Rocky Terrain: Obama’s Electoral College Map Grows Steeper

National Journal

The Gallup state-by-state average approval numbers for 2011 released this week don’t necessarily predict where President Obama will finish on Election Day, but they do measure the hill he must climb to win re-election.

The most important number in presidential elections, of course, is 270 — the number of Electoral College votes it takes to win. The best way to examine the Gallup numbers is to measure them against that yardstick.

In 2010, if you sorted down from Obama’s highest approval rating to his lowest, he could reach 270 Electoral College votes by carrying the 22 states plus the District of Columbia where his approval rating stood at 46.9 percent or more. Since one of the states above that line was Mississippi, a state Obama has almost no chance of carrying in practice, a more realistic scenario was that to reach an Electoral College majority he would have to carry those 21 states plus Virginia, where his approval rating stood at 46.6 percent.

That would have been challenging, but not imposingly so. Political strategists used to believe that incumbents were unlikely to win elections (or carry states) where their approval rating lagged below 50 percent; but given the widespread cynicism about politicians many strategists on both sides believe the tipping point is now around 47 percent. Below that number, incumbents are a distinct underdog; above it, they are favored, with the ground tilting much more toward them once they cross 50 percent.

In the 2011 numbers, the situation looks much more difficult for Obama. From 2010 to 2011, Gallup found, his average approval ratings dropped in every state except Connecticut, Maine and (oddly enough) Wyoming. As a result, to reach 270 Electoral College votes based on the 2011 numbers, he would need to win 20 states plus the District of Columbia where his approval rating stands at 44.5 percent or more. Since one of the states above that line is Georgia, which is also a stretch for Obama in practice, to reach 270 he would more likely need to carry Oregon and North Carolina, where his approval ratings stood at 44.5 percent and 43.7 percent, respectively. (It’s worth filing away that the scenario based on either year’s numbers – Virginia and North Carolina stand right at the tipping point between victory and defeat for Obama.)

In sum then, Obama in 2010 could reach an Electoral College majority by carrying states where his approval rating stood at least at 46.6 percent, something that would be difficult but hardly impossible. To reach a majority based on the 2011 results, he’d need to carry states where his approval stood at 43.7 percent or above. That’s a much more daunting prospect.

Another way of examining the shift is to group states into bands based on Obama’s approval rating. In 2011, the states in which Obama’s approval rating exceeds 50 percent-enough to make him a clear favorite-have a combined total of 159 Electoral College votes. His rating stands between 47 percent and 49.9 percent in states with another combined 56 Electoral College votes. That means he’s favored at least somewhat in states with 215 Electoral College votes. That’s a big decline from 2010, when he stood above 50 percent in states with 175 Electoral College votes and from 47 to 49.9 percent in states with another 84, for 259 favored votes.

At the same time, the Gallup data suggests, the number of Electoral College votes that have hardened against Obama has notably increased. In 2010, his approval rating averaged below 42 percent in states with 99 Electoral College votes. Now that’s up to 193. There are also fewer states where he’s just below the 47 percent threshold. In 2010, he stood between 42 percent and 46.9 percent in states with 180 Electoral College votes; now that’s down to 130. The implication is that the number of states Obama can plausibly contest to reach 270 Electoral College votes is narrowing. Another way of documenting that challenge: in 2010, Obama’s approval rating stood at 47 percent or above in New Mexico, Oregon, Iowa, Ohio and Nevada, all states he carried in 2008. His average 2011 ratings fell below that level in all five states.

There are lots of reasons why the Gallup numbers could be more a snapshot of the past than a forecast of the future. Obama’s approval rating has generally run slightly lower in the Gallup tracking poll than in most other surveys. More important, his ratings have generally ticked up in most recent polls as Americans have expressed somewhat more optimism about the economy’s trajectory, and he has shifted the Washington debate away from deficit-reduction toward jobs and tax equity; those improvements would not be heavily reflected in these numbers. He’s also generally polling above his approval ratings in head-to-head match-ups against the leading Republican contenders-who have seen their favorability ratings decline amid their fierce primary struggle.

But even with all those qualifications, these Gallup numbers show how much work awaits the Obama campaign, not only in states at the border of the emerging Democratic coalition like Virginia, Florida and Nevada, but some, like Pennsylvania and Oregon that have been part of its core since 1992.