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The Line: Ranking the McCain vs. Obama Battlegrounds

Zero hour in the Democratic nomination fight is nearing, and with just a few days left until the final primaries on June 3, Barack Obama remains the all-but-certain nominee against John McCain in the fall.

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Roll over a state to see its 2004 presidential election result.

Obama's ability to hold off Hillary Rodham Clinton over the last month makes our task of ranking the states most likely to switch from the Republican to the Democratic column (or vice versa) in 2008 much easier.

An intense study of the political map -- and The Fix only studies things intensely! -- affirms that the current conventional wisdom that the race will come down to a handful of states in the Rust Belt and the West is correct.

Of the ten states that make this month's Line, six are from one of these two areas. What our Line doesn't yet reflect is the belief among some Democrats that Obama can make states like North Carolina, Georgia, North Dakota and Montana legitimately competitive in the fall. It's possible that Obama could fundamentally alter the electoral map, but there isn't enough evidence to merit any of these states being included in the Line.

As always, this list is meant as a conversation-starter. Agree or disagree with these picks? Have a Line of your own? The comments section below awaits.

Line Highlights

  • Moving Off The Line: Minnesota
  • Moving On: Pennsylvania
  • Moving Up: Michigan
  • Moving Down: Virginia

To the Line!

10. Pennsylvania (Sen. John Kerry won with 51 percent in 2004): Too many people look at Obama's primary loss to Clinton here back in April and assume he will have major problems carrying the state against McCain in the fall. That overlooks the fact that the Democratic nominee has won the state in the last four elections -- albeit narrowly. Pennsylvania is still a state that leans Democratic, but the very Reagan Democrats that pushed the Gipper to wins in 1980 and 1984 in the state are up for grabs, and McCain will make a hard push for their support. (Previous ranking: N/A)

9. Florida (Bush 52 percent): It's hard for even the most ardent Obama backers to dispute the idea that Clinton would have made the tougher match for McCain in the Sunshine State. Two of Clinton's major pillars of support -- voters 55 and older, and the Jewish community -- play a huge role in Florida politics, and Obama will need to woo both to have a chance at pulling off an upset. Make no mistake: An Obama win in Florida would be rightly seen as an upset, as Republicans have consolidated their hold in the state over the last few elections. (Previous ranking: 10)

8. Virginia (Bush 54 percent): The Commonwealth has been home to a bit of irrational exuberance of late on the part of Democrats. On one level there is good reason: The party has won the last two governor's races (2001 and 2005) and is well positioned to control both of the state's Senate seats after this fall. But a look back at Virginia's electoral past at the presidential level shows the depth of the challenge Democrats face. The last Democrat to win the Commonwealth was Lyndon B. Johnson way back in 1964. There's no doubt Virginia is in the midst of a serious political and demographic change. But is it changing fast enough for Democrats in 2008? Count us as skeptical. (Previous ranking: 4)

7. Ohio (Bush 51 percent): Democrats whitewashed Republicans in 2006 -- retaking the governor's mansion and unseating Sen. Mike DeWine (R). The losses proved devastating for a Republican Party already hobbled by the problems of outgoing Gov. Bob Taft. McCain's candidacy is a godsend for the Ohio GOP, as his reform credentials should allow him to stand distinct from the scandals that have engulfed the party's most high profile officials in recent years. But Democratic gains of late should embolden Obama backers too. This one is going to be close -- again. (Previous ranking: 5)

6. New Hampshire (Kerry, 50 percent): The Granite State is perhaps the toughest of all the states to rank. On one hand, the Democratic wave crested in New Hampshire in 2006, as the party beat two sitting Republican House incumbents and reelected the Democratic governor with a whopping 74 percent of the vote. On the other, New Hampshire has demonstrated a strong affinity for McCain in 2000 and 2008 and, unlike many other states around the country, the Arizona senator could well fight Obama to a draw among the state's crucial independent voters. (Previous ranking: 9)

5. Michigan (Kerry 51 percent): Polling shows the race between McCain and Obama in the Wolverine State as competitive, yet there is no swing state where Republicans feel more confident about their chances. While GOP strategists grant that Obama will run extremely strong in Detroit and the surrounding areas, Republicans believe that in the Upper Peninsula (U-P in Michigander-speak) and in southwestern Michigan -- both more culturally conservative areas -- McCain will dominate. (Previous ranking: 8)

4. Nevada (Bush 50 percent): It's easy to forget that Nevada is not only Las Vegas. Much of the rest of the state remains rural (and conservative) and should be solid ground for McCain. Those rural reaches are the main reason the Republican nominee has carried the state in eight of the last ten presidential elections. That said, the difficult political environment nationally is compounded in Nevada where Gov. Jim Gibbons (R) has weathered a series of scandals and a continuous flow of bad press since winning an open seat in 2006. (Previous ranking: 2)

3. Colorado (Bush 52 percent): Colorado, like Virginia, has been experiencing a major Democratic revival in recent elections. In 2004, Democrats claimed a House district (the 3rd) and a Senate seat; two years later Democrats won the governorship and another House seat. In this cycle, Democrats are favored to win another open Senate seat and will make a run at Rep. Marilyn Musgrave (R) in the 4th District. Obama's change message would seem a good fit for a fast-growing state that is just starting to assert its influence in the country. McCain's military background will be a major boon in areas like Colorado Springs, but it seems unlikely to offset the Democratic momentum in the state. (Previous ranking: 6)

2. New Mexico (Bush 50 percent): Say what you will about Gov. Bill Richardson - and trust us, we've heard them all -- but he is extremely popular in New Mexico and has a political network that few other politicians can boast. There seems little doubt that Richardson would like a role in an Obama administration, so he has much riding on Obama winning his home state. McCain's roots in neighboring Arizona should give him a fighting chance here, but this one looks like a terrific pickup chance for Obama. (Previous ranking: 3)

1. Iowa (Bush 50 percent): When Obama secured a simple majority of pledged delegates on May 20, he chose Iowa as the state to mark the moment. That's not by accident. Iowa launched Obama in this race by delivering him a win in the caucuses in January. Combine that with the fact that McCain publicly snubbed the Hawkeye State during the 2000 campaign and ran a half-hearted bid in the state this time around, and there's little debate about Iowa as the state most likely to switch sides in the coming general election. (Previous ranking: 1)

By Chris Cillizza  |  May 30, 2008; 5:00 AM ET
Categories:  Eye on 2008 , The Line  
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Next: The End Game: A Delicate Dance

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