What the ‘Big Ten’ Tells Republicans They Need in 2016

by Stuart Rothenberg March 11, 2015 · 9:56 AM EDT

We won’t know the 2016 Republican presidential nominee for more than a year, but we already know the 10 states — the electoral “Big Ten” — that will select the next occupant of the White House.

Because of that, we can evaluate the GOP’s general election prospects over the next 12 to 18 months by watching the party’s trek through its primary and caucus calendar. Will the Republicans select someone who can carry enough of the key 10 states to win 270 electoral votes?

The 10 closest states of the 2012 presidential election range from Wisconsin and Nevada, which each went for President Barack Obama by more than 6 points, to Florida, which went for Obama by only slightly more than a half of a point, and North Carolina, which was carried by Republican Mitt Romney. (Check out Nate Silver’s excellent November 2012 piece about this and Micah Cohen’s interesting piece as well.)

Between those two extremes (moving from Obama’s better states to his weaker ones) are New Hampshire, Iowa, Pennsylvania, Colorado, Virginia and Ohio.

The other 40 states (and the District of Columbia) aren’t particularly relevant for anyone interested in handicapping the 2016 general election, since their partisan voting patterns and performance are in little doubt. If a state switches from its normal partisan tendencies — as Indiana did in 2008, when it opted for Obama over John McCain — it means a rout is underway.

None of the states on the 2016 Big Ten list is surprising. All were, to a greater or lesser extent, regarded as “in play” at some point last presidential cycle.

Like the side-view mirror of your car, some states appear closer (that is, more competitive) than they really are. Minnesota and Michigan are examples. Each cycle there is some buzz about them being truly competitive, but they prove to be less competitive than GOP strategists hoped.  Neither makes the Big Ten.

Certainly, not all of the Big Ten states are equally competitive. But if you are putting together a list of the states that are competitive and could switch from one party to the other depending on the nominees and the political environment, all of the Big Ten states merit inclusion.

Of the 10 states, three — North Carolina, Florida and Ohio — were the tightest in 2012, with Virginia also very competitive but not quite as close.

Realistically then, Republicans must nominate someone who has the potential to carry North Carolina, Florida, Ohio and at least a couple of other states on the list — probably Virginia and Colorado.

That would get the Republican nominee to 270 electoral votes. Carrying only the three most competitive (and most discussed) swing states — North Carolina, Florida and Ohio — would not be enough to hand the White House over to the GOP nominee.

On the other hand, if the Republican ticket carries two of the more difficult Big Ten states, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, it would likely also be carrying the most competitive of the swing states, making Pennsylvania and Wisconsin mere icing on the electoral cake.

Looking at the Republicans who have been getting elected statewide in these states — Sen. Marco Rubio in Florida, Gov. John R. Kasich and Sen. Rob Portman in Ohio, Gov. Pat McCrory and Sen. Thom Tillis in North Carolina, ex-Gov. Bob McDonnell in Virginia and Sen. Cory Gardner in Colorado (not to mention Sens. Patrick J. Toomey in Pennsylvania and Kelly Ayotte in New Hampshire) — it’s pretty clear what kind of Republican does well in these swing states.

Successful Republicans in the Big Ten states tend to be conservatives who avoid the extremist label and can appeal to voters on both a personal and political level. They tend to be more optimistic and upbeat than some in their party, and they don’t make it easy for their opponents to demonize them.

These may seem like qualities that every candidate does and should have, but they aren’t.

GOP candidates whose angry, confrontational style and ideological messages play best to the party’s base may find receptive audiences in key presidential primary and caucus states (particularly early ones), but those kinds of candidates will have problems appealing to key voters in the Big Ten states in November.

The argument that there are tens of thousands of conservatives in key states who don’t bother to vote because the GOP doesn’t nominate conservative-enough nominees is unconvincing.

Of course, the Democratic nominee and the national political environment will impact the 2016 race. The more unpopular the outgoing president is, and the more controversial the Democratic nominee for president, the more opportunity for the eventual Republican nominee to make the race into a referendum on the Democrats.

Unlike midterms, which almost invariably are referenda on sitting presidents, presidential contests are much more about the nominees. In open-seat contests, the outgoing president’s performance can be a huge factor — as it was in 2008 — but the nominees, and the reputations of their parties, are also hugely important.

If Republican voters want to win the White House in 2016, they’ll look at swing voters in the Big Ten to see what kind of candidate they need to nominate and what kind of party image they need to project.