The path to 270: Keys to victory in November

Pollsters and consultants give Salon their take on what both candidates will have to do to win the presidency.

Topics: 2008 Elections, Barack Obama, War Room, John McCain, R-Ariz.,

The talking points are being dashed off and the attack ads honed to a fine point, so it’s time to begin looking at what Barack Obama and John McCain need to do to win the necessary 270 Electoral College votes in the general election this November. Salon talked to a handful of political consultants and pollsters to game out the matchup.

Foul winds for Republicans: With CBS tallying President Bush’s approval rating at a submarine 25 percent in its latest poll, and a hugely unpopular war in Iraq, the GOP brand has about as good a reputation right now as most subprime mortgage lenders.

Mark Mellman, a Democratic pollster, is convinced this toxic climate will spell doom for McCain. “The political environment is extraordinarily conducive to Democrats. The Republicans are going for a third term in the White House — that’s difficult under the best circumstances, and these are not the best circumstances,” Mellman told Salon.

Obama can simply ride this wave of discontent with his message of change. And as seemingly every Democrat has scrambled to do in the last couple of months, Obama can continue to hammer home the idea of “McBush” — the notion that the McCain presidency would be little more than an extension of the current White House.

The challenge will be more difficult for McCain, since he is in the unenviable spot of essentially running against two people: Obama and Bush. Fortunately for McCain, he is better positioned than any other Republican candidate to make the case that he truly represents a break from the Bush years, given his reputation as a maverick. (Of course, that image has been dinged recently as McCain has embraced solidly conservative positions such as extending Bush’s tax cuts.)

“For McCain to win, McCain needs to continue to be loyal to the McCain brand that is unique to him, not George Bush,” says Republican political consultant Dan Hazelwood. Hazelwood adds that McCain must articulate forward-looking plans in areas where Republicans have taken hits: Iraq and the economy. McCain also needs to work hard to illuminate Obama’s positions on major issues. Hazelwood believes Obama is well left of the mainstream, so the more voters get to know him beyond his message of change, the more they will flock to McCain. And Hazelwood’s not the only one in his party making this charge.

It’s the economy — well, you know the rest: With gas prices continually rising, major job losses and weak growth, the economy is the top issue for voters in both parties. Voters trust Democrats more than Republicans on the economy, and, in the latest Washington Post/ABC News poll, Obama holds a commanding 16-point lead over McCain on the issue. Obama seems to have a solid advantage here. But editor Mark Blumenthal says that many voters still don’t have a good sense of the candidates’ prescriptions to bring back growth. That leaves an opening on this potentially all-important issue.

“I’m not sure as perceived by the voters there is a lot of awareness about their economic plans. It’s about how [Obama and McCain] contrast each other and how they link issues that are connected to the economy,” Blumenthal tells Salon.

It’s also worth noting that both have displayed weakness on the issue. McCain has previously admitted that the economy is not his strong point, and during the Democratic primaries Obama appeared to connect with voters on the issue less than Hillary Clinton did. As the Associated Press pointed out in one story, neither of the two presumptive nominees won a majority of the voters in their party who were most worried about the economy.

Organization and key battlegrounds: Blumenthal predicts a “slightly more open” electoral map in this presidential election than in 2004. For example, Obama may have a shot at picking off states Bush won in 2004, such as Virginia and Nevada, while McCain may take states like Michigan and New Hampshire that Kerry carried. MSNBC’s First Read puts 11 states in the “tossup” category.

With a fluid map, organization and fundraising will be especially important to victory in November. In this sense, the epic and bitter Democratic nomination fight may have actually benefited Obama, pollsters say.

“Barack Obama has been to all 50 states and more. He’s learned about local issues and he’s set up effective organizations in each place,” says Mellman, the Democratic pollster.

There have also been reports in recent weeks that GOP insiders are grumbling about the strength of McCain’s organization. Obama has also out-fundraised McCain $265 million to $97 million through April.

On the flip side, Republicans consultants say McCain should emphasize key battleground states such as Florida and Ohio, where they believe Obama may be weak among working-class white voters (although Obama leads most recent polls in Ohio). They also say some of Obama’s important constituents — such as young voters — may have a spotty record of showing up at the polls when November rolls around.

Justin Jouvenal is an editorial fellow at Salon and a graduate student in journalism at New York University.

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