In 1988, Michael Dukakis only won 10 states in the general election, but 5 of those — Iowa, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Oregon and Washington — were among the hottest battleground states of the past two presidential elections. Al Gore and John Kerry wasted time and resources defending all of them, and while George Bush only prevailed in one contest in ten attempts (Iowa’s 2004 election), many Democratic wins were very close calls (Kerry won WI by 1%, MN by 3% and OR by 4%). A sixth state, West Virginia, remained close in 2000 but appears to have moved solidly in the Republican column since then and its location at the heart of Appalachia does not make it a ripe target for Barack Obama.
But it increasingly looks like Obama could put away the “Dukakis 5,” closing the door on McCain’s attempt to keep them competitive, winning back Iowa’s 7 electoral votes returning these states to their Democratic roots. Iowa appears to be 2004’s red state that is leaning the most towards Obama, while Washington had already started migrating back in the comfortably blue column four years ago. Wisconsin is probably the state in which Democrats ought to be the most worried, though a poll I wrote about two days ago showed Obama trouncing McCain — almost as comfortably as he does in countless polls taken in Washington.
Today, two new Rasmussen polls confirm this trend:
- In Minnesota, Rasmussen Obama is ahead 52% to 39% and enjoying a strong favorability rating (60%, including 35% of very favorable opinion while McCain’s 54% is made up of only 15% of “very favorable” opinions).
- In Oregon, Obama is also dominating, leading 46% to 38%. Here again, his “very favorable” rating is much superior to McCain’s — though the same can be said of “very unfavorable” opinions.
- Note that the previous Rasmussen poll had Obama leading by double-digits, so this is technically a slip for the Democrat but there is no question that 8% leads is a strong showing for Obama here.
The Minnesota Star Tribune survey mid-May found Obama leading by 13% in MN though SUSA recently registered a 5% lead. In Oregon, the latest non-Rasmussen poll is SUSA’s survey back in April, showing Obama leading by 9%. This is to say that Obama’s strength in the Dukakis 5 is suggested by more surveys than this recent Rasmussen wave.
The advantage Obama stands to gain if he can keep up this advantage over the next two to three months cannot be understated. If McCain is widely trailing in these states by Labor Day, he is unlikely to mount strong challenges to Obama, making the Illinois Senator the likely winner of a bloc of 38 electoral votes. It is unlikely the GOP would cede Iowa considering Bush won it in 2004 but consider how much this would shrink the states in which Democrats are playing defense, for there would remain only three Kerry states which McCain could hope to win: Michigan, Pennsylvania and New Hampshire, a list to which Republicans could perhaps hope to add New Jersey.
So what explains the increased Democratic strength in these states? First, eight years of the Bush Administration have forced a shift of partisan breakdown towards Democrats, getting states that were already leaning blue out of the Republicans’ reach. Second, an increasing number of independent voters who are still not identifying themselves as Democrats are increasingly behaving like Democrats — this was a great boost to the party in 2006, particularly in Minnesota (see Klochubar v. Kennedy). Third, one of Obama’s strongest constituencies is Western independent voters, meaning that McCain’s appeal to indies is unlikely to penetrate too far in Oregon and Washington.
This is not to say that Obama will be able to put away all or some of these states but only that he has the potential to do so in a way Al Gore and John Kerry never could. John McCain clearly has taken contesting a number of these states to heart and is said to want to push for the Pacific Coast. Minnesota will prove a particularly interesting case, as Gov. Pawlenty has long been rumored to be one of the front-runner’s in the Republican veepstakes and as the GOP convention will be held in the Twin Cities. It will be interesting to see whether the latter event (and possibly the former) impact the state of the race.