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States' Party Allegiances Shifty

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

As they watch what Congress does, the presidential candidates are also watching the electoral map. Win the right number of states with the right number of electoral votes, and you get to the White House. NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson is going to help us draw what the electoral map looks like right now. Good morning, Mara.

MARA LIASSON: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: Okay. So, in 2000, Florida was the decisive state; in 2004, it was Ohio. What about 2008?

LIASSON: Well, Ohio and Florida are still going to be important, but there's going to be a lot more going on. Just look what McCain and Obama are doing this week. Obama was just in Wisconsin, and over the next four days he's going to be doing events in Ohio, Pennsylvania and Michigan. And it's not just geography; the candidates are also looking to raid each other's demographic territory.

Obama is reaching out to seniors in Ohio today at an event. And tomorrow, John McCain will be holding a virtual town hall meeting with independents and former supporters of Hillary Clinton - meaning women.

INSKEEP: And I guess this gets back to this map because it's been very close in the last couple of elections. If you can grab a couple of the other guy's base states, you're in great shape. What are a couple of states where Democrats think they might be able to make a difference this year?

LIASSON: Well, take a look at the first two state Barack Obama visited after he clinched the nomination: Virginia, which hasn't voted for a Democratic president in, I think, more than 40 years, and North Carolina. Now, Virginia has been turning purple. It has a Democratic governor, it has a new Democratic senator, but it is extraordinary to think of North Carolina as a swing state, and maybe in the end it won't be one.

But the point is that Obama has the money to speculate in states like North Carolina. His campaign says he'll have staff in all 50 states, some of that symbolic, but even if he can't win a state, he can help make it competitive for Democrats down-ballot.

Take Georgia. The Obama campaign figures there are 600,000 unregistered, eligible, African-American voters there, and they're going to be trying to register them. The Democrats are also looking at the Mountain West, three states in particular: Nevada, Colorado, New Mexico. It's no accident that the Democrats decided to hold their convention in Denver this summer. And Obama is focusing on Iowa, where he put down deep organizational roots and where he had his first big victory.

INSKEEP: Does Obama have to win, when you do the math, have to win a few of those states in order to be assured of winning the presidency, Mara?

LIASSON: Probably, probably yes.

INSKEEP: And then what about John McCain? Are there places that he really can be competitive where some other Republican in past years wouldn't be?

LIASSON: Yes, first of all New Hampshire, a state that's been turning blue but where McCain spent so much time this winter he could probably qualify as a resident. He's also eyeing Michigan, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Wisconsin, Minnesota, all those upper Midwest states, big industrial states, where McCain would like to take advantage of Obama's weaknesses with white, working-class voters.

He's also going to fight hard in the Mountain West. That's his home region. He's very competitive with Hispanics, more than another Republican would be because of his stand on immigration reform.

I think McCain would like to make New Jersey and California competitive. Those are two states where a relatively moderate Republican like him could do well, but it's - both of them are probably way too expensive for a candidate who will be taking the $84 million in public financing this year. Obama, of course, expected to drop out of that system and have virtually unlimited funds.

INSKEEP: Way too expensive, you're talking about some of the biggest media markets in the country that he'd have to spend money…

LIASSON: Yes, yes, exactly - especially California.

INSKEEP: And he doesn't have the money to speculate in the way that you feel that Obama will have the money to speculate in those states.

LIASSON: That's right.

INSKEEP: Okay. Now when we look at this map, we think in terms of red and blue states. That's the way we've been encouraged to think in recent years. And if I were to simplify a little bit, you've got blue on the coasts, for the most part, and in the Northeast, and you've got red in the middle. Do you think that by November, the map is going to look that way again in 2008?

LIASSON: I think it's not going to be a radically new map, but there are going to be some changes. The biggest change is the Democrats have a larger playing field than they have in the past, more opportunities, but it's still true that a Republican, John McCain, has to probably win both Ohio and Florida to get to the White House. Obama has to win both Pennsylvania and Michigan to get to the White House.

But the most important thing to remember is we are now entering the period where electoral math matters. National polls are helpful, but the map is what matters. That's how we elect a president. So, go to your political Web sites that have interactive maps, including ours, and try to figure out how each of these candidates gets to the magic number of 270 votes. What combination of states adds up to that magic number?

INSKEEP: And we'll also be listening to the counting of NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson. Mara, thanks as always.

LIASSON: Thank you, Steve.

INSKEEP: And you can see that map that she referred to by going to NPR.org.

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INSKEEP: You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.
Mara Liasson is a national political correspondent for NPR. Her reports can be heard regularly on NPR's award-winning newsmagazine programs Morning Edition and All Things Considered. Liasson provides extensive coverage of politics and policy from Washington, DC — focusing on the White House and Congress — and also reports on political trends beyond the Beltway.