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All you need to know about every swing state that matters
Forget national polls. The presidential race will be decided in a half dozen or so key swing states
 
Paul Brandus
Paul Brandus

Consider yourself lucky if you don't live in one of the seven or eight swing states that will decide the winner of the presidential election in six weeks. You can't turn on the TV or radio here in Virginia, for example, without being bombarded by ads from both Barack Obama and Mitt Romney accusing the other of stretching the truth or outright lying on (name of any issue here). It's hard to tell whether the ads are accurate, of course, and that's where the fact-checkers come in. Then there are fact-checkers checking the fact-checkers, and in the end, few are satisfied.

What's interesting is that despite this tsunami of ads, there is little evidence that it has changed many votes. Different polls bounce up and down, giving supporters on either side something to crow about about, but here's the big picture: The Real Clear Politics average of all polls has never — not once — shown Mitt Romney to be ahead of the president in 2012. They've been tied twice — both instances earlier this month — but the president has since opened up a 3.8-point lead. 

The race has been so static, in fact, that the University of Virginia's Center for Politics, with whom I work closely, has kept its electoral college count practically intact for more than a year and a half: If the election were held today, President Obama could count on 237 solid or likely electoral votes, Gov. Romney 206. There has been just one change during all that time — the shifting of Wisconsin's 10 electoral votes from likely Obama to toss-up — but UVA's Kyle Kondik says it will likely shift back to leaning Obama this week. This means, with 42 days to go, Obama would be just 23 electoral votes short of a second term. Romney: 64.

"These numbers really haven't moved much at all," Kondik says, "and at this point, you'd rather be in Obama's shoes than Romney's. The math just looks tougher for him (Romney) each day." 

There's still plenty of time for Romney to catch up — and/or Obama to falter. But in the meantime, here's a look at the key swing states that will decide the presidency: 

Colorado (9 electoral votes)

Real Clear Politics average:     

Obama +2.3

2008 result:

Obama won by 9 (53.7 percent)

Unemployment cycle:

August 2008: 4.9 percent

 

Jan. 2009: 6.6 percent

 

Recession Peak 9.0 percent (March 2010)

 

Now: 8.2 percent

Colorado's string of Republican victories (1996, 2000, 2004) came to a halt in 2008, when Obama won the Rocky Mountain State by 9 points, even though 15,600 more Republicans than Democrats cast ballots. Romney's challenge is to energize his base here: whites, military families, gun owners, and abortion opponents. At the same time, Obama is focusing on women, abortion-rights activists, voters earning less than $40,000, and Latinos — the fastest-growing group in the state. A recent CNN poll showed that 54 percent of residents think Romney favors the rich, while just 10 percent said he favors the middle class. 

Florida (29 electoral votes)

Real Clear Politics average:     

Obama +1.9

2008 result:

Obama won by 2.8 (50.9 percent)

Unemployment cycle:

August 2006: 3.3 percent

 

January 2009: 8.7 percent

 

Recession Peak 11.4 percent (Feb. 2010)

 

Now: 8.8 percent

This is the big one for both Obama and Romney, but more so for Romney. If Obama wins here (and Republican-leaning polls like Fox News and Rasmussen have Obama up by 5 and 2, respectively) he would need just one more battleground state to win. "There is no path to the White House for Romney without Florida," Kondik says. "There simply isn't." 

The biggest issue in Florida remains the housing bust, which in turn has inflicted big damage on the labor force. Never mind that this crash began way back in 2006 on George W. Bush's watch; Republicans are attacking Obama fiercely over what they say has been his inability to turn things around. Almost half of all homes here are underwater, meaning the owner owes more on the mortgage than the home is worth. Unemployment is 8.8 percent, above the national average, though down from the recession peak (in Feb. 2010) of 11.4 percent. 

Florida is divided into three parts: The northern third, heavy on whites, conservatives, and military communities, will generally go for Romney. The southern third, heavy on Latinos, will go for Obama. This leaves the hotly contested middle part of the state — the Interstate 4 corridor — running from Tampa on the Gulf Coast through Orlando, to the Space Coast on the Atlantic. This 150-mile swath of land may decide the presidency. 

As elsewhere, Latinos are the fastest-growing group in Florida: Their numbers surged 250,000 (55 percent ) from 2000 to 2010; and they will vote 2-to-1 for Obama — if they turn out, that is. The white population grew just 30,400, Census data shows.

Iowa (6 electoral votes)

Real Clear Politics average:     

Obama +2.3

2008 result:

Obama won by 9.5 (53.9 percent)

Unemployment cycle:

December 2008: 4.2 percent

 

January 2009: 6.1 percent

 

Recession peak 6.3 percent (Nov. 2010)

 

Now: 5.5 percent

Romney has angered even Republicans here with his desire to end production tax credits for the wind industry. That may play well with fiscal conservatives elsewhere, but not in Iowa, which is the No. 2 wind-power-generating state in the nation, where some 200 firms employ more than 7,000 people. Even Iowa's popular Republican Gov. Terry Branstad says Romney "needs to get educated" about the importance of wind power. Yet the Hawkeye State remains within reach — Romney trails here by 2.3 points. Still, the unemployment rate is also lower than when Obama took office, so the "are you better off than you were four years ago" ploy doesn't get much mileage, either. 

Nevada (6 electoral votes)

Real Clear Politics average:     

Obama +2.5

2008 result:

Obama won by 12.5 (55.2 percent)

Unemployment cycle:

Jan. 2008: 5.4 percent

 

January 2009: 9.6 percent

 

Recession peak: 14.0 percent (Oct. 2010)

 

Now: 12.1 percent

Like Florida, Nevada has been ground zero for the housing bust. Prices in Las Vegas, engine of the state's economy, are starting to bounce back, but are still down 58 percent from their 2006 peak. Unemployment jumped from 5.4 percent to 9.6 percent in the year before Obama was sworn in, and it kept going before peaking at 14.0 percent in October 2010. The current rate, 12.1 percent, is the highest in the nation.

This could have been a boon for Romney, were it not for his comments that the collapsing real estate market should be allowed to bottom out — in other words, let the voters endure more pain. 

"Don't try and stop the foreclosure process," Romney said during a visit to Las Vegas last year. "Let it run its course and hit the bottom." Those words, not surprisingly, have wound up in Obama campaign ads that are blanketing the state. 

That being said, Obama has been criticized for the perception that he hasn't done enough to stem the bleeding here. He leads by just 2.5 percent, despite a large influx of friendly Latinos voters over the last four years. 

Early voting begins Oct. 20. 

New Hampshire (4 electoral votes)

Real Clear Politics average:     

Obama +1.0

2008 result:

Obama won by 9.6 (54.1 percent)

Unemployment cycle:

Jan. 2008: 3.5 percent

 

January 2009: 5.2 percent

 

Recession peak: 6.7 percent (Jan. 2010)

 

Now: 5.7 percent

Romney has a home here, but residents of the Granite State still favor Obama, albeit barely. The Great Recession barely touched the well-educated Granite State: Unemployment went from 3.5 percent to 5.2 percent in the year before Obama was sworn in, and it peaked a year later at 6.7 percent. It has since fallen to 5.7.

New Hampshire is schizophrenic. Residents are fiscally conservative and dislike taxes (there's no state income tax). But they are socially liberal on matters like abortion and gay rights. 

Of particular interest to the Obama campaign in New Hampshire: The number of Latinos (who will vote 2-to-1 for Obama) grew 37,000 from 2000 to 2010 (79 percent). This doesn't sound like much, but in this tiny state, Obama's 9.6 percent margin of victory was still just 68,000 votes.

Ohio (18 electoral votes)

Real Clear Politics average:     

Obama +4.1

2008 result:

Obama won by 4.6 (51.5 percent)

Unemployment cycle:

Jan. 2008: 5.7 percent

 

January 2009: 8.6 percent

 

Recession peak: 10.6 percent (Jan. 2010)

 

Now: 7.2 percent

No Republican has won the presidency without winning Ohio, but folks from Massachusetts have never done well here: John F. Kennedy in 1960, Michael Dukakis in 1988, and John Kerry in 2004 all lost the state, and Romney is currently behind. A big factor: His 2008 criticism of the auto industry — linked to one-in-eight Ohio jobs — while President Obama, following George W. Bush's lead, intervened to keep the automakers going. Like Iowa's, Ohio's unemployment rate has also fallen since Obama took office. Republicans credit Gov. John Kasich for this, but the state's jobless rate, which peaked at 10.6 percent in January 2010, had already fallen to 9.0 percent when Kasich took over a year later. Both sides argue over the subsequent drop to 7.2 percent. Early voting begins Oct. 2.

Virginia (13 electoral votes)

Real Clear Politics average:     

Obama +4.5

2008 result:

Obama won by 6.3 (52.6 percent)

Unemployment cycle:

Jan. 2008: 3.3 percent

 

January 2009: 5.8 percent

 

Recession peak: 7.3 percent (Jan. 2010)

 

Now: 5.9 percent

Along with Florida and Ohio, Virginia is the third "must have" state for both Obama and Romney. Obama was the first Democrat to win the commonwealth since Lyndon Johnson's landslide in 1964. Was it an anomaly, or is Virginia really turning blue? 

There's no question it has become less conservative and less rural, trends which favor Obama. Northern Virginia — home to the wealthiest counties in the U.S. — is closely linked to the federal government and is considered friendly territory for him. The Norfolk-Hampton Roads area in the south, home to the world's largest naval base, is a conservative bastion for Romney, though this is offset by the region's large black population. Both regions stand to lose big, by the way, if "sequestration" — massive spending cuts — begins in January. The only thing preventing this now: Bipartisan cooperation between Republicans and Democrats. 

Much of the state remains conservative and Christian, or as Obama once said derisively, filled with people who cling to guns and religion. If they turn out in big numbers, it could mean trouble for the president. On the other hand, big turnout among blacks, who will almost universally support Obama, means trouble for Romney. 

Also trouble for Romney: The presence of a third-party candidate, conservative Virgil Goode, on the ballot. Virginia's Republican attorney general angered his own party by allowing Goode to run; UVA's Center for Politics says this could cost Romney an extra 1 percent in the state.

Read more political coverage at The Week's 2012 Election Center.

 

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