The Importance of Pennsylvania


The headline posted on last night was crystal clear: "McCain Camp Looking for Way to Win Without Colorado." Unfortunately for McCain, how he'd actually go about winning without Colorado is not.

According to CNN Chief National Correspondent John King,  "two top [McCain] strategists and advisers" now say "that situation in [Iowa, New Mexico and Colorado] looks increasingly bleak" and that Crystal City is examining "an Electoral College strategy heading into the final two weeks that has virtually no room for error."

That's putting it mildly. Especially because the campaign seems to be counting on Pennsylvania.

It's no surprise that the McCain camp has all but conceded Iowa and New Mexico, where Obama leads by 11.8 and 8.4 percentage points, respectively; observers have long considered the Hawkeye State (where Obama is seen as a native son) and the Land of Enchantment (where Obama dominates among Latinos) as out of McCain's reach.

But Colorado is a shock. In 2000, George W. Bush won the Centennial State by more than eight points in 2000; four years later, he defeated John Kerry by four. In fact, Colorado has only voted Democratic once since 1968. What's more, the last ten days of polls show McCain trailing there by less than five points--well within striking distance (and far closer than he seems to be in Virginia, another Bush state). But according to King, "most" of McCain's campaign believes that Obama's far superior turnout operation--built in part during the Democratic National Convention in Denver, as Stumper previously reported--will give him a decisive advantage on Election Day. Colorado is "gone," said King's source. "Most of us have a hard time counting on [it]."

Which brings us to the aforementioned "way to win without the Centennial State." By conceding that Colorado, New Mexico and Iowa are basically lost causes, the McCain camp has said, in effect, that its only path to victory runs through a 2004 blue state. The math is simple. If Obama adds the 21 electoral votes from Iowa (7 EV), New Mexico (5 EV) and Colorado (9 EV) to John Kerry's map (252 EV), he'll pass the magic 270 mark and proceed directly to the White House. The only question now is where McCain will go hunting for those lost electoral votes.

He doesn't have many options. There are currently only five Kerry states where Obama leads by an average of less than 15 points: Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, Pennsylvania and New Hampshire. McCain pulled out of Michigan--where the latest polls show him down by 16 percent--earlier this month. Meanwhile, the campaign is scaling back its advertising in Minnesota and Wisconsin, among other places--states that neither McCain nor Sarah Palin has visited since Oct. 10.

That leaves Pennsylvania and New Hampshire. As the New Republic's Michael Crowley has noted, McCain could pursue a "Go North, Old Man!" strategy, which would involve "mak[ing] a late and dramatic return to the site of his great political launching pad in hopes of reminding people what they liked about him in the first place." A win in New Hampshire--small, cheap, familiar and perfect for the underfunded, retail-politicking McCain--would boost the Republican by four electoral votes; if Obama won Colorado, Iowa and New Mexico, the two would tie 269-269. In that case, McCain would have to rely on an upset in neighboring Maine's "more rugged, Bangor-centric, moose-hunting" northern region for the tiebreaking vote. (Maine splits its electors by congressional district.) It's a long shot--McCain currently lags behind Obama by more than nine percentage points in both states--but anything is possible.

The problem with the Northern Strategy is that it leaves absolutely no room for error. As I noted earlier, McCain is actually trailing by a larger margin in Virginia--eight points, to be exact--than Colorado. Losing the Old Dominion's 13 electoral votes would render New Hampshire and Maine irrelevant. That's why McCain seems to be focusing on Pennsylvania (21 EV) instead. Since the start of the month, McCain and Palin have made a whopping 15 stops in the state; today, the ticket-topper stumped four times between Bensalem and Pittsburgh. As the Washington Times reported this morning, McCain's goal is to "flip soft supporters" of Obama in the "blue-collar, white suburbs and rural areas across the broad midsection of the Democratic-leaning state"--areas where race may be a larger factor than the polls suggest.

According to McCain field chief Mike DuHaime, "the campaign is operating three dozen offices in the state and is making hundreds of thousands of phone calls every week to identify and persuade potential GOP voters." Arguing that McCain "needs to flip" only 2,000 voters in each of the state's 47 counties to erase Kerry's 2004 margin of 140,000 votes, DuHaime claims that internal data is “trending” toward McCain and showing “a lot of things” not apparent in public polls--including signs that McCain will outperform Bush among former Clintonites, suburban Philadelphia moderates and western Rust Belt residents. 

In this scenario, Pennsylvania would act a floodwall of sorts. If the Obama wave overcomes McCain in New Hampshire, Iowa, Colorado, New Mexico and Virginia, Pennsylvania is the only "winnable" state large enough to keep McCain afloat (273-265). Meanwhile, a larger wave--i.e., additional Democratic victories in the Bush states of Florida, Ohio, Missouri and/or North Carolina, where Obama currently leads--will sink McCain no matter what. Given that Iowa, New Mexico and Colorado may be "gone"--and Virginia is at serious risk of going--McCain simply has no choice but to turn to Pennsylvania for possible protection.

That said, McCain's chances in Pennsylvania are looking pretty bleak--even if you assume a surprise Bradley effect. Only one poll released since the start of the month puts McCain within eight points of Obama; the rest show the Illinois senator leading by anywhere from 10 to 15 percent. Even Republicans aren't particularly bearish. "It doesn't make much sense," said former Mike Huckabee campaign manager Chip Saltsman as McCain rallied supporters in Chester County this morning. "He's got to be in the states where he's got a chance to win."

Unfortunately for McCain, that's precisely the problem--the states where he has a conventional "chance to win" don't quite add up to 270 (at least according to campaign insiders). So with two weeks to go before Election Day, the Arizona senator has been forced to pin his hopes on a place where a Republican hasn't prevailed in a presidential contest in 20 years, where Democrats outnumber Republicans by 1.2 million voters and where the polls show him as far behind as Obama is in Kentucky, Kansas and Mississippi. 

The audacity of hope, indeed.