For regular readers of these descents into electoral junkie-dom on Sunday Kos, they will note that this is the third installment in a series to determine, somewhat subjectively, what states will be the ones to grab the lion's share of the attention come November. It all started in the summer of 2011, here on Sunday Kos, when I attempted to quantify the level of interest we could expect in the 2012 elections for each state. The top three states were largely where you would expect: Florida, Ohio and North Carolina. But Montana cracked the top 10, as well.
Clearly a lot was going to change as time went on. The redistricting process would play itself out, Senate and gubernatorial elections would have been firmed up, and the race for the White House started to create a more coherent electoral map. Thus, the top 10 states for round #2 of this exercise varied by quite a bit. Montana ceded its spot in the top 10, and California shot up into the top three on the strength of a dozen competitive House races.
So, now, with the clock now tricking down within six months of Election Day, it is time again to revisit the top 10, which has again changed quite substantially.
Before we head through the top 10, however, let's reset the criteria, which has changed a bit courtesy of (yay!) the inclusion of our own race ratings in the downballot races (ratings you can find here):
1. THE RACE FOR THE WHITE HOUSEWith the criteria set, head beneath the fold to find out who makes the top 10. There are two entries in the top 10, and one of them makes its debut, as it happens, in the top five.
As always happens, we can expect Barack Obama's re-election to consume the lion's share of the oxygen in this campaign cycle. So, it is weighted the heaviest. Each state's competitiveness was measured by race ratings offered by Charlie Cook and Stuart Rothenberg (since we have not yet constructed our own presidential race ratings here at Daily Kos Elections). Eight points are awarded for a toss-up, four points for a state described as leaning to one party or the other, two points for a state described as likely to be one party or the other, and one point for a state described as a safe win. The average rating will then be multiplied by a factor related to the state's electoral votes. States with 3-9 electoral votes are multiplied by one, states with 10-19 electoral votes are multiplied by two, and so on.
2. THE RACE FOR THE U.S. SENATE
With Senate control potentially at a knife's edge, the upper chamber in Congress will deservedly get a lot of attention. Thus, our own race ratings here at Daily Kos Elections were used to determine how close each Senate race should be followed. Once again, if a race is defined as a toss-up, it will be worth eight points. If a race is defined as "leaning" to a party (even if it is not the incumbent party), it will be worth four points. A race defined as "likely" to go to a certain party gets two points. A "safe" seats gets a single point. Thus, if a state has a "Leans Democratic" Senate race, its rating for the Senate would add up to four points.
3. THE RACE FOR THE U.S. HOUSE
Count me among those who think House control could also be very easily at a knife's edge. Because it is possible for one state to have multiple races in the mix, the point values here will dissipate a bit: four points for a toss-up, two points for a leaner, and one point for a "likely" rating. The cumulative total for all of a state's races will be factored in, meaning one state could generate well over four points (indeed, the national leader, California, tallied 33 points in the House alone).
4. THE RACE FOR THE STATEHOUSE
For now, this will mean just the gubernatorial races ... For the sake of simplicity, let's offer up the same point values as the Senate races.
Before we hit the top 10, a shout out is due to the now seven electoral entities that tied for last place. What that means, in effect, is that they lack a Senate or gubernatorial campaign, and also lack any competitive House races. On top of all that, their electoral votes are projected to be safe for either Mitt Romney or Barack Obama. So, with all that in mind, welcome the state of Oregon to a list that already included Alabama, Alaska, Idaho, Kansas, Louisiana and Washington, D.C. If you live in those states, start finding a local referendum or a downballot race. It might be one of those rare opportunities where no oxygen will be sucked up further up the ballot.
The two states that barely cracked the top 10 last time bid their farewells to the top 10 this time around. Not much has changed in Illinois, but since the presidential race is a foregone conclusion, and there are no Senate or gubernatorial races, this one slides just outside the top 10 (into a tie for 12th place). More precipitous, however, has been the slide in Missouri. In 6th place last summer, the Show-Me State slid to a tie for 9th place in January, and now dropped all the way down to a tie for 16th place. I blame this, in part, on the tandem of Rothenberg and Cook, who stubbornly continue to see this state as locked down for Mitt Romney. But the declining interest in the gubernatorial race here (where incumbent Democrat Jay Nixon looks safer and safer) also played a role in their slide.
With a hail and a farewell to the departed, let us now move on to those most deserving of states, the "States to Watch on Election Day 2012" top 10:
10th: NEW HAMPSHIRE (last time: NR) with 20 points
For the first time, smallish New Hampshire cracks the top 10, and with no small amount of justification. Not only is the state expected to be awfully close on Election Day at the top of the ticket, but the state boasts a coin-flip open seat race to replace Democrat John Lynch (which has tightened noticeably since January) and both Republican House incumbents are in varying degrees of peril. Plus, though this wasn't counted in the tally, they also boast 400 state legislative races, too!
t-8th: NEVADA (last time: 8) and NORTH CAROLINA (last time: 5) with 22 points
Nevada has been a steady presence in the bottom half of the top ten since the inception of this list. Despite their rather small stature (just six electoral votes), the state is bound to get a ton of attention from both Obama and Romney between now and November. On top of that, the balance of power in the Senate may come down to this late-closing state and the coin-flip race between Republican rookie Sen. Dean Heller and Democrat Shelley Berkley. Add a pair of closely-contested House races, and Nevada has it all. Meanwhile, North Carolina continues to slide a bit, mainly because what seemed like a raft of close House races is now slowed to a trickle, with many once-competitive contests now seen as foregone conclusions. Still, the state might be one of the biggest presidential prizes (at 15 electoral votes and polls showing genuine competitiveness). Plus, the open-seat gubernatorial election might lean to Republican Pat McCrory, but Democratic Lt. Governor Walter Dalton surely has a puncher's chance.
7th: VIRGINIA (last time: 7) with 26 points
Virginia's status as a toss-up on the presidential level, plus the heft that comes with 13 electoral votes, will probably ensure its continued status in the top 10. Indeed, that status is even more secure when you factor in what is arguably the highest-profile Senate race in the country (or, at a minimum, on a par with Brown-Warren in Massachusetts). Virginia could be a top-three state, were it not for the fact that the GOP gerrymander of the state robbed the Commonwealth of any real semblance of competitive races for the House.
t-5th: OHIO (last time: 5) and NEW YORK (last time: NR) with 27 points
Here is another state that went sliding down the charts courtesy of Republican gerrymandering. The Ohio-mander, for all intents and purposes, robbed us of a series of possibly majority-making House races. However, Ohio is going nowhere in the top 10, because it still has a legitimately competitive Senate race (which seems to be creeping in the direction of becoming more, not less, competitive). And, of course, it is everyone's consensus pick as a firewall state for both presidential candidates, neither of whom can afford to piss away the state's 18 electoral votes. New York's electoral votes, meanwhile, are on lockdown for the president. The Senate race is also a lock for the Democrats. So, how did the Empire State find its way into the top 10? The answer, simply put, is found in its role in defining the balance of power in the House. For the first time in a long time, the path to a House majority may run through the states of New York and California. Our Daily Kos Elections House race ratings count no less than a dozen competitive races in New York, with both sides having to defend seats that have historically been safe for them.
4th: PENNSYLVANIA (last time: 1) with 28 points
The Keystone State slides out of the top spot, largely based on what has to be viewed as a far less competitive House environment. Some recruiting failures, as well as the residual effects of what was a pretty powerful GOP gerrymander, led to only one tossup, and four races with any competitive potential at all. A tad mournful, considering that there were no less than eight districts with single digit margins in the past few elections. That, plus the fact that Barack Obama is in incrementally better shape here than it seemed in the winter, slides Pennsylvania down the chart.
3rd: WISCONSIN (last time: 3) with 32 points
As strange as it sounds, Wisconsin is virtually guaranteed to slide down at least 3-4 positions by the next time this top 10 list is generated. That's because one of the highest profile electoral events in the Badger State is coming up next month, rather than November. The toss-up gubernatorial recall election pitting Republican Gov. Scott Walker and Democrat Tom Barrett in a rematch of their 2010 electoral battle will have everyone's attention in just over three weeks. November is not without its intrigue, as well. The state is still on both campaigns' radar screens, plus there is a very closely fought open seat Senate contest where a teabagging could change the calculus of the race enormously. Keep both eyes on Wisconsin for the next 23 days, and then be sure to keep one eye on the Badger State after that.
2nd: CALIFORNIA (last time: 2) with 40 points
There seems to be no chance that Barack Obama will lose the state's 55 electoral votes. Orly freaking Taitz may be the GOP nominee to challenge incumbent Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein. So, why the heck is the Golden State in the runner-up position? Because neither party will win the majority in the House without it. Daily Kos Elections considers 15 of the state's 53 House districts to be competitive, and we count four of them to be tossup races. If the Democrats want Speaker Pelosi, they need to clean up here, and take full advantage of clean shots at previously safe incumbents like Brian Bilbray, Gary Miller and Jeff Denham (Dan Lungren is also imperiled, but he has been in harm's way before). However, Democrats are not without their own targets, trying to shake off some rust and battle in competitive districts. Keep an eye out for people like John Garamendi and Lois Capps, who are going to have to battle in turf far more hostile than to which they are accustomed.
1st: FLORIDA (last time: 4) with 41 points
Florida ... Florida ... Florida. After briefly ceding the top spot to Pennsylvania (in part because of uncertainty over the landscape of the House), Florida is back, and could conceivably be back to stay. Even with the Senate race falling out of "tossup" territory with the partial implosion of GOP frontrunner Connie Mack, the Sunshine State still graces the top spot. There is no closer state nationally, at least in terms of recent polling, at the top of the ballot. The last two polls in the Sunshine State had Mitt Romney up by a single point, and had Barack Obama ahead by a single point. Add to that a House map that actually enhanced the electoral competitiveness of the state, and we have a bunch of reasons to watch Florida in six months' time.