The Yahoo News election outlook: 100 electoral votes will decide contest

ByDavid Chalian
April 25, 2012, 10:26 AM

— -- Economic growth may be stagnating, high-dollar donors may be harder to woo than they were four years ago, and Mitt Romney may be narrowing the gap in public-opinion polls, but President Barack Obama has one key thing going for him at the outset of this general election season: a significant advantage in the battle for 270 electoral votes.

According to a Yahoo! News analysis of the current electoral map, President Obama begins this race within grasp of the promised land. Nineteen states and the District of Columbia are either solidly in the Obama column or leaning that way, giving Obama a total of 247 electoral votes. Mitt Romney has 23 states either solidly in the fold or leaning in his direction, for a total of 191 electoral votes.

That leaves eight battleground states up for grabs: Florida, Ohio, North Carolina, Virginia, Colorado, Nevada, Iowa and New Hampshire. An even 100 electoral votes are available between them.

We clearly aren't the only ones who see these states as the most important battlegrounds. Take a look at the Obama and Romney travel schedules this week. Mitt Romney chose New Hampshire as the locale for his big 'I'm all but the nominee' victory speech last night while President Obama spent two days this week traveling to North Carolina, Colorado, and Iowa.

Yes, it is time for that quadrennial elementary school civics refresher course, wherein we remind ourselves that a presidential election is not a popular election but a series of 51 individual elections, in which each candidate seeks to amass the requisite 270 electoral votes needed to secure a majority of the 538 electoral votes. 

As Mitt Romney delivered a clean sweep of five Northeastern primaries and once again delivered a victory speech that framed his general election campaign against Barack Obama, a look at the current electoral landscape shows just how much work the Massachusetts Republican has ahead of him.

[Poll: Young people think Obama will win re-election]

By no means does the accompanying map intend to be predictive.  It is simply Yahoo! News' inaugural snapshot of the state of the race. Our outlook will most certainly change as the campaigns, the candidates, their surrogates, the outside groups, and, most important, the voters all become fully engaged in the months ahead.

In this analysis, Obama is just 23 electoral votes shy of the magic number. If he could put Florida's 29 electoral votes away early, he could lose all seven remaining toss-up states and still win a second term.

Of course, Florida is likely to remain a battleground all the way through November even if Mitt Romney puts Jeb Bush or Marco Rubio on the ticket as the Republican Party's vice-presidential nominee.

[Related: Romney kicks off fundraising push a day after big primary wins]

Put another way, if the president were to lose the four largest prizes among the toss-up states (Florida, Ohio, North Carolina, Virginia), he could still get to 270 by scoring victories in Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada, and Colorado.

Romney's immediate challenge is to bring Florida, Virginia and North Carolina back into his party's column. (Barack Obama flipped all three from Republican to Democratic in 2008.)  If he can get those states to start leaning his way, the two candidates will be in an all-out brawl for Ohio, Colorado, Nevada, and Iowa.

To be sure, several states we have placed as leaning in President Obama's direction are traditional presidential battlegrounds and are not assured victories for him. New Mexico, Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania will all require hard work on the president's part to keep in his column, and the Romney campaign will certainly try to contest each one of those states at the outset.

[Related: Romney shifts focus to Obama, vowing to unveil a ‘better America' if elected]

Yet the overwhelming Hispanic voting population in New Mexico and the significant advantage the president currently carries with that demographic group puts it out of Romney's immediate grasp. Team Obama also effectively removed Michigan from the toss-up category by hammering Romney hard on his "Let Detroit Go Bankrupt" approach to the auto bailouts. Pennsylvania and Wisconsin may prove to be more hospitable ground for Romney, but have proved elusive for Republicans in recent presidential contests despite huge efforts there.

A poll out of Arizona this week shows that state may be truly in play this cycle, but until we see a commitment from the Obama campaign to stay and play there all the way through November we see it still leaning in Romney's direction.

This election is almost certainly going to be decided based on how Americans feel about Obama's stewardship of the economy and the plans each candidate puts forth for how best to continue the recovery in the years ahead.  It is quite easy to see how economic pessimism among the electorate could quickly (and aggressively) tip this map in Mitt Romney's direction.

However, at the starting point of this general election season, Romney has a much tougher lift to put enough states in his column to reach the magic number of 270.

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