For the past two presidential election cycles, the red/blue map that has been drilled into our heads has remained stubbornly consistent. In fact, just three states changed hands between 2000 and 2004 -- New Hampshire, Iowa and New Mexico. And we're all conditioned to recite the "traditional battleground states," with particular emphasis on Florida and Ohio, the states which played a starring role in the past two contests.
But we're only beginning to discover what this year's battleground map may look like with two candidates very different from either party's usual offerings and who have appeal that could reach well beyond the past landscape. We'll be taking a longer, deeper look at the map in weeks to come but two examples jump out indicating what a different year this could be – and what an uphill climb John McCain may end up facing in his quest for 270 Electoral Votes.
It's no mistake that Barack Obama headed to Virginia right after effectively wrapping up the nomination (or why McCain was there yesterday). The Old Dominion has been a reliably Republican state for a generation but has become a real hotspot for Democrats recently, fueled by the growing suburban population in Northern Virginia. The state has elected two consecutive Democratic governors, holds one Senate seat and is heavily favored to take the second one this fall as former governors Mark Warner and Jim Gilmore face off.
The fact that all three of the state's leading Democrats – Warner, Sen. Jim Webb and Gov. Tim Kaine – are often touted as contenders for higher office demonstrates the hopes their party has for turning it from red to blue.
In the west, Colorado will be another relatively new battleground. It wasn't long ago that Republicans had something of a hammerlock on the state. But, like Virginia, it's trended Democratic in recent years across the board. The state has experienced large growth in the suburbs of Denver and these are the swing voters who tilted toward President Bush in the past two presidential elections but could be ripe for the taking for Obama this time around.
Democrats have taken back the governor's seat and appear poised to complete a sweep of the Senate seats this year after Sen. Ken Salazar was elected in 2004. Rep. Mark Udall is a favorite in this year's race to replace Sen. Wayne Allard. Unlike Virginia, Colorado has a history of ideological swings. This is the state that not that long ago elected Democrats like Gary Hart, Tim Wirth and Richard Lamm.
For McCain, there aren't obvious counterweights to states like Virginia and Colorado. New Hampshire is one place his campaign will target and McCain has shown his strength among Independents who make up a large part of the state's electorate. He will look to Pennsylvania, Michigan, Minnesota and other "blue" states for an opportunity but none of them present the sorts of trends that put them in the category of likely pickups.
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