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Strategy and structure, part II

Last week I began attempting to answer the question posed by a New York Times Magazine cover — “Is Obama Toast?” — arguing that dynamics, both structural and strategic, gave the president a better-than-even chance of reelection. With Americans’ demonstrated reluctance to toss a party out of the White House after just one term, with the most important economic indicator in the reelectable range and with favorable demographic changes, President Obama is actually reasonably positioned to win a tough and close race. 

Today, I’ll consider another structural factor, along with the strategic: 

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Structurally, the path to 270 electoral votes is much clearer for Obama than for any GOP challenger. In 2008, then-Sen. Obama won states worth 359 electoral votes in 2012. National Journal recently asked its “Insiders Poll” to name the states he carried then that he was most likely to lose in 2012. Indiana, Florida, Ohio and North Carolina topped the list. But the fact is, the president could lose all four and still win with 286 electoral votes. But, you might say, “Add Virginia to the list.” Do that, and the president still enjoys an electoral vote majority. Now, I would not concede any of these states, but the fact that the president can win without any of them improves his odds. 

While things do change, voters are creatures of habit. So the single best predictor of how a state will vote in every recent presidential election has been its vote total in the previous couple of presidential elections. Averaging the support for 2004 Democratic nominee John Kerry and Obama — and dropping any state from Obama’s 2008 showing where the average support for his party was at or less than 50 percent — again leaves the president with the electoral vote majority he needs. 

Examined yet a third way, states worth 246 electoral votes in 2012 voted for both Kerry and Obama, while the George W. Bush in 2004/John McCain in 2008 total is a paltry 180.

There are lots of ways for Obama to get to 270 from 246, but far fewer ways for a GOP nominee to achieve the same goal. There are a few other, secondary, structural considerations, but I will cut that discussion a bit short to move on to strategy, focusing on a race against Mitt Romney. 

The current GOP front-runner presents two fundamental flaws on which smart strategists, including those inhabiting the Obama campaign, will focus.

First, Obama spokespeople, along with Republicans themselves, have demonstrated that Romney lacks a philosophical core, flip-flopping on most every major issue of our times. He argued that he was more pro-gay-rights than Ted Kennedy — and now opposes gay rights. He bragged about what he had done to curb global warming — and now pretends to doubt its very existence. Romney was pro-choice before he was anti-choice, and might have been anti-choice before that. He flipped on Libya and flopped on payroll-tax cuts. And we are treated to the daily spectacle of Romney flying around the country denouncing his major accomplishment as Massachusetts governor: the state’s healthcare plan, which provided the basis for the president’s proposal.

Second, and perhaps more important, is a vein first mined by then-Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm (D) in her reelection bid against Dick DeVos (R), and later by Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) in her battle with Carly Fiorina (R). We found that if there is a mortal sin in this economy, it is cutting jobs in America and creating them overseas. That’s what DeVos did, that’s what Fiorina did and that is what Romney spent decades doing. It turned vast numbers of voters against DeVos and Fiorina, and will likely have the same effect on Romney. 

By Election Day, Romney will be seen as a cause of our economic problems, not as the solution. And that, even absent the structural dynamics, will likely prove an unbearable burden for him.

Mark S. Mellman is president of The Mellman Group and has worked for Democratic candidates and causes since 1982. Current clients include Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (Nev.) and House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (Md.).