The most important region in American politics is the Midwest. It is a region comprised of medium to large states that are generally competitive for both parties. The competitive states of the Midwest have 81 electoral votes, roughly 20 percent of the entire electorate, and among the most volatile. For the examination of future political trends, I will continue to look at the 2008 Presidential vote, the Congressional two-party vote (removing all third parties) and relevant statewide races in 2010, comparing state level Obama approval ratings with his national average for the first six months of 2011 (measured by Gallup), and the decline in Democratic Party identification, also measured by Gallup. It should be pointed out that the national baseline for that Gallup approval ratings poll is 47 percent, and at the moment Obama is significantly under 47 percent in Gallup surveys.
Looking at these states more in depth:
Indiana: Indiana was Obama’s most shocking victory in 2008. Indiana is a state that George W. Bush won by 20 points in 2004 and has long been the most Republican Midwest state. In 2008, Obama ran over 20 points ahead of what John Kerry earned in 2004. Its swing state status didn’t last long. In 2010, Republican Dan Coats breezed his way to winning back his old Senate seat. Republicans received 59 percent of the statewide two-party vote—roughly the same as Bush’s outsized 2004 triumph. Obama is currently running five points behind his national average in approval polls. There has been a seven point decline in Democratic Party identification, and this is among the states with the largest Republican registration advantages traditionally. Obama’s approval rating would have to be well above 50 percent for Indiana to be in play again. Absent a 1984-style economic boom, you can count Indiana in the Republican column again.
Iowa: Obama showed strength in Iowa before. His victory in the 2008 caucuses legitimated his presidential bid. He won the state, which George W. Bush won in 2004, by a strong margin. Since then, things have not gone nearly as well for Democrats. Senator Chuck Grassley had minimal opposition in his reelection campaign and Terry Branstad was elected governor by nearly twenty points. The GOP won the two-party Congressional vote by 12 points (though failed to knock off any of the three Democratic incumbents). Obama has been running two points ahead of his national average here, but the Democratic decline in the past two years has been precipitous. Iowa is among the states closest to the political center of gravity. It will be hard for either party to win without Iowa.
Michigan: In retrospect, the moment John McCain’s presidential hopes ended was the day when his campaign leaked that he was pulling out of Michigan. McCain had previously shown appeal to this Democratic-leaning swing state, and the easy victory Obama won in the state was characteristic of his strong Midwestern performance in 2008. But in the next two years, Democrats went from controlling every major facet of state government to losing the Governor’s race, both chambers of the state legislature, and two Congressional seats. Republicans won 55 percent of the two-party Congressional vote, and Governor Rick Snyder did three points even better than that. Obama has been three points ahead of his national approval rating here, though there has also been a six point Democratic decline in the past two years. Michigan should remain a few points more Democratic than the national average, but a Democrat cannot win the White House without Michigan. If Michigan is lost to Obama, his opponent can start measuring the Oval Office drapes.
Minnesota: Minnesota hasn’t voted for a Republican for president since 1972, the longest streak of any state. Obama was able to win in 2008 without incident. Election night 2010 produced a split result. Democrats were able to flip the Governor position in a very good Republican year, but Republicans against expectations gained control of both houses of the state legislature for the first time in the modern era. Republicans lost the two-party Congressional vote by one point and Obama has been five points ahead of his national approval rating. Minnesota is the most Democratic of all the states listed here and the least likely to flip parties in 2012. A Republican victory here would be indicative of a smashing national victory. Republicans can easily defeat Obama without winning Minnesota, though it can be expected to be targeted by both sides.
Missouri: For years, Missouri was viewed as the ultimate bellwether state. It had correctly picked the winner of the presidential election since 1904, except for one misstep in 1956. That was broken in 2008 when McCain narrowly won Missouri. 2010 was a banner Republican year in Missouri. In a matchup of two political dynasties, Roy Blunt easily defeated Robin Carnahan for the open Senate seat. Republicans won a massive 61 percent of the two-party Congressional vote. The already approved redistricting map will limit Democrats to one St. Louis and one Kansas City district, with a sea of red surrounding them. Missouri seems to be drifting away from swing state status, and it is almost impossible to imagine the Republican nominee losing it in 2012.
Ohio: The centerpiece state for Republican presidential strategy fell to Obama in 2008. Obama won 51 percent of the vote, not a large victory, but Ohio wasn’t a required state for getting to 270 electoral votes either. After some difficult years, the state Republican Party rebounded strongly in 2010. Republicans won the Governor and Senator races, both chambers of the legislature, and five House seats, leaving Democrats in a few seats adjoining Lake Erie. Obama is running two points behind the national average and there has been an eight point decline in Democratic Party identification. Obama is currently on the path to losing Ohio, and it would take a major economic course correction to win it.
Wisconsin: Obama won the Democratic nomination in 2008 in a two week stretch of primaries and caucuses after Super Tuesday where his campaign was better organized than Hillary Clinton’s. The most significant of these was the Wisconsin primary. Obama made a strong connection with Wisconsin, and he received 56 percent of the vote, better than in typically more Democratic Minnesota. Republicans had a dream year in 2010. Republicans won the Governor seat; knocked off long time progressive champion Russ Feingold, flipped both houses of the state legislature, and knocked off two Democratic incumbent House members. Then Wisconsin became the epicenter of 2011’s biggest political story, Governor Scott Walker’s efforts to limit the collective bargaining abilities of public sector unions. A flurry of elections and tens of millions spent on both sides revealed a state that overall is deeply polarized and likely on balance 50/50. Obama has been running three points ahead of his national average here, but the Democratic Party ID decline is 9.2 points, among the steepest in the nation. Wisconsin is among the truest swing states at the moment and it seems likely that the winner in 2012 will carry Wisconsin.
Missouri and Indiana look definitively gone from Obama, Ohio is looking likely to go back towards the Republican nominee, Wisconsin and Iowa are among the truest of swing states, Michigan is a few notches more Democratic than average and more open to voting Republican than in the past, and Minnesota remains the most Democratic of the states and the most likely to stay Democratic.
Next time, I will look at the states in the West.