Fineman: New Electoral College Math

Barack Obama has never gone hunting and isn't planning to. But his campaign last week reached out to the hunters and anglers of Appalachia, touting his professorial faith in the Constitution—and, by extension, the Second Amendment. With Pennsylvania's primary in the offing, his short-term aim was to win votes in Deer Hunter Country, which is most everything west of Philly. In San Francisco, meanwhile, he undercut that message with a condescending one: that bitterness over job losses and disillusionment with government was forcing small-town America to "cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren't like them."

Obama's long-term goal remains: to prepare to compete, if he locks up the nomination, in states that haven't been on his party's fall target list for eons. One is Virginia, where voters also tend to love their guns. The last Democrat to win there was LBJ in 1964, "but now it has become a true swing state," says Charlie Black, a top strategist for John McCain.

While the public focuses on Pennsylvania and other last-ditch primary states, strategists in Washington are zeroing in on the higher math of the Electoral College. It's more complex than usual, with unproved equations all over the blackboard. There's the war; economic fears; candidates with precedent-shattering attributes of race, gender and age, and a young generation of voters who communicate in new ways.

The new math is producing some odd sights as campaigns test foreign ground and, perhaps, hip-fake each other. McCain campaigned in Brooklyn last week. Is he serious about trying to win New York? A new Marist College poll shows him running even there with Obama—and Hillary Clinton. "We tend to forget that this is a state that used to elect moderate Republicans, and that is how McCain will try to run here," says New York pollster John Zogby. For the same reason, McCain's inner circle is talking big—at least for now—about California and, says Black, Connecticut, New Jersey, Maine and Vermont. Hillary's map is fairly traditional, but Democrats blue sky it with Obama. With him as the nominee, and a big turnout among African-Americans, the party could win Arkansas, Louisiana and Mississippi, contends Steve Hildebrand, Obama's deputy campaign manager. "It's a different world," he says.

The new math is likely to depend on about 10 states—most moving into, but a few moving out of, the "swing" category. Although Obama would face a McCain challenge among Hispanic voters, both parties' nominees would target New Mexico, Nevada and Colorado. (Only McCain's Arizona would be off the Southwest list.) In the Midwest, Democrats think they can take Iowa, but they're worried about independents in Minnesota and Wisconsin and conservative Democrats in Michigan. In New England, McCain is popular in New Hampshire—but antiwar sentiment there may be too much to overcome. Florida, as usual, is a world unto itself, and one Democrats aren't sure they can win. In 2004, says party polltaker Mark Mellman, he ran millions of computer simulations to rank John Kerry's campaign priorities. Florida came out on top. But local polling was off, and Florida was more Republican than they thought. Ohio, Mellman ruefully recalls, was the real No. 1.

It's likely to be again this year—with Pennsylvania, West Virginia and, yes, Virginia not far behind. There are many deer in those states and many members of what Virginia Sen. Jim Webb calls a "warrior culture" of the Scots-Irish. The Democrats don't have to win them all, or even many of them. But they have to win some, which is why hunting season already has begun.

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