Let’s consider exactly how bad things look right now for John Kerry in the Electoral College, by looking over RealClearPolitics’ state-by-state battleground poll averages. Bush, of course, starts with a historical advantage: he needs 269 electors to tie, 270 to win, and if he holds the 2000 “red states,” he gets 278. On the RCP scoreboard, Bush gets 291 if you count the states where his average margin is at least 3 points over Kerry.
With Ohio drifting away from Kerry and Wisconsin looking firmly planted in the Bush camp, Kerry’s hopes are now totally dependent upon wresting Florida from Bush, while holding on to big battlegrounds like Pennsylvania (Kerry by 1.7), Minnesota (tied), Oregon (Kerry +0.7), and New Jersey (Kerry +1.4) (Michigan, at Kerry +5 now looks fairly safe for Kerry barring another big shift in the dynamics of the race).
But, leaving aside the issue of Maine and possibly Colorado splitting their electoral votes, consider this outcome – even if Florida gets away from Bush, he could still win with the following states:
AL (9), AR (6), AK (3), CO (9), AZ (10), NM (5), GA (15), MO (11), ID (4), NV (5), IN (11), NC (15), KS (6), OH (20), KY (8), WV (5), LA (9), WI (10), IA (7), NH (4), MS (6), MT (3), NE (5), ND (3), OK (7), SC (8), SD (3), TN (11), TX (34), UT (5), VA (13), WY (3)
That’s 273 electors, with Bush needing only to hold one red state that’s close (New Hampshire, at +1.7), pick up one blue state that’s close (New Mexico, Kerry +0.5), one that’s trending Bush (Iowa, Bush +3.6), and one that’s not close (Wisconsin, Bush +6.5), and he wins even if Florida (Bush +3.4) slides away and he can’t replace it with another big state.
None of which means the race is over. But it means that a strategy of targeting states is almost entirely doomed for Kerry (although he does need to keep defending states like New Mexico). Kerry needs to change the race’s overall dynamic. The debates are all but his last chance to do that.