Without exception, since 1960, the winner of the White House has won at least two of the Big Three battleground states: Florida, Ohio and Pennsylvania. It’s hard to picture a presidential contest that doesn’t revolve around those three states, and indeed, those three states are among the top four in Obama campaign field offices to date: Ohio (20), Virginia (17), Pennsylvania (14), and Florida (13).
Yet the rise of the Latino electorate is shifting the nation’s balance of power, giving rise to a more electorally relevant Southwest—a combination of blistering population growth and pro-Democratic demographic shifts.
In 1960, the states of Nevada, Colorado, New Mexico and Arizona totalled 17 electoral votes. Today, they total 31. And while in 1960 Ohio and Pennsylvania had 57 electoral votes between the two, today that number is just 38 (though if you include Florida, the total has remained at a constant 67).
What this all means is that if Democrats sweep the competitive Southwestern states, Ohio, Penn and Florida become that much less important. Let’s start with a base map, plus giving Obama Arizona, Colorado, Nevada and New Mexico. I gave Missouri to the GOP, and Wisconsin and Michigan to Obama because those are marginal swing states—if Obama wins Missouri, he’s already crushed on the rest of the map, and vice a versa with Wisconsin and Michigan.
As you can see, sweeping those Southwestern states puts Obama just 17 electoral votes shy of victory, while Romney is a whopping 90 electoral votes out. Indeed, Romney could sweep the Big Three, and look what it does:
The race is still not decided, with Romney still 23 electoral votes shy of victory—something no single state will provide. At that point, it’s a matter of math—several combinations do the trick. But note, Virginia has consistently given Obama some of his biggest polling margins to date. Romney would have to sweep North Carolina, Iowa and New Hampshire to win the race.
Now, I’m not suggesting that Obama will lose the Big Three, or that they’re not important. They are still likely to be the hardest fought states this cycle. And I’m also not suggesting that Arizona is in the bag for Team Blue. It still leans Red. But changing population patterns and demographics (mostly Latinos) are evolving the electoral college map. There are new paths to victory.
And by broadening the playing field (Arizona this year, and Texas, Georgia and Montana in future cycles), and locking down old battlegrounds (Nevada, New Mexico, Colorado, Oregon, Washington, and possibly Wisconsin and Michigan) the GOP’s path to presidential victory becomes increasingly complicated.