Big Five States: Tough and Getting Tougher for McCain

by Stuart Rothenberg October 13, 2008 · 12:05 AM EDT

A few months ago in this space, I wrote that if you tell me who will win Colorado, Virginia, Nevada, Ohio and Michigan, I can tell you who will win the White House in November (The Big Five: Picking the States That Will Pick the President, July 17, 2008).

With the campaign of Republican presidential nominee Sen. John McCain (Ariz.) pulling out of Michigan, one of those battlegrounds, we are down to only four states. If any one of them goes for Democratic Sen. Barack Obama (Ill.), he will win the presidency. And, barring a game-changing development, it is increasingly difficult to see how he loses all four.

In taking Michigan off the board, McCain probably has only one path to victory, and it is a very difficult one. He must reassemble the Bush Electoral College coalition, winning all of the 29 states that George W. Bush won twice. (Bush won 30 states in 2000 and 31 in 2004. He won New Hampshire, Iowa and New Mexico only once during those two elections.)

Winning those 29 states would give McCain 274 electoral votes, four more than he needs to win the presidency. Losing even one of those 29 states with five or more electoral votes would give the White House to Obama.

Michigan was one of the few Al Gore/John Kerry states that McCain could have hoped to win this year.

Of course, it was always difficult for the Republican given his free-trade stance and party label. In 2004, the president lost Michigan by more than 3 percentage points, and in 2000, he lost Michigan by more than 5 points.

But the state’s Democratic governor, Jennifer Granholm, has been a serious disappointment to many Wolverine State voters, especially older, working-class whites, and the bad publicity Detroit has received recently over its now former mayor gave Republicans some reason for an upset.

But, by pulling its media, McCain’s campaign has acknowledged that its candidate can’t win it.

Two other states share some of Michigan’s characteristics and could replace it on my list of key indicator states. But McCain isn’t doing all that much better in Pennsylvania right now, another state with an older, white blue-collar electorate, and Wisconsin, which was close in both 2000 and 2004.

Of the two, Wisconsin may be McCain’s best chance, since Bush lost the state to Gore by just two-tenths of a point in 2000 and only four-tenths of a point to Kerry four years later. State polling suggests that the presidential contest is closer in Wisconsin than in Pennsylvania, but Obama leads.

Without any of those three, McCain is stuck in a rut — the Bush electoral map rut. I suppose there is a chance he could win one of the states Bush split with his Democratic opponents in 2000 and 2004 — New Mexico would seem to be the most likely choice — but that’s not very likely either, and losing Virginia or Colorado would offset that McCain takeaway.

Obama’s improved position in Virginia, Colorado, Ohio, Nevada, Florida, North Carolina, Missouri and Indiana makes it increasingly difficult to imagine a McCain victory without an event or events that dramatically remake the presidential contest. And any event that could be a game-changer is almost certainly out of McCain’s control.

Recent state polls show Obama even or ahead in all of these states, but he will need to win one or at most two of them to guarantee victory.

And while McCain needs a clear Electoral College majority, 270 electoral votes, Obama will win the White House if he and McCain tie with 269 electoral votes, since Obama would win if the election were to go to the House of Representatives.

While it’s true that Obama hasn’t locked up the election quite yet, it’s also true that McCain has been stuck at the low- to mid-40s in most national surveys, a significant sign of weakness.

Given all of the odd twists and turns that have taken place during the nominating phase and since, it’s probably dangerous to declare the presidential race over. As I have noted repeatedly, this election is being driven by news, not spin or handicappers’ assessments.

But it’s fair to say that the current trajectory of the race means Barack Obama is heading to victory in the 2008 presidential election, and John McCain must do something to change that trajectory to avoid a loss.

And McCain’s chances of doing that are growing dimmer and dimmer.