The 3.9 percentage point margin by which President Obama defeated Mitt Romney in 2012 clouds the challenge the Republicans face in 2016. Unless they are able to improve their standing by 5 to 6 points in the key electoral states, they cannot win. Romney got 206 electoral votes (carrying his closest state, North Carolina, by only 2.2 points). To add to this total, much less to bring it up to the 270 needed to win, Republicans must carry a number of states where they lost by 5 or more points in 2012. Here are the closest states that went for Obama in 2012:
• Florida: 29 votes; margin 0.9 points
• Ohio: 18 votes; margin 1.9 points
• Virginia: 13 votes; margin 3.0 points
• Colorado: 9 votes; margin 4.7 points
• Pennsylvania: 20 votes; margin 5.2 points
• Iowa: 6 votes; margin 5.6 points
• New Hampshire: 4 votes; margin 5.8 points
• Nevada: 6 votes; margin 6.6 points
• Wisconsin: 10 votes; margin 6.7 points Note how sharply Obama's margins increase as we scroll down the list to marginal states he carried in 2012. Taking Florida, Ohio, Virginia and Colorado, combined with the ones Romney carried, would suffice to reach a majority. A tall order, indeed.
If the 2016 Republican candidate were merely to close the gap in the popular vote and this were reflected in the swing states he would still lose, getting only 268 of the 270 he needs to win. He has to do better to win. If the vote in swing states reflected the overall national vote, the GOP nominee in 2016 would need to win by 2 points in order to eke out a bare electoral majority. A George W. Bush 2000 performance would not cut it (Bush lost the popular vote to Al Gore by 0.5 percentage points). Even the 2004 margin by which Bush defeated John Kerry, 2.4 points, would prove only barely adequate, representing a 5.4-point swing.
The results of 2014 give Republicans hope as they contemplate the electoral map. They carried Iowa, Colorado, Florida, Ohio and came very close in Virginia. So scaling the electoral mountain is quite possible for a Republican.
In this context, we Republicans must look for a candidate who brings an electoral vote edge with him. In a sense, the criterion that normally governs the selection of a vice president must now intrude into our choice for president.
Jeb Bush brings with him obvious strength in Florida, where he served as a popular governor for two terms. Similarly, Sen. Marco Rubio would have an edge in that state. But any Republican has got to win Florida to have a chance, and just winning Florida would leave him far behind nationally.
Similarly, John Kasich's edge in Ohio simply helps a Republican win a state he has to carry but that would still leave him shy of the 270 he needed (assuming he carried both Florida and Ohio).
Only Scott Walker of Wisconsin appears to offer the chance for a decisive shift in the electoral vote. Having won election twice and survived a statewide recall vote, his ability to carry a state Romney lost is pretty well established. Were Walker able to carry Ohio, Florida and Wisconsin, he would need only seven more electoral votes to win, which he could pick up in Virginia or Colorado.
Viewed another way, a Hispanic Republican candidate would give the party a much better shot at Colorado's nine votes and Nevada's six, in addition, of course, to Florida's 29.
But without Wisconsin or Hispanic candidate, the electoral challenge is daunting, indeed.