Obama-Romney Race Could Swing on Surprise States

North Carolina, Missouri, Arizona and Wisconsin may be factors in the 2012 presidential race.

When it comes to swing states in presidential elections, pundits usually trot out a list of the usual suspects: Florida, Ohio, Nevada, New Hampshire and, in recent years, Virginia and Colorado. Carry them, as Barack Obama did in 2008, and you’re measuring the Oval Office for curtains.

This year, there are some surprising additions to the lineup of crucial battlegrounds, four states that will help determine whether Obama wins four more years in the White House or Republicans, behind nominee-in-waiting Mitt Romney, send him into early retirement.

The states: Arizona (11 electoral votes), North Carolina (15 electoral votes), Missouri and Wisconsin (10 electoral votes each).

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At this point, Romney remains a favorite in Arizona, which home-state favorite Sen. John McCain (R) won handily over Obama four years ago. The fact that Obama has a chance speaks volumes about changing demographics and the shifting political landscape. Hispanics, who overwhelmingly lean Democratic, have accounted for nearly half of the state’s population growth in the last decade.

Both parties will closely watch a Supreme Court case that will determine the fate of Arizona’s tough immigration law this summer.

Obama already has five campaign offices in the state, with more to come. The Obama campaign will focus mostly on voter registration drives targeting minorities, using the fight over the immigration law to draw sharp distinctions between the two candidates.

Even if he doesn’t win the state, Obama’s campaigning there will help him with the big picture. With the incumbent so active, Romney will have to devote time and money to a state that Republicans often can take for granted, leaving less to spread around elsewhere.

The flip side of the Arizona argument is found in Wisconsin. In 2008, Obama won there by a comfortable 56% to 42%. And he’s the favorite again this year. But Romney has a chance to force Obama to engage, if he picks House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan of Wisconsin as his GOP running mate.

An issue not directly involving Romney and Obama may also factor into Badger State politics later in the year. If GOP Gov. Scott Walker, who inflamed liberals and some moderates by curbing the bargaining rights of public employee unions, loses a June 5 recall election, Democrats will have momentum heading into the fall campaign. But if Walker holds on, the tea party wing of the Republican Party will get a boost.

North Carolina and Missouri were among the closest contests four years ago -- Obama won North Carolina by a single percentage point, while McCain’s edge in Missouri was a mere one-tenth of a point. Both states lean Republican at the moment, but the close outcomes four years ago will encourage Obama to actively campaign there.

Obama, with a huge edge in campaign cash and the trappings of incumbency, can afford to campaign anywhere that strikes his fancy. That said, don’t look for him to spend much money in places like Utah, Idaho and other GOP strongholds, just as Romney won’t put much effort into New York and similarly solid Democratic outposts.

In the end, both Obama and Romney will play in states where they can force the other side into defensive spending and, perhaps, steal a few electoral votes.

Richard Sammon
Senior Associate Editor, The Kiplinger Letter