Incumbent Presidents enter a reelection campaign with a number of distinct advantages. The command a bully pulpit, able to make news and usually dictate the issues the public is discussing. They can use the levers of power to direct federal spending and initiatives to certain parts of the country. They can generally attract far more campaign donors, giving them the ability to out-spend their opponent. And, more importantly, they've already built the coalitions and alliances necessary for victory. If they are Democrats, they have the added bonus of a compliant media who will deflect criticism and cast negative attention on their opponent. And yet, Obama is very likely to lose in November.
This weekend, the Associated Press published a fairly good analysis of the state of the campaign. Including "solid" and "leaning" states, Obama had 247 electoral votes to Mitt Romney's 206. The race to get to the 270 votes needed to win would come down to seven states, according to the AP analysis; Colorado, Florida, Iowa, Nevada, New Hampshire, Ohio and Virginia.
As the campaign develops, there will inevitably be other states thought to be "in play", but, assuming both camps run strong campaigns, it is very likely that these states will decide the election. The advantage for Romney is that he simply needs these states to revert to their historical pattern to prevail. Obama needs to, yet again, defy history. The challenge for Obama is that he is no longer the challenger with a simplistic message of "change", but rather an incumbent saddled with a weak economy and unpopular policies.
The biggest prizes among the seven toss-ups are Florida, Ohio and Virginia. Although they have been fairly reliable states for the GOP at the Presidential level, Obama scored narrow wins in each in 2008. He was helped by massive turnouts of young and minority voters, general voter fatigue with the GOP after 8 years of Bush and an inept McCain campaign. The latter two are off the table this year and the first is unlikely to replicate 2008.
All three states have moved much more solidly to the GOP since 2008. Florida and Ohio are both still suffering a stalled economy and housing slump. Obama will find it difficult to avoid at least some blame for the economy here. If, as expected, the economy remains stalled through the summer, expect these states to move steadily towards Romney. In the end, it is probable all three will revert to their historical mean and back Romney over Obama.
The race then comes down to the final four. If Obama sweeps all four, he will be reelected. But, if Romney just wins one of those four, he will take office next January. It will require a pitch-perfect campaign for Obama to sweep all four. Colorado and Nevada are two more historically GOP states that Obama took in 2008. Nevada's economy is still mired in recession and Obama's early-term admonition to "not go to Vegas" will certainly be reintroduced to voters there. New Hampshire has recently been fickle for the GOP, but the state practically ran into the party's arms in 2010 and Romney is uniquely positioned to attract votes there. Iowa, well...I went to school in Iowa and I still can't figure out the politics there.
Obama's chief challenge is that he must again win a handful of states that have historically voted Republican. A number of factors aligned to allow him to do that in 2008. Few of those are present today. Romney's advantage is that he doesn't have to win difficult states like Michigan, Pennsylvania or, even Wisconsin. He just has to win traditional GOP states. I know where I'd put my money.