The Key Counties to Victory for Obama and McCain

Could Ohio, Colorado, Nevada, Missouri, and Michigan be central?

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Chris Stirewalt of the Examiner lists five counties that he says will decide the election. Each voted close to the national average (51 percent to 48 percent Bush) in 2004. My comments on each:

Jefferson County, Colo. Suburbs west of Denver. The inner Denver suburbs have been trending Democratic in recent years, and I expect Jefferson County will trend more that way this year. It voted 63 percent to 36 percent for Obama over Hillary Clinton in the caucus this year, but only 14,000 participated—far fewer than the 271,000 that voted in the 2004 general election. My impression is that this county, like many inner suburbs, is becoming more downscale; the big population growth of young affluent families is to the south, in Douglas County. One problem for Barack Obama is that he may not do well with an expanding Hispanic population.

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  • Washoe County, Nev. Reno and suburbs. Reno has long been the Republican counterbalance to Democratic-leaning Las Vegas, from 1960 (when 107,000 Nevadans voted for president) to 2004 (when 829,000 did). In this year's caucus Obama led Clinton 50 percent to 41 percent.

    Jefferson County, Mo. Suburbs south of St. Louis. This is gritty suburban territory, the boyhood home of Sen. Bill Bradley, whose affluent parents were atypical of the larger population. I think Obama is going to be a hard sell here. In the primary he lost the county to Clinton 60 percent to 35 percent—his worst performance in any of the suburban St. Louis counties.

    Hamilton County, Ohio. Cincinnati and suburbs. I don't think this county belongs on the list. Historically, it's been a Republican bastion, and once upon a time even the city of Cincinnati was. Back in the 1960s and 1970s Cincinnati had vigorous partisan politics, pitting the Republicans against the Charter party founded by Charles P. Taft (brother of Sen. Robert Taft, Sr.); regularly, veterans of the Cincinnati City Council would be elected to one of Cincinnati's two House seats. They included longtime Republican Bill Gradison and Democrat John Gilligan, who in 1970 was elected governor and who is the father of Kansas Governor Kathleen Sebelius, who seems to be on everyone's short list for the Democratic vice presidential spot. But back to Hamilton County. There's been a wave of violent crime in Cincinnati and considerable white flight out of the city and even out of the county, producing bigger Republican margins in exurban Clermont and Warren Counties and a clear Democratic trend in Hamilton County. I expect that trend to continue in November, for demographic reasons. Hamilton County was one of five counties Obama carried in the Ohio primary, and he won by a whopping 63 percent to 36 percent margin.

    Macomb County, Mich. Suburbs northeast of Detroit. Back in the 1980s Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg identified Macomb County as the home of Reagan Democrats, and with good reason. Macomb was one of the few all-suburban counties to vote for John Kennedy in 1960, and it began trending Republican later in the decade. It was growing rapidly at the time, as white ethnics—Poles, Belgians, Germans, Italians—were moving out of Detroit and over 8 Mile into Macomb's southern suburbs. More recent growth has been to the north, and into what are pretty affluent communities. North Macomb—roughly, north of 14 Mile—has been going Republican now for two decades; South Macomb remains fairly heavily Democratic. But not everybody here is a blue-collar worker any more: Greenberg's prototype is less of a prototype than it was when he singled it out 20 years ago. By the way, in Michigan's now half-disallowed primary, Macomb County voted 64 percent for Clinton and 31 percent for "uncommitted." Given Michigan voters' unhappiness with Democratic Gov. Jennifer Granholm's tax increase and their disgust with Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick's shenanigans, Macomb County looks like an uphill slog for Obama.