Bush-Cheney beat Kerry-Edwards in the Electoral College vote, 286-252. That might seem like a large margin, but it really all came down to Ohio. Barack Obama does not want to get into a situation where his fate depends on the outcome of any single state. Here’s my advice:

Obama should divide up the states into the following categories:

    Vulnerable Kerry states: New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin. (Minnesota is looking safe for the moment).
    Midwestern Bush states: Iowa, Missouri, Indiana, and Ohio.
    Southern Bush states: Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Florida, Mississippi, and Arkansas.
    Plains Bush states: North Dakota, South Dakota, Montana, Nebraska, and Kansas.
    Southwestern Bush states: Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, and (yes) Arizona.
    And Texas.

In the early pre-convention stage of the campaign, Obama needs to solidify his strength in the vulnerable Kerry states, while probing for weaknesses in each of the other categories of states. And, as you’ll see, there are some surprising weaknesses in the Republican map. Let me start by looking at Obama’s home region, the Midwest.

Midwest

Obama is actually ahead of McCain in Indiana in two of the last three polls taken in the state. He’s also been polling ahead of McCain in Iowa all year. Winning just these two states, while holding all Kerry’s turf, would give Obama the bare minimum victory of 270-268. But Obama cannot relax in this region because he is in a virtual tie with McCain in Michigan and Wisconsin. As for Missouri, the latest SurveyUSA poll has him down but polling within the margin of error. This region will probably be the deciding factor in the campaign.

Southern Bush States

Obama showed real strength in the South all through the primary season, losing only in the border states in the heart of Appalachia. Obama won crushing victories all throughout the Coastal and Deep South, and his head-to-head polling reflects this unexpected strength. He has occasionally polled ahead of McCain in Virginia, although recent polling shows him narrowly behind. A new SurveyUSA poll out of North Carolina shows Obama down by eight. The only poll we’ve seen out of South Carolina was taken back at the end of February, but it showed McCain with a precarious 48-45 lead. Head-to-head polling has been sparse throughout the region and will not be truly reliable until Obama solidifies the Democratic Party behind him. It will pay to keep an eye on Mississippi and Georgia because heavy black turnout in those states could easily turn them into competitive states. And Arkansas heavily favors Hillary Clinton over McCain, so it is at least possible for a Democrat to compete there. The Republicans didn’t even field a challenger to Sen. Mark Pryor, so that’s an indication of how strongly Democratic the state looked when Clinton was the presumptive nominee. Obama will be doing heavy voter registration efforts in the South, and he should make some early campaign stops, too. Florida, of course, is a whole other category. Winning Florida would salt away the nomination and Obama should be competitive there.

Plains Bush States

The most interesting Plains state is Nebraska because they divvy up their Electoral College votes by Congressional District. Obama is polling well enough in eastern Nebraska to possibly poach at least one EC vote out of the state. That could actually matter. If Obama holds Kerry states and wins Iowa, New Mexico, and Nevada, that would result in a 269-269 tie. One vote out of Nebraska would throw the race to Obama. But Obama is polling well throughout the region. Obama actually led McCain in a February SurveyUSA poll of North Dakota. An April poll of Montana showed Obama down by just five points. If Obama puts Kansas Governor Kathleen Sebelius on the ticket it could make Kansas competitive and help throughout this region of the country. There are not a lot of electoral college votes available here, but they could wind up making the difference.

Southwestern Bush states

Obama has consistently polled ahead of McCain in Colorado. Capturing its 9 electoral votes should be a top priority for the Obama campaign. Obama is polling even or ahead of McCain in New Mexico, and he’s competitive in Nevada. The latest poll out of Arizona showed that Obama was polling within nine points with 15% undecided. This is a region where demography can be destiny. If Gov. Bill Richardson is on the ticket, the whole Southwest could fall into Obama’s column. If Obama holds all the Kerry states and wins Nevada, New Mexico, and Colorado, he wins the election 271-267. If anyone tells you that everything depends on Ohio and Florida, remember this about the Southwestern Strategy.

Texas

Texas defines Bushism, but Texans now hate Bush, too. Obama is polling behind 52-39 right now, but I expect that number to close substantially once Obama has united the party. Obama should probe here early, as a psychological blow, if nothing else. Tying McCain down in Texas will prevent him from expanding his own map.

Overall Strategy

Obama should explore his longest shots first at the same time that he plays a little defense to shore up his few weaknesses. That means he should focus on three areas as soon as the primaries are over (and, time permitting, before they are over). Obama needs to campaign in Wisconsin, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and, especially, New Hampshire, right off the bat. He should combine this with an effort to probe his longest shot, which is the Southern Strategy and Texas. Obama is in Florida for the next couple of days, but he should soon make stops in the coastal arc between Virginia and Texas.

He should follow that up with his second longest shot, which is the Plains States Strategy. He should campaign in the Dakotas, Montana, Nebraska, and Kansas. I’d throw some love Idaho’s way for giving him such a massive victory.

As the nomination draws nearer, he should begin focusing on his two main areas of interest, which are the Midwestern and Southwestern regions. Campaign stops in Iowa, Missouri, Ohio, and Indiana should be combined with stops in Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona (another psych-out), and Nevada.

Then once the convention goes down, Obama can do extensive polling and see where he has weakened McCain up. In September and October he will have to narrow his focus to the states that are polling close.

I don’t want to get too much into campaign themes here, but I would suggest that Obama campaign in the South with a coterie of foreign policy advisers, like Sam Nunn, David Boren, Lee Hamilton (and possibly Chuck Hagel) that will add gravitas to his national security credentials. Focusing his stops in places like Pensacola, Florida, where there are large military installations and populations is probably a good idea, even though he won’t ultimately pull many votes out of such areas. In the Midwest and Plains states he should make good use of leaders like Gov. Sebelius, Sen. McCaskill, and adviser Tom Daschle.

As for Obama’s weakness in Appalachia, it is so pronounced that he cannot win there no matter what he does. But he can help his cause in North Carolina and Virginia by announcing, perhaps with John Edwards, his intention to set up some kind of Appalachian Economic Development plan once he becomes president. And, if he feels like he can afford the time, he could tour the region on a fact-finding mission with regional leaders like Sens. Webb, Rockefeller, and Byrd, Govs. Bredeson, Kaine, Easley, Strickland, Rendell, and Manchin, and Reps. Heath Shuler, Rick Boucher, Nick Rahall, Lincoln Davis, Travis Childers, and Ben Chandler. At least, this would signal that he cares about helping people in need even if he knows most of them won’t vote for him.

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