Inside Obama’s Election Strategy

In spite of media stories about a tightening race, Barack Obama has all but locked up an Electoral College majority.  He has held solid leads in New Mexico, Colorado, Iowa, and Virginia since the beginning of October and the website ‘Real Clear Politics,’ which has the best electoral college map on the internet, shows him pulling into a commanding lead in Nevada.  This means that the attention being paid to Ohio, Florida, North Carolina, Indiana, and Missouri are beside the point.  Obama can claim 291 electoral votes without winning any of these “swing” states.  Essentially, the campaign is now being waged around the size of Obama’s mandate.

Obama has assembled this commanding lead by combining the strategies advocated in two “big picture” books by Democratic political strategists.  The first, The Emerging Democratic Majority, written in 2001 by John Judis and Ruy Teixeira, said the Democrats could become the dominant party in the 21st century by appealing to people who live in urban areas with predominantly information/high tech economies – areas that are generally multi-cultural, socially liberal, and internationalist.  Their research showed that urban areas with these characteristics are growing in electoral importance in many states that traditionally have leaned Republican.  For example, the metro-Denver area in Colorado; the fast-growing suburban areas of northern Virginia; the Las Vegas-Reno area in Nevada, and the sprawling metro areas of Phoenix, Arizona and Santa Fe, New Mexico now have more voters than the conservative rural areas that have previously defined politics in those states.  They pointed out that several states considered swing states in the 1960s and 70s, for example Washington and California, had already become Democratic strongholds by 2001 because of the rising importance of metro-Seattle and the cultural transformation of the metro-Los Angeles area.

The second book, Whistling Past Dixie, written in 2006 by Thomas Schaller, says that the Democrats should focus on capturing western and northern states with culturally diverse populations rather than becoming more conservative on racial or cultural issues in a vain attempt to best the GOP in the south.  He specifically pointed to the southwestern states of Nevada, Arizona, New Mexico, and Colorado, but included states with tight presidential races in 2004 like Iowa, Wisconsin, New Hampshire, and Oregon.  His strategy is to confine the GOP to the conservative, religious, non-urban states of the deep South, Texas, and the lightly populated Great Plains.

Note that in both of these portraits of the American electorate, Ohio is a swing state outlier in the North because it doesn’t have a high tech urban area and southern Ohio is culturally similar to Kentucky and Tennessee.  In addition, Florida is a swing state outlier in the South because it has some high tech areas and a diverse mix of people due to immigration and retirement communities.

The attention and false claims of a McCain surge directed toward Pennsylvania reveal the nature of Obama’s success.  Unless McCain can somehow come from behind to win in Pennsylvania, victories in Ohio, Florida or other “swing states” of the past will make no difference.  We will know quickly on Tuesday night whether the Obama strategy of winning in the west and in multi-cultural urban areas has succeeded.  If he captures the eastern time zone states of Pennsylvania and Virginia then it will be time to discuss color patterns for the Obama White House drapes.

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