Obama's 2012 Battlegrounds

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To Burton, these results dramatize the durability of the basic electoral alignment that has shaped recent presidential elections. "There's a stability to the structure of presidential politics and the shifts are not as huge as the [fluctuation in the] day-to-day national approval ratings of the president," Burton said.

Overall, the states (plus the District) in which Obama's approval rating reaches the bellwether 50 percent level will cast 211 Electoral College votes. His approval rating exceeds his disapproval rating in another six states totaling 90 Electoral College votes: In addition to Rhode Island and Pennsylvania, that list includes Iowa, Georgia, Florida, and North Carolina. (North Carolina, which Obama carried by only about 14,000 votes, again divides almost exactly in half, with Obama's approval rating at 46.2 and his disapproval at 46.1.) In 2008, Obama won each of those states except Georgia, where he finished with 47 percent despite spending little money.

Obama's situation looks more precarious in several states that he won last time. In addition to Oregon, his approval rating now trails his disapproval rating in New Hampshire (where just 40 percent approve), Indiana (42 percent), Colorado and Nevada (44 percent), Ohio (45 percent), New Mexico, and Virginia (each 46 percent).

The states on the bubble in Gallup's polling -- those where Obama's approval and disapproval ratings are most closely balanced -- fall almost entirely into two baskets that reflect the changing nature of both parties' national coalitions.

The first is filled with Rust Belt and Midwestern states crowded with the kind of older and blue-collar white voters who are moving sharply toward the GOP; that list includes Ohio, Pennsylvania and Iowa. Neil Newhouse, the pollster for Republican front-runner Mitt Romney, says that those states represent prime targets of opportunity for the GOP in 2012, along with demographically similar Michigan and Wisconsin, where Obama's approval rating stands exactly at 50 percent. "There is real potential to expand the playing field there," Newhouse said. "What Democrats did to us in the 2008 election, which was expand the playing field and put us on defense, there is at least the opportunity for us to do the same to them in the blue-collar, white Midwest states."

The second basket of places on the bubble is filled with diverse, well-educated states that reflect a Democratic coalition increasingly reliant on the votes of minorities, young people and socially liberal college-educated whites, especially women. That list includes Colorado, Virginia, North Carolina, Florida, Nevada, New Mexico, and, potentially Arizona, and Georgia.

In the past, Democrats have viewed those states as valuable, but not indispensable, in constructing an Electoral College majority. In 2012, though, Obama may find it impossible to draw a winning map without capturing several of them, especially if his weakness among blue-collar whites allows Republicans to crack blue-wall states such as Wisconsin, Michigan, or Pennsylvania. Privately, for instance, most Democratic strategists now consider Florida a much better bet for the president in 2012 than Ohio, which Democrats previously have treated as more essential. As each party's coalition evolves, Democratic hopes in national elections may increasingly turn on states shaped by the same tidal forces that Obama himself embodies: increasing diversity and rising education levels.

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Scott Bland contributed

Image credit: Brian Snyder/Reuters

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Ronald Brownstein is Atlantic Media's editorial director for strategic partnerships. More

Ronald Brownstein, a two-time finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for his coverage of presidential campaigns, is Atlantic Media's editorial director for strategic partnerships, in charge of long-term editorial strategy. He also writes a weekly column and regularly contributes other pieces for the National Journal, contributes to Quartz, and The Atlantic, and coordinates political coverage and activities across publications produced by Atlantic Media.

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