushing the tears aside, Hillary’s shocked Obama in the Granite State’s “First in the Nation Primary” on January 8. Followers of the news know New Hampshire has loads of independents, and for a moderate like John McCain, this was the beginning of his “Mac is Back” run that continued in South Carolina, Florida, and elsewhere this past winter. The Arizona senator defeated Pres. Bush here in 2000 as well; though Bush carried it in a close race that fall versus Al Gore. As Senator Kerry eked out a one percent win here in 2004, New Hampshire is quite a unique state.

Those in peaceful Vermont will tell you that the folks next door, with their “Live Free or Die” motto, like their guns. But New Hampshire’s populace is culturally diverse. As you move east away from the Connecticut River, left-leaning college towns like Hanover and Keene present themselves. In addition, the state capital of Concord — home of a disproportionate number of public employees — also supported Obama during the primary. But the liberalism is far different here than across the border in the Green Mountain State.

In 2005, I visited Brattleboro (VT), a hippie town of 12,000 that actually passed a petition indicting the Bush Administration for “crimes against the United States Constitution.” But on the east side of the Connecticut River, rough and tumble Hinsdale (NH) sits. There I found mountain men with thick beards, fireworks stores, and Walmart (not permitted in Vermont until a decade ago).

Despite being a small state with just ten counties totaling over a million people, New Hampshire is not the stereotypical New England state politically. For one thing, it has had more registered Republicans since the Civil War. And the southern towns along the Massachusetts border (close to Boston) are among the strongest performing Republican towns.

“Many of those who populate the suburban towns around Manchester and Nashua left the state of Massachusetts because they felt alienated by that state’s politics,” David Scannell, New Hampshire’s Democratic party chair explained. “But for the past two years, New Hampshire residents have lived under a Democratic majority in the state legislature and the sky has not fallen.”

This congressional majority for the Democrats in Concord also had not occurred post-bellum.

Scannell’s Democrats are relying on people’s economic woes to force them into voting for “Change,” especially McCain’s base.

“I do not think veterans are monolithic or that their votes hinge on issues involving
the military or the war,” he claims. “These veterans have heating bills to pay. ”

New Hampshire, like most northeastern states, is also not overly pious. “New Hampshire has relatively low church attendance, and our evangelicals tend to be Yankees; that is, more private about their faith than evangelicals in other parts of the country,” said Fergus Cullen, Chairman of the New Hampshire Republicans. “Mike Huckabee only got 11% of the primary vote here.” That was a harbinger, since New Hampshire was the first primary following Huckabee’s upset victory in Iowa five days prior.

Due to the large amount of Independents, as well as his local popularity (two past primary wins and the announcement of his candidacy last April), McCain has a good chance of winning the Granite State.

While his and Hillary’s late June “Unity Fest” was nice, Barack Obama’s chances here among men and women of such probity and centrist ideology seem small. McCain, being the moderate, should roll here. New Hampshire is worthy of discussion mostly since it is one of the few states (Iowa and New Mexico were the others) that was carried by different parties in the 21st century.

“McCain has been here four times since winning the primary, which speaks to his understanding of us a swing state,” Cullen noted.

Assuming neither candidate wins both Ohio and Florida, whoever captures a majority of these seven states will be in a great position to capture the presidency.