The 10 States that Can Elect the Next President
Policy + Politics

The 10 States that Can Elect the Next President

iStockphoto/The Fiscal Times

The ten states that will likely determine the outcome of the 2012 presidential election are suffering from some of the worst unemployment and most battered economies, which leaves both President Obama and the eventual Republican nominee facing a tough challenge--winning over those states’ angry and highly skeptical voters.

The crucial ten – Colorado, Florida, Iowa, Michigan, Nevada, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia and Wisconsin – all voted for Obama over Republican John McCain in 2008, and together will account for 142 of the 270 electoral  that will be needed to win the election. But half of those states with over 50 percent of the “swing state” electoral votes – Florida, Michigan, Nevada, North Carolina and Ohio – are suffering unemployment rates that are at or above the national average of 9.1 percent.

Many of those voters have soured on Obama’s leadership and policies. Yet they also take a dim view of Republicans in Congress and on the stump. Political analysts say the angry mood of the electorate – and the uncertain direction of the economy over the next year – offers no guarantee of how they will vote next year.

Obama is likely to begin his battle for reelection with at least 191 electoral votes from across the country solidly in his camp, analysts say. But he must win a solid majority of electoral votes from the “tossup states” if he hopes to claim a second term.

“I think you have
to go to the old New
Deal model – promising
relief, recovery, reform...."

A Washington Post-Bloomberg poll published last week found that 45 percent of Americans believe the economy would be the same regardless of whether Obama or one of the Republican candidates, such as former governor Mitt Romney, businessman Herman Cain or Texas Gov. Rick Perry, was sitting in the Oval Office. Public approval ratings for both the president and Congress are at near all-time lows. Among independents – who make up about a third of the electorate – 55 percent said the economy would be the same with a Republican president as it is under Obama, according to the poll.

“The challenge is for the parties and their nominees to somehow be credible,” pollster John Zogby told The Fiscal Times this week. “I think you have to go to the old New Deal model – promising relief, recovery, reform. First of all, voters are asking, ‘What are you going to do for me today? Let’s not be talking about, oh, down the road, the economy is going to be stronger than ever. What do you have for me today?’”

If voters in these ten key states were asked the old Ronald Reagan question of whether they were better off today than they were four years ago, the answer in every case would be a resounding no. Since the recession officially began in December 2007, national unemployment has gone from 4.7 percent to a peak 10.2 percent in late 2009 before falling a percentage point over the last two years to an unacceptably high 9.1 percent.

A Fiscal Times analysis of key economic indicators in these and other potential battleground states shows a tapestry of economic stress and misery.  Nevada, Michigan, Florida and North Carolina are suffering the highest unemployment rates in the country, well above the 9.1 percent national average. 

Other measures of misery are also well above average in these politically contested areas. Nevada, Florida and Michigan have been devastated by declining home values and skyrocketing foreclosure rates. While the poverty rate grew by 1.8 percentage points to 14.7 percent nationwide, it grew at a faster clip in Colorado, Florida, Michigan, Nevada and North Carolina. The economy and jobs are clearly at the top of the list of voter concerns. Yet voters are frustrated with the political gridlock in Washington and promises from both parties that have done little to put a dent in the unemployment rate or spur the sluggish economy.

“Could it possibly be that
Americans have wakened
to the sad truth that is the
economic cycle spinning on,
impervious to our system’s
attempts to control it?”

Since shifting much of his domestic focus from health care and financial reform early this year, Obama has vigorously campaigned across the country to promote his latest jobs and economic stimulus proposals. But he is still suffering from the worst approval rating of his presidency, with only 41 percent of Americans saying they approve of his job performance, according to the latest Gallup survey. Yet while he trails a generic Republican in the polls, he is essentially dead even when matched against challengers with high name recognition like Romney or Perry.

“Could it possibly be that Americans have wakened to the sad truth that much of what we have seen is the economic cycle spinning on, impervious to our system’s attempts to control it on our own terms?” said University of Virginia political analyst Larry Sabato. “.... People remember the economic collapse happened when Bush was President, even before Obama was elected. Now everyone has watched Obama confidently predict a recovery for three years based on his programs, but it hasn’t happened,” Sabato added.
Local economic conditions in many of the swing states likely to determine the outcome of next year’s presidential election would certainly reinforce that view, since there are few signs of recovery. Here’s a snapshot of three of them:

Anger over the fallout from the housing bust is roiling local politics. Home values have plunged nearly 40 percent since 2007 and show no signs of bottoming out. Construction has flatlined, with acres of idled backhoes, cranes and other machinery dotting the landscape. Unemployment in the industry is a major contributor to the Sunshine State’s above average 10.6 percent jobless rate.

“Historically Florida rebounded very quickly from recessions, but this one is very different,” said Susan McManus, a professor of political science at the University of South Florida in Tampa. “It’s made people very angry.”

There’s not a lot of sympathy for speculators who overbuilt condos and vacation homes in south Florida. But unemployment from the construction downturn is now extending the foreclosure crisis, and that’s starting to affect swing voters in the middle-class suburbs of metro areas like the Tampa-Orlando corridor, which accounts for a quarter of the state’s voters.

“People are losing their homes in these fast-growing parts of the state,” McManus said, “and when those homes are abandoned, it’s making things worse for people still in their homes.” 

Michigan has struggled with persistently high unemployment, a super-depressed housing market and rising poverty for years. The city of Detroit is so down on its luck that the mayor has proposed tearing down large parts of it and covering it with parks and farmland.

But the revival of the auto industry after the federal government provided $62 billion in government loans to bankrupt General Motors and Chrysler is providing the glimmer of hope of an economic comeback. Unemployment is down slightly, from 11.9 percent in September 2010 to 11.7 percent last month. And Michigan’s economy grew 2.9 percent last year, outperforming the national average of 2.6 percent, after two consecutive years of decline.

Part of the problem is that Michigan didn’t get as big an economic bounce after that state’s last recession ended in June 2009 as it did after previous downturns. And as the decline of the Big Three led to major shrinkage in the workforce and declining wages and benefits, the state literally got poorer, and now ranks only 39th among all states in per capital income, compared with 20th in 2000. The poverty rate shot up nearly three percentage points during the past two years, to 14.8 percent.

“The income has gone down a ton here over the last decade, so people are still feeling pretty poor in the state,” said Donald R. Grimes, a University of Michigan economist who specializes in economic forecasting. “There might be a few more jobs than you’re seeing in other places, but they’re still feeling pretty poor.”

North Carolina
For many years the symbol of the new South, North Carolina is now a state marked by its stark divisions, both in politics and in its economy. The state elected a Republican legislature for the first time in a century last November, but still has a Democratic governor. It has one senator from each party.

The economy is similarly divided. Blue-collar areas of the state have been hammered by both the housing downturn, which has created depression-like conditions in its furniture industry, and overseas competition, which has taken a toll on the textile industry. Most of the 290,000 lost jobs came from manufacturing plants in Republican-dominated semi-rural areas, which are the epicenters of the above average 10.5 percent unemployment rate.

Yet the Research Triangle area around Raleigh-Durham, with its dense network of leading universities, government-funded research institutions and high-tech firms, continues to be relatively prosperous with just an 8.5 percent unemployment rate. Cuts to education at both the federal and state levels are clearly upsetting local suburbanites, who earlier this month ousted a Republican from the local school board. “Voters here may disagree over some policies, but they all want a good school system,” said Ferrel Guillory, director of the Program on Public Life at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

The region around Charlotte, the state’s largest city, is both a banking center but is also heavily dependent on manufacturing. So the city where the Democrats will hold their 2012 convention is as divided as the rest of the state. “Republicans have become the rural party and Democrats have become the metro party,” Guillory said. “A lot will depend on economic conditions six months from now.”