On Saturday in Las Vegas, nine card players, dubbed the November Nine, battled for the coveted gold bracelet at the final table of the World Series of Poker's Main Event. In only twenty-four months, the Democratic and Republican nominees will face off in the country's next political 'main event' - the 2012 Presidential Election. After sorting through the results on Tuesday, it appears nine states will be critical to the chances of a party's nominee winning the White House:
Arizona has been a reliably red state for decades, voting for the Republican presidential nominee in nine of the last ten elections. In 2008, John McCain won his home state of Arizona 55 percent to 47 percent over Barack Obama. The composition of Arizona, however, is changing, likely making the state more competitive in the next election, especially without a "favorite son" on the ballot.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the Hispanic population in nearly all of Arizona's counties has been growing faster than all other groups, which increases the chances they will determine the electoral outcome. In 2008, Hispanics in Arizona preferred Obama to McCain 56 percent to 41 percent. The margin amongst Hispanics was even larger in Tuesday's gubernatorial election, where Hispanics supported Democratic Terry Goddard over Republican Jan Brewer 71 percent to 29 percent.
Goddard was defeated, though, in part because of poor Hispanic turnout; Hispanics comprised only 13 percent of the electorate in 2010, compared to 16 percent in 2008. If Hispanics - many of whom are upset with the state's controversial new immigration law - turn out heavily again in 2012, then the state should be very much up for grabs.
Coloradans gave President Obama a 9-point victory in 2008, which was the first time a Democratic presidential candidate won the state since Bill Clinton in 1992. In 2010, incumbent Democrat Michael Bennet barely hung on to his Senate seat, winning by less than 1 point over Republican Ken Buck. Moreover, four of the seven Colorado House seats went to the Republican candidate, suggesting Mr. Obama may have a difficult time again carrying the state in 2012.
Over the past two decades Colorado's population has increased dramatically, largely driven by the exodus of white Californians who found their new home in Colorado. This demographic change has generally been seen as a boon to Colorado's Republican Party, as African American and Latino voters together account for just 15 percent of the electorate. This advantage can be seen in 2004, with white men and women giving John Kerry just 39 and 44 percent of their vote respectively.
Mr. Obama secured his 9-point victory by winning big among Colorado's minority voters and splitting the white vote -- 48 percent of white men and 52 percent of white women voted for Mr. Obama. Signs from 2010 suggest that this winning formula may not work for the president in 2012. The culprit appears to be white men. Whereas white women gave Democratic senatorial candidate Michael Bennet (at left) 51 percent of their vote, white men gave him only 37 percent.
It seems that white men in Colorado disagree with the general track Mr. Obama has taken as president. Sixty two percent of white men, compared to 48 percent of white women say that Mr. Obama is too liberal. Just 19 percent of white men identify as Democrats, compared to 34 percent of white women. Most striking, 55 percent of white men support the Tea Party compared to only 37 percent of white women. (More from the exit poll)
In Colorado, the gender gap has historically been smaller than the national average. This year in Colorado the gender gap ballooned among whites to 14-points in the Senate race because of a sharp turn to the right among men, and this spells trouble for Mr. Obama in 2012.
In the last five presidential elections no state has been more competitive than Florida. The average margin of victory has been a mere 3 percentage points in these elections, with none of these races decided by more than 6 points. More importantly, the state has sided with the winner in four of the last five presidential contests.
And 2012 should be no different as candidates will likely battle down to the wire to secure the fourth largest number of electoral votes in the nation.
The next winner will most likely be determined by how the Hispanic electorate shakes out. Unlike many states, the political orientation of the Hispanic population in Florida is sharply divided between those of Cuban descent, located primarily in the Miami metropolitan area, and non-Cubans - made up mostly of Puerto Rican, Mexican, and South American immigrants - who predominately live elsewhere in the state. Cuban-Americans are far more conservative than non-Cuban Hispanics, particularly on U.S. foreign policy toward Cuba. Roughly two-thirds of Cuban Americans are Republican, while roughly two-thirds of non-Cuban Hispanics are Democrat.
Historically, Cuban-Americans dominated the Hispanic electorate in Florida, but in the last decade the non-Cuban Hispanic population has grown considerably and is now capable of swinging the partisan balance in favor of the Democrats.
It all hinges on the turnout of the two groups. Cuban-Americans are more organized and of higher socio-economic status - characteristics associated with increased political participation - than non-Cuban Hispanics. In Mr. Obama's winning effort in 2008, his campaign was able to overcome these challenges and get non-Hispanic voters to the poll in greater numbers than Cuban Americans. In 2010, Democrat gubernatorial candidate Alex Sink was not and lost.
Whichever political party's get-out-the-vote campaign is more successful in 2012 will likely emerge victorious in Florida's presidential contest.
After years of Democratic presidential voting, Iowans chose George W. Bush over John Kerry in 2004. In 2008, Iowa swung back to the Democrats with Obama picking up almost 54 percent of the vote. In the 2010 elections, Republicans easily defeated their Democratic challengers in the senatorial and gubernatorial races, suggesting that Iowa again will be hotly contested in 2012.
Iowa remains one of the few U.S. states wherein at least half of the population lives in rural areas. In 2008, rural voters comprised 47 percent of the electorate, and to the surprise of many commentators, rural Iowans gave more votes to Mr. Obama than McCain. In the 2010 midterm election, half of the Iowan electorate came from rural areas and these voters gave the Republican senatorial candidate nearly 70 percent of their vote, almost 10 points higher than non-rural voters.
Mr. Obama's popularity among rural voters is now 10 points below the national average. Only 36 percent of rural Iowans approve of Mr. Obama's job performance compared to 50 percent for non-rural Iowans.
An economic rebound may not be enough to save Mr. Obama in Iowa. Unlike most of the country, the economy does not appear to be the big reason for this disapproval among rural Iowans. Iowa's unemployment rate is about six and one half percent, well below the national average, and rural Iowans are less likely than non-rural Iowans to report being financially worse off now compared to when Mr. Obama took office.
Instead, compared to non-rural Iowans and other voters nationally, rural Iowans appear less supportive of Mr. Obama's major policy initiatives. Seventy percent of rural Iowans think the country is on the wrong track, 54 percent support repeal of the health care law, and only 34 percent support more spending to create jobs. (More from the Iowa exit poll)
Perhaps most telling of the political shift among rural Iowans, 47 percent have a favorable view of Sarah Palin, which is 13 points higher than non-rural Iowan's assessments. Unless Mr. Obama can find a way to regain the 2008 levels of confidence he had among rural Iowan voters, these results suggest Iowa may again swing Republican in 2012.
Missouri was the most competitive state in the 2008 presidential election, with McCain receiving only 4000 more votes than Mr. Obama statewide. Even though Missouri did not vote for the eventual presidential winner, Missouri had voted for the eventual victor in every other presidential election since 1960.
In 2008, Mr. Obama won the under 40 age group and lost the over 40 vote. However, among this older vote, Mr. Obama performed best among Baby Boomers (age 50-64), carrying 48 percent of their vote compared to 43 percent of all other voters over the age of 40. Given that the Boomers are the largest age group of voters in the state, if Mr. Obama secured just 1 percent more of this group's support, then he would have carried Missouri in 2008.
Mr. Obama may win Missouri in 2012, but it is doubtful that Boomers will be the ones sending Obama over the top. Only 37 percent of Boomers view the Democratic Party favorably, which is the lowest degree of support for the Democrats among any age group. Boomers view the Republican Party 11 points more favorably. Mr. Obama is not insulated from this trend, with only 35 percent of Boomers approving of his job performance.
The source of this dissatisfaction seems to be Mr. Obama's major policy initiatives. Seventy-three percent of Boomers think the stimulus did not improve the economy, with a remarkable 45 percent claiming it actually hurt the economy. Sixty two percent of Boomers want the health care law repealed, which is 11 points more support for repeal than any other age group in Missouri.
Compared to other older voters in Missouri, Boomers may have been most predisposed to support Mr. Obama in 2008, but this trend has reversed in 2010 with the Boomers now most critical of the president and his signature policies.
New Hampshire is a fiercely independent state as reflected in its state motto and the local cult film of the same name: "Live Free or Die." Presidential races have been extremely competitive in New Hampshire in recent years, The margin of victory for the winning candidate has been less than 2 percentage points in three of the last five elections, including 2000 when George W. Bush won - the only time a New England state has gone Republican in the last twenty years.
Nearly half of New Hampshire voters identify themselves as political independents, amongst the highest ratios of any state in the nation. Winning their votes is key to electoral success. Last Tuesday, independents voted for Republican Kelly Ayotte over Democrat Paul Hodes 60 percent to 37 percent for the state's Senate seat, while independents preferred Democrat John Lynch to Republican John Stephen 53 percent to 44 percent bid for governor.
In 2008, Mr. Obama won independent voters 59 percent to 39 percent over McCain, propelling him to a nearly 10-point win in the state. The 2010 elections, though, showed that independent voters in New Hampshire are none too happy with Barack Obama and his programs. Fifty-seven percent of independent voters disapprove of the president, while a whopping 79 percent are angry with how the federal government is working. A majority of independents believe the government should do less, including 51 percent who think health care should be repealed.
If these numbers do not improve, New Hampshire will once again be in play for a Republican candidate.
Ohio is the ultimate bellwether state. The winner in Ohio has won every presidential election since 1964. The races are often very close; the average margin of victory has been less than 5 percentage points in four of the last five elections. In 2008, Mr. Obama defeated McCain in Ohio 51 percent to 47 percent.
As the economy goes, so go Ohio voters. In 2008 elections, 54 percent of Ohio voters were "very worried" about future economic conditions. They voted for Mr. Obama over McCain 62 percent to 37 percent. In the 2010 midterm elections, 54 percent of Ohio voters were again "very worried" about economic conditions in the coming year. This time, though, "very worried" voters preferred Republican John Kasich to Democrat Ted Strickland 54 percent to 33 percent in the race for Ohio governor and Republican Rob Portman to Democrat Lee Fisher 70 percent in Ohio's Senate election.
The economy, though, is constantly in flux. The unemployment rate in Ohio was 10.0 percent in September 2010. However, this was the sixth straight month the unemployment rate had fallen, shaving a full percentage point off the unemployment rate (down from 10.7 percent in September 2009). If the economy continues to improve, partisan preferences will likely converge, making Ohio once again one of the closest races in the nation.
Pennsylvania is an Electoral College game changer. If Mr. Obama returns for a second term in 2013, he will almost certainly have carried the Keystone state in his re-election bid.
Despite Mr. Obama's 10-point victory over McCain in 2008, Pennsylvania does not appear safe in 2012. In the 2010 election, Republican Pat Toomey defeated Democrat Joe Sestak by two points for the Senate seat. The Republican candidate for governor, Tom Corbett, performed even better, defeating his Democratic challenger Dan Onorato by nearly 10 points.
The historic 2008 campaign by Mr. Obama energized Pennsylvania's African American voters. Although the U.S. Census shows that African Americans comprised only about 11 percent of the Pennsylvania population, they comprised 13 percent of the 2008 Pennsylvania electorate. And African Americans voted in a solid bloc, allotting Mr. Obama 95 percent of this vote.
In the 2010 midterm elections, African Americans comprised merely 9 percent of the Pennsylvania electorate. This decline in the proportion of Pennsylvanian African American voters exceeded the national average decline. Although there were many fewer African Americans casting ballots in 2010, those that did remained solidly Democratic, with over 90 percent of African American voters casting ballots for Pennsylvania's losing Democratic senatorial and gubernatorial candidates.
By contrast, the share of white voters in the Pennsylvania electorate increased from 81 percent in 2008 to 86 percent in 2010. White voters did not have a high opinion of the president, with just 40 percent of Pennsylvania's white voters approving of Mr. Obama's job performance. In 2008, 48 percent of whites voted for Mr. Obama.
Given this slippage in Mr. Obama's popularity among white Pennsylvanians, a return to the more racially diverse 2008 electorate seems critical to Mr. Obama's 2012 electoral prospects.
In 2004, John Kerry carried Wisconsin by less than one percent. Just four years later, Mr. Obama cruised to victory in Wisconsin, besting John McCain by nearly 14 points. Yet signs suggest Wisconsin may again be a swing state in 2012. In the 2010 election, the Republican senatorial and gubernatorial candidate each won contests over their Democratic opponents.
Nationwide, many Democrats are blaming the poor 2010 results on the low turnout by reliably Democratic union households. Union households comprised 21 percent of the national electorate in 2008, but only 17 percent in 2010. Democrats expect that with the excitement of the 2012 presidential election, these union voters will return to their 2008 voting levels, helping Mr. Obama in many Midwestern states.
However, unlike most of the nation, the share of the Wisconsin 2010 electorate that came from union households held steady since the last election at 26 percent. Mr. Obama cannot expect a resurgent wave of Wisconsin union voters to save him in 2012.
Instead, Mr. Obama needs to make inroads among voters from non-union households. Although voters from non-union households gave Mr. Obama 53 percent of their vote in 2008, they gave Democrat Russ Feingold just 44 percent of their vote in 2010. By contrast, union households hardly changed at all, giving Mr. Obama 61 percent and Feingold 59 percent.
The key seems to be the differences in these two group's financial situation. Forty five percent of non-union households report that their financial situation is worse off today than two years ago, which is above the national average of 40 percent and a full ten points higher than Wisconsin union households.
This April, Wisconsin's unemployment rate stood at 9.5 percent, equal to the national average. Since that time, the national unemployment picture has hardly improved, but Wisconsin's unemployment now stands at 7 percent.
If Mr. Obama hopes to recapture this non-union voting bloc hit hardest by the economic downturn, these recent positive employment trends must persist.
The Battle for 270
Winning the White House requires a party's nominee to secure plurality support in states accounting for at least 270 Electoral College votes. Many states, though, are uncompetitive, with their electorates preferring one party's candidate to the other.
For example, voters in Alaska, Utah, and Texas routinely choose Republican nominees over Democratic ones by more than fifteen percentage points, while in Maryland, Massachusetts, and New York voters routinely choose Democratic nominees over Republican ones by more than fifteen percentage points. Therefore, the number of battleground states is limited.
In 2008, nine states switched from red to blue, enabling the Democrats to recapture the White House for the first time in eight years. A plurality of voters in Colorado, Florida, Indiana, Iowa, Nevada, New Mexico, North Carolina, Ohio, and Virginia voted for Mr. Obama after backing George W. Bush in 2004. If Mr. Obama had not won these states he would have lost to Sen. John McCain 285 to 253 in the Electoral College, rather than winning by a 365 to 173 electoral vote margin.
In 2012, we think performing well in most of the aforementioned states - Arizona, Colorado, Florida, Iowa, Missouri, New Hampshire, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin - will be critical to amassing the 270 electoral votes necessary to win the White House. Which party's candidate will prevail will hinge on how well each turns out its base, appeals to Independents, and proposes policies capable of ameliorating voters' concerns.
Just as it took many hands to determine the winner of the World Series of Poker, it will take the better part of two years to determine which party's candidate is up to these tasks.
Samuel J. Best is an Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Connecticut. Brian Krueger is an Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Rhode Island. They are coauthoring a book, "Surveying the American Electorate: Exit Polls from 1972 to 2008," scheduled to be published by Congressional Quarterly Press in 2011.