In coming months, the absurdly close Iowa caucuses and the overhyped New Hampshire primary will fade into the distant memories of most Americans. That’s when the hard work of picking the next president begins.
Both parties’ campaigns will focus on the many battleground, or toss-up, states that could swing to either incumbent President Barack Obama or to whomever the Republicans have chosen as their candidate. Of these states, five stand out as the most important of the lot because of their economies — and because their large populations will yield generous delegate hauls.
Residents of the fabulous five states — all of which backed Obama in 2008 — will be have plenty of chances to see the presidential candidates whether they want to or not. Experts are predicting that political ad spending will hit the $4 billion mark this year, as much as a 30% increase over four years ago. Given how close some observers expect the election to be, that spending estimate is hardly a surprise.
Each state features its own set of challenges for both Democrats and Republicans. For instance, Florida Gov. Rick Scott and his counterpart in Ohio John Kasich, both Republicans whose states rank first and third on our list, are very unpopular in their own states.
Florida Is Lagging
Michael Martinez, chair of the University of Florida’s Department of Political Science, argues that the economy remains a big issue in the Sunshine State, which was hit hard by the bursting of the housing bubble. “We are sort of lagging a little bit in terms if the recovery,” he says in an interview. “The mood is not quite as optimistic here as it is in the rest of the country.”
Last year, voters in the Buckeye State approved a referendum that rejected a state law Kasich pushed through that restricted collective-bargaining rights of government workers. It’s not clear whether Kasich’s unpopularity helps Obama, who is pretty unpopular as well in Ohio. Paul Beck, a professor of political science at Ohio State University, says Obama’s standing in Ohio is “higher than Kasich’s but not a whole lot higher.”
Second-ranked Pennsylvania has voted Democratic in presidential elections dating back to the days of George Herbert Walker Bush, even though its governor and one of its senators are Republicans. Obama, however, is struggling in the Keystone State. A poll conducted in December by the Allentown Morning Call and Muhlenberg College found that more than half of respondents didn’t believe Obama deserved a second chance.
“This is going to be a close election — a very close election. . . . No one has been elected president without carrying two out of the three [Florida, Pennsylvania and Ohio],” says Peter Brown, assistant director of the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute. “It’s highly unlikely that the President can win without taking Pennsylvania. Republicans need to carry Florida and Ohio.”
Less Popular Than the President
North Carolina, which Obama barely took in 2008, is another key toss-up state, ranking fourth on our list. A poll conducted in the Tar Heel State last month showed Obama tied with Republican front-runner — at least for now — Mitt Romney. Andrew Taylor, professor of political science at North Carolina State University, argues that Obama won’t be helped by state’s Democratic Governor Bev Perdue since she’s more unpopular than he is in the state.
A poll conducted in Virginia, which ranked fifth, showed Obama leading Romney.
Two states, Colorado and Nevada, are also critical but were too small when ranked by GDP to make the list. And notably absent from our list are some of the biggest states in the country. In the case of California, New York and New Jersey, they’re seen as solidly Democratic, while Texas and most of the Southern states are seen as just as strong in the Republican camp.
Of course, Obama and whoever his Republican challenger happens to be will spending plenty of time in these large states. For instance, the GOP candidate will be in New York repeatedly, courting the titans of Wall Street sympathetic to his views, just as Obama will be hobnobbing with the liberal elite of Hollywood’s entertainment industry.
Here are the top 5 states for deciding who’ll be the next president:
GDP $744 billion: Rank 4
Electoral Votes: 29
2008 Election: Obama 58% to McCain 48%
GDP $553 billion: Rank 6
Electoral votes 20
2008 Election: Obama 55% to McCain 44%
GDP $472 billion: Rank 8
Electoral Votes: 18
2008 Election: Obama 52% to McCain 47%
4) North Carolina
GDP $400 billion: Rank 9
Electoral Votes: 15
2008 Election: Obama 50% to McCain 49%
GDP $397 billion: Rank 11
Electoral Votes: 13
2008 Election: Obama 53% to McCain 46%