Bill Whalen

Mr. Romney, Tear Down This (Blue) Wall…

When speaking of President Obama’s re-elect chances, it’s fashionable to begin with his Electoral College votes from the past election (365, since readjusted to 358 after the new math of the new redistricting) and count backward to the magic number of 270.

Here’s another way to do the presidential math: instead of the subtraction game, play the addition game – starting at zero and building up 270.

As it turns out, the President begins the election about 90% of the way to a second term.

Well, maybe.

Once upon a time, Mr. Obama’s party – the Democrats – didn’t have much of an electoral safety net to speak. In 1976, Jimmy Carter carried 23 states and captured the White House with 297 electoral votes.

In the next three presidential elections, the losing Democratic tickets amassed a grand total of 17 states and 173 electoral votes – an average of about 6 states and 58 electoral votes per contest.

That all changed in 1992 and the beginning of Bill Clinton’s two victories (combined average: 31 states, 375 electoral votes).

In fact, for the past 20 years no Democratic nominee has failed to achieve at minimum 251 electoral votes – or, 90% of the way to 270 and a second term. Meaning, barring the unusual, a relatively acceptable Democrat begins the national campaign within easy striking distance of victory.

All of this is explained in terrific detail by National Journal columnist Ronald Brownstein, a Hoover media fellow, who lists the following bricks in the what he likens to a Democratic “blue wall” of in the 2012 election: the 11 states along the northeastern corridor from Maryland to Maine (with the exception of New Hampshire); the three West Coast states; Hawaii, Michigan, Minnesota, Illinois and Wisconsin.

How impenetrable of a wall is it? Take a look at the last five presidential contests. The GOP presidential nominee has finished within 5% of his Democratic foe in only 10 of the 90 separate votes in these core Democratic states.

Can Mitt Romney win in November without making a dent in the big blue wall? Sure. The states add up to only 242 electoral votes. But obviously his chances improve if he were to remove at least one brick.

And which one might that be?

Try Wisconsin, the site of a very curious vote on June 5 – a recall election that’s a replay of the 2010 gubernatorial race that pitted Republican Scott Walker against Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett (Walker won that contest, collecting 52.3% of the vote).

Here are three reasons why the Badger State recall, though five months before the national vote, national weighs heavily on the 2012 presidential election and beyond:

1)  The GOP’s Class of 2014’s First Mid-Term Test. Unlike California’s 2003 gubernatorial recall election, when then-Gov. Gray Davis faced a slew of political problems (massive budget deficit, rolling power blackouts, Arnold Schwarzenegger’s star power) Walker’s under political indictment for one reason: he angered Big Labor for going after state workers’ pensions. Walker’s arguably the controversial governor in the land. He’s also also the first of the freshman GOP governors elected in blue or purple states – several of whom, like Ohio’s John Kasich, are trying to talk up a right-track economy – to face an jazzed electorate well before their actual re-election. If Walker can hold on (recent polls seem to be breaking his way), it’s a message to his fellow governors to persevere with their reform agendas – coincidentally, much like the GOP’s gubernatorial class of 1990 rode out the recession of the early ‘90’s and was handsomely rewarded in the GOP landslide of 1994.

2)  A Boost to Pension Reform? Something Kasich attempted but couldn’t pull off in Ohio: pension reform (Ohioans last fall rejected Issue 2, which would have changed the state’s collective-bargaining law). In California, Gov. Jerry Brown’s introduced a 12-point pension-reform plan (six months ago and no action since from the Democratic Legislature, despite a ballooning state budget deficit). It’s also in play in Illinois and Michigan. But should Walker be ousted in the recall: good like finding another governor, Republican or Democratic, willing to significantly address entitlement reforms. The chattering class will sift through the June 5 results to gauge if taking on unions is collective-bargaining is a political third rail.

3)  Battleground Carryover? Walker’s run a “minimalist, almost stealthy” campaign that’s heavy on message discipline and a no-frills pounding of the pavement. At the same time, Republicans are flooding the Wisconsin airwaves with pro-GOP, pro-conservative ads. Walker could have played defense – one of Gray Davis’ blunders in California’s recall (he mocked the process, then his opponents). Instead, he took the threat head-on. If Walker succeeds, will that encourage the Romney campaign to likewise play for keeps in Wisconsin come October and November (May surveys showing a presidential dead-heat in a state that hasn’t gone Republican since 1984). One curiosity of the recall, btw: for all the talk about the election having national implications, both Romney and Obama – physically, at least – have stayed out of it (your next uncomfortable Jay Carney moment: having to explain why the President bailed on his promise to personally intervene where collective-bargaining was a stake).

4)  Labor’s Love’s Lost? How much money are labor unions and left-leaning special interests pumping into Wisconsin in order not only to oust Walker but also send a message nationwide? We won’t know the total until after the vote. Then again, unions and progressive groups invested nearly $15 million last year in the 9 recall efforts against incumbent lawmakers (six Republicans, three Democrats challenged – seven surviving, two losing). In 2012, it’s a bigger race with bigger stakes. Here’s one way to look at Big Labor’s investment in Wisconsin: every dollar spent in June is one less dollar that won’t go into a congressional race this fall. And that something the left may come to regret, should Republicans narrowly hold on to the House or eke out majority control of the Senate.

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