Stateline Story

Purple States Turn a Little More Blue

  • March 06, 2008
  • By Louis Jacobson

Last July - a lifetime ago in the 2008 presidential race - "Out There" rated 19 battleground states on how likely each was to vote Republican or Democratic in the general election. Eight months later, the list of states that are neither solidly Republican "red" nor Democratic "blue" remains the same. But within those battleground states, Democrats have been methodically gaining ground.

While there are differences in how U.S. Sens. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) or Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.) would fare in November, Out There's latest state-by-state projection gives either Democrat a modest electoral-vote edge against U.S. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), though not enough to clinch the presidency.

Because presidents aren't elected by a nationwide vote but rather state by state through electoral votes, this year's race - as in 2000 and 2004 - is likely to come down to a select group of "Toss-Up" states where the presidential preferences are too close to call. Last July, just three states - Iowa, New Mexico and Ohio - qualified for Toss-Up status. Since then, Virginia, previously ranked as Likely Republican, and Missouri, formerly Lean Republican, have shifted to the Toss-Up category, regardless of who the Democratic nominee is.

If it's Obama, Colorado also shifts from Lean Republican to Toss-Up while Iowa drops off the too-close-to-call list to Lean Democratic. If it's Clinton, then Arkansas - where she served as first lady in the governor's mansion - comes into play.

Despite Obama's strength in red-state caucuses and McCain's appeal as a moderate, this analysis keeps the number of "purple" states - those neither safely red nor blue but still up for grabs - at its original 19, at least at this stage of the most wide-open presidential contest in at least half a century.

Eleven of these states (Arizona, Arkansas, Colorado, Florida, Iowa, Missouri, Nevada, New Mexico, Ohio, Virginia and West Virginia) voted for President George W. Bush in 2004. Eight (Maine, Michigan, Minnesota, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, Oregon, Washington and Wisconsin) voted for U.S. Sen. John Kerry (D). This analysis divides the 19 states into five categories -Likely Democratic, Lean Democratic, Toss-Up, Lean Republican, Likely Republican - based on polling data and discussions with roughly 40 state-based political experts.

Driven by a range of factors, including continued disaffection with President Bush, worries about the economy and a surge in fundraising and voter energy - the general trend since last July has been incremental movement in the Democrats' direction.

Adding the Safe, Likely and Lean Democratic states leaves an Obama-led ticket well-positioned to win 259 of the 270 electoral votes needed to win the White House, compared to 221 for McCain. A ticket headed by Clinton would lead McCain a bit more narrowly, 252-224.

Despite the two Democrats' prospective strength in November, their electoral vote maps do look a bit different. Four states worth 74 electoral votes - Arkansas, Florida, Ohio and Pennsylvania - would be easier for Clinton to win, though to varying degrees. Six states worth 49 electoral votes - Arizona, Colorado, Iowa, Nevada, New Mexico and Virginia - should be easier for Obama.

Unlike the Republicans, the Democrats seem to be holding on to their purple states. No Lean Democratic state has yet slipped into the Toss-Up category. The Democrats seem to be holding on in four blue-collar states hit hard by the economic slowdown (Maine, Michigan, Minnesota and Wisconsin) as well as in three potentially competitive states in the Pacific Northwest and New England (Oregon, Washington and New Hampshire).

The good news for the Republicans is that McCain would do better than any other Republican candidate would have in essentially all of these states. Almost no other Republican would be as close as he is in the electoral math. Indeed, this analysis shifts Oregon from Likely Democratic to Lean Democratic because of some polls showing the Arizona senator within striking distance. Still, major Republican shifts in Democratic-held purple states have yet to materialize.

The states moving toward the Democrats are diverse. In Virginia, Democrats, buoyed by the growing electoral influence of the moderate-to-liberal Washington suburbs, followed up wins for governor and a U.S. Senate seat by taking over the state Senate in 2007. Even last year, polls began showing strength for Democratic presidential candidates. Obama won the Virginia primary, though either Democratic candidate should make a strong run in the fall.

Meanwhile, Missouri also seems to be moving in the Democrats' direction. Analysts within the state say that Missouri's role as the quintessential bellwether state - voting for every presidential winner save one over the past century - has kept its leanings closely tied to the national disaffection with Republicans, including President Bush and Gov. Matt Blunt (R). Blunt was so unpopular he declined to seek a second term this year.

Obama likely would run more strongly than Clinton would in a swath of Mountain West states where she and her husband, the former president, have never been too popular. Obama has inspired strong support in Colorado, where a Democratic surge already has been under way for several years, and both he and possibly Clinton stand to make Nevada a more competitive state than it had seemed last July. The high-profile Nevada caucuses produced a surge in new Democratic voters, and the constant influx of newcomers means lots of Nevadans who aren't wedded to the state's historical Republican leanings.

Iowa, which went narrowly for Bush in 2004 after voting for Democratic nominee Al Gore in 2000, also looks stronger for Obama than for Clinton, after his stunning caucus victory that bequeathed him a strong ground operation and lots of energized supporters.

As the nominee, Clinton still could win in Iowa. And she runs stronger than Obama in several other states.

The most crucial of these is Ohio, the deciding state in the 2004 election; she won Ohio's primary on March 4. Clinton also would run much stronger than Obama in Arkansas, where she lived from the 1970s until Bill Clinton was elected president, and somewhat stronger in West Virginia, where the demographics fit better with her base of support (blue-collar whites) than with Obama's (African-Americans and urban and suburban liberals). However, in both West Virginia and Arkansas, McCain is well-positioned to keep those states red regardless of the nominee.

In two other big, pivotal states, Pennsylvania and Florida, Clinton might run somewhat stronger than Obama. While Obama would be expected to do well in the Philadelphia and Pittsburgh metropolitan areas, Pennsylvania is home to many blue-collar white voters who were warmer to Clinton than Obama during the primaries. (Pennsylvania has its primary April 22.) For now, analysts concur that Pennsylvania still qualifies as Lean Democratic regardless of the nominee, though its rating is iffier than it was last July. A late February Quinnipiac poll found both Democrats in a statistical dead heat with McCain.

The trends in Florida are harder to pin down. A mid-February Quinnipiac University poll found both Democrats essentially tied with McCain, with Clinton faring slightly better than Obama. Obama would energize black voters, whose low turnout in recent elections has helped Republican showings. But McCain is popular among seniors and veterans, and he has the strong support of the state's popular GOP governor, Charlie Crist, a moderate. For now, Out There is keeping Florida at Lean Republican.

But as this zigzag primary season has shown, the electoral situation can change overnight - and there's lots of time between now and November.

Louis Jacobson is the editor of CongressNow , an online publication launched in 2007 that covers legislation and policy in Congress and is affiliated with Roll Call newspaper in Washington, D.C. Jacobson originated the "Out There" column in 2004 as a feature for Roll Call, where he served as deputy editor. Earlier, Jacobson spent 11 years with National Journal covering lobbying, politics and policy, and served as a contributing writer for two of its affiliates , CongressDaily and Government Executive . He also was a contributing writer to The Almanac of American Politics and has done political handicapping of state legislatures for both The Rothenberg Political Report and The Cook Political Report.