Since the House passed Obamacare 961 days ago, on March 21, 2010 — two days before President Obama signed it into law — all eyes have been on November 6, 2012. As Bill Kristol wrote on March 22, 2010:
“Napoleon invaded Russia in June of 1812. On September 7 of that year, the Grande Armée under Napoleon’s command attacked the Russian army near the village of Borodino. Napoleon won the battle, the greatest of the Russian campaign, but at a terrible cost — about a third of his soldiers were killed or wounded….Last night was Obama’s Borodino. Obama’s Waterloo will be November 6, 2012.”
More than two-and-a-half years later, we’ve now arrived at that decisive date.
The outcome in nearly three-quarters of the states, plus the District of Columbia, is almost certain. Unless something truly unforeseen happens, Mitt Romney will win in 23 of those states (including Texas), while Obama will win in 14 (including California, New York, and Illinois) plus Washington, D.C. Through those 37 states and D.C. (aside from one electoral vote in Nebraska and one in Maine, to be discussed later), the electoral vote will almost surely be as follows: Romney 190, Obama 183.
Among the 13 remaining states, two appear to be just barely in play: North Carolina and Oregon. The Obama campaign aggressively targeted North Carolina throughout most of the campaign, going so far as to stage the Democratic National Convention there. But it was always a doubtful proposition that, in a close race, Obama could triumph in a state in which he fared 7 points worse last time around than he did nationally. If Obama does manage to win in North Carolina, or if Romney somehow finds a way to win in (lightly contested) Oregon, feel free to switch over to reruns of The Office or The Simpsons — as the election will be over. But if each candidate holds serve, as expected, then the tally through 39 states and D.C. will be as follows: Romney 205, Obama 190.
Two states appear to be moderately in play: Michigan and Minnesota. Both states border Paul Ryan’s home state of Wisconsin, and Romney was born and raised in Michigan. Obama won these states by double-digits in 2008, but his lead in each has now dwindled to the low single-digits in some polls, which means that these must-win states are no longer sure things for Obama. But if Obama does prevail as expected in the Wolverine and Gopher states, the tally through 41 states and D.C. will be as follows: Obama 216, Romney 205.
That leaves the nine key swing states.
The two largest of those are Florida (29 electoral votes) and Pennsylvania (20 electoral votes). At this point, both states look to be about equally in play. If Romney sweeps them, it might not yet be time for Republicans to pop the cork, but it’ll certainly be time to get the champagne glasses ready. If Obama sweeps them, it’ll be time for Republicans to turn off the TV and grab the bourbon (no glasses needed). (Of course, they should first make sure the votes have been counted in the Panhandle.) If, however, Romney wins in the Sunshine State and Obama wins in the Keystone State, the tally will be as follows: Obama 236, Romney 234, with seven states remaining.
But in addition to those seven states, two races that haven’t gotten much attention will also affect the outcome. Unlike the other 48 states, Nebraska and Maine each allocate one electoral vote for each congressional district (and two statewide). In 2008, Obama won Nebraska’s 2nd Congressional District — which includes Omaha — by 1 percentage point (50 to 49 percent), thereby claiming one of the Cornhusker State’s five electoral votes despite losing the state by 15 points (57 to 42 percent). Subsequent redistricting, along with Obama’s reduced popularity, makes it unlikely that Obama will win that electoral vote again — but it’s not out of the question. In 2008, Obama won Maine’s 2nd Congressional District — a huge district spanning the northernmost 80 percent or so of the state — by 12 points (55 to 43 percent). Obama is still the favorite there this time around, but the district, and its electoral vote, could be in play for Romney.
Assuming that Romney wins in Nebraska’s 2nd Congressional District, and Obama wins in Maine’s 2nd Congressional District, the tally would be as follows: Obama 237, Romney 235.
To win, Obama needs at least 270 electoral votes, while Romney needs at least 269. If each candidate has 269 electoral votes, then, per the Twelfth Amendment, the newly elected House of Representatives would break the tie, with each state delegation having one vote. Because Romney will almost certainly win in a majority of the states, and because a majority of the states will almost surely have House delegations that are predominantly Republican, 269 electoral votes should be enough to give Romney a (highly contentious) victory — even if Obama wins the national popular vote. (A tally that close, however, would also raise the concern that the election could be swayed by a rogue elector, like President Ford’s elector who cast a vote for Ronald Reagan in 1976.)
With a tally of Obama 237, Romney 235, therefore, Obama would need to win 33 electoral votes in the remaining seven states, while Romney would need to win 34.
Everyone who’s been following this election knows the singular importance of Ohio. With 18 electoral votes, it’s the biggest of these final seven states. In the century and a half since the Republican party came into existence in the 1850s, no GOP presidential candidate has ever won without it. Similarly, Obama would be hard-pressed to win without it. Ohio is huge.
If Obama doesn’t win in Ohio, he’ll probably need to win in Virginia. With a split in those two states, the tally would be Romney 253, Obama 250, and it would be anyone’s race. But if Obama doesn’t win in Ohio or Virginia, then he’d have to sweep Wisconsin, Colorado, Iowa, Nevada, and New Hampshire. That would be a tall order. On the other hand, Obama won each of these states by at least 9 points last time around, so it’s not beyond the realm of possibility that he could sweep them again.
If Romney doesn’t win in Ohio, then for all intents and purposes Virginia and Colorado would become must-win states for him. (Likewise, if he loses in either Virginia or Colorado, he must win in Ohio.)
Without Ohio, Romney appears to have two viable paths to victory (both involving Virginia and Colorado). One is the Wisconsin path — win in Virginia, in Colorado, in Wisconsin, and in one state from among Iowa, Nevada, and New Hampshire. The other is the west-of-the-Mississippi path — win in Virginia, Colorado, Iowa, and Nevada (to get to 269 electoral votes), and then win the election by prevailing either in New Hampshire, in Maine’s 2nd Congressional District, or in the House of Representatives.
Mathematically, Romney could prevail without Ohio by winning in Virginia, Wisconsin, Iowa, and Nevada — but it’s awfully hard to imagine him winning in Nevada without winning in Colorado, and sweeping Wisconsin and Iowa without winning Ohio. Alternatively, he could prevail by sweeping Wisconsin, Colorado, Iowa, Nevada, and New Hampshire, but — in the wake of having already lost in Ohio and Virginia (in this scenario), both of which are more GOP-leaning than any of these five (with the possible exception of Colorado) — that’s probably not much better than a 100-to-1 shot. In all likelihood, therefore, there are only two paths back for Romney if he loses in the Buckeye State, and both involve winning in both the Old Dominion and in the Centennial State.
All in all, if the election comes down to the nine key swing states (so, if the other 41 states all go according to form), it’s a mathematical certainty that, to win the presidency, Romney will have to win either Pennsylvania, Ohio, Wisconsin, or Nevada — and, to win reelection, Obama will have to win either Florida, Ohio, Virginia, or Colorado.
To help keep all of this (and more) in mind, here’s a cheat-sheet for tonight:
“Must-win” (or nearly “must win”) states (among the 37 in play):
Romney: Florida and North Carolina.
Obama: Pennsylvania, Michigan, Minnesota, and Oregon.
Viable paths to victory without winning Ohio (listed in no particular order):
1. Win his “must-win” states plus Virginia, Colorado, Wisconsin, and either Iowa, Nevada, or New Hampshire;
2. Win his “must-win” states plus Virginia, Colorado, Iowa, and Nevada (and Nebraska’s 2nd Congressional District) to get to 269, and then win the election by prevailing in New Hampshire, Maine’s 2nd Congressional District, or the House of Representatives.
1. Win his “must-win” states plus Virginia, Wisconsin, and two out of four from among Colorado, Nevada, Iowa, and New Hampshire;
2. Win his “must-win” states plus Virginia, Colorado, Nevada, and Iowa;
3. Win his “must-win” states plus Wisconsin, Colorado, Nevada, Iowa, and New Hampshire.
Viable paths to victory without winning Virginia (listed in no particular order):
1. Win his “must-win” states plus Ohio, Wisconsin, and Colorado;
2. Win his “must-win” states plus Ohio and either Wisconsin or Colorado, plus two out of three from among Iowa, Nevada, and New Hampshire;
3. Win his “must-win” states plus Ohio, Wisconsin, and either Iowa or Nevada (and Nebraska’s 2nd Congressional District) to get to 269, and then win the election by prevailing in New Hampshire, Maine’s 2nd Congressional District, or the House of Representatives.
1. Win his “must-win” states plus Ohio, Wisconsin, and either Colorado, Nevada, or Iowa;
2. Win his “must-win” states plus Ohio, Colorado, and either Nevada or Iowa (and Maine’s 2nd Congressional District — to get to exactly 270);
3. Win his “must-win” states plus Ohio, Nevada, Iowa, and New Hampshire;
4. Win his “must-win” states plus Wisconsin, Colorado, Nevada, Iowa, and New Hampshire.
Whichever scenario ends up playing out, today will be a day for the ages. To a large extent, it will decide, as Alexander Hamilton put it in the opening paragraph of Federalist 1, “the fate of an empire in many respects the most interesting in the world.” As was true 225 years ago, “a wrong election of the part we shall act may … deserve to be considered as the general misfortune of mankind,” while an opposite decision would happily confirm Americans’ capacity to maintain “good government from reflection and choice.” The matter is now in the citizenry’s hands.