The Six States That Will Elect the President in 2012

The list of key states is much shorter this year, leaving Obama and Romney little room for blunders.

Forget those long lists of swing states, purple states or whatever else folks are using as labels to stir up interest in the November election between President Obama and GOP nominee-in-waiting Mitt Romney.

The reality is that although the campaigns and super PACs will spend hundreds of millions of dollars on TV advertising and will spend much of their time in about a dozen states, only six will essentially determine the outcome of the election: Florida, Ohio, Virginia, Colorado, Iowa and New Hampshire.

To win, Romney might have to claim all three of the biggest states on the short list. To be sure, the former Massachusetts governor can lose one state from the Florida-Ohio-Virginia column and still take office next January 20, but the path would be difficult.

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A close look at the states shows what little margin of error either candidate has:

Florida: Both sides will spend heavily in the expensive media markets of Florida, battling for the Sunshine State’s 29 electoral votes. Romney can instantly lock up the state if he chooses Sen. Marco Rubio as his running mate, but even if he doesn’t, he still has the advantage in Florida. Along with traditional GOP voters, the tea party, evangelicals, the Miami Cuban community and retirees are a potentially potent coalition that could deliver for Romney.

Ohio: This will be the second-most expensive state to compete in for both campaigns. Obama has a lot going for him in the battle for Ohio’s 18 electoral votes. Obama’s team, maintaining a lead in the polls that has yet to recede significantly, is confident that the assault on Romney’s career at Bain Capital plays well in the Buckeye State. So does criticism of Romney’s disdain for Obama’s auto industry bailout. This is one state where Romney needs to cut into Obama’s advantage among women.

Virginia: This state offers another gender gap challenge for Romney. Demographics in Northern Virginia, Charlottesville, Richmond and even the military-heavy Tidewater region bode well for Obama. Romney needs former GOP Sen. George Allen to run a strong race on the undercard, but so far that isn’t happening. With Obama firing up black voters, purple Virginia is firmly out of the GOP’s “red state” column, but that doesn’t mean Romney can’t win in the Old Dominion.

Colorado: Romney can cause some problems for the Obama campaign's calculus with a win in Colorado. It's still close enough for the Republican to steal the nine electoral votes from Obama, but it will take some serious work. If Romney doesn't cut into the Hispanic vote, Obama stands to dominate in the contested Western states. Obama has a significant advantage with Hispanics but he needs to make sure they vote.

Iowa: In 2008, Obama won the state by 140,734 votes over Sen. John McCain of Arizona. If Romney doesn't get support from at least three-quarters of social values voters in Iowa, he can kiss these six electoral votes good-bye. Expect Romney to bring in a lot of help from conservative surrogate campaigners, including some of his primary opponents, who built strong campaign organizations in the state. The next round of polls will show the race in this state tightening, with Obama holding a slight lead but Romney in striking distance.

New Hampshire: Romney’s lone hope for a pickup in the Northeast borders his “home” state of Massachusetts. He’s hoping to tap into the “live free or die” libertarianism that helped George W. Bush carry New Hampshire in 2000. Romney’s problem is that New Hampshire isn’t the conservative stronghold it once was. Population centers along the Massachusetts border are swarming with Democrats. Bush lost the state to Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts in 2004 and Obama won it four years ago by 68,288 votes.

It’s a very short list and, especially for Romney at this stage of the race, a challenging one.

Kenneth R. Bazinet
Associate Editor, The Kiplinger Letter