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Hope: The Sequel

Back in December, Messina laid out publicly the ways that advantage gives Obama an upper hand when it comes to the Electoral College: four mathematical scenarios by which he could get to 270 while underperforming 2008. (A fifth scenario involved him expanding the playing field, about which more in a moment.) The safe presumption underlying each is that Obama holds the nineteen states plus the District of Columbia that John Kerry won in 2004—which, recall, did not include Colorado, Florida, Indiana, Iowa, New Mexico, North Carolina, Ohio, or Virginia, all of which Obama carried in 2008, giving the president a base of 246 electoral votes. There’s the western path: Obama holds Colorado, New Mexico, Nevada, and Iowa for a total of 272. There’s the midwestern path: Obama holds Ohio and Iowa (270). There’s the southern path: Obama holds North Carolina and Virginia (274). And there’s the Florida path, in which Obama simply again takes the Sunshine State (275).

I ask Messina if all four avenues are still open. “Absolutely,” he replies. “The West path is completely operative. The Midwest is there; I believe that we’ll carry Ohio and Iowa. We lead in Virginia and North Carolina today; so that pathway’s there. We are tied in Florida; so that pathway’s there.”

Messina and I were talking a few days before Obama’s gay-marriage decision, which, because of its impact in Iowa and North Carolina, would leave his people feeling more pessimistic about both the midwestern and southern paths. (And because of the foreclosure crisis and other economic factors, they are worried about Florida, too.) In truth, the most promising of all the routes to 270 is the western one, because of the dominant lead Obama possesses over Romney with Hispanics. Indeed, if you factor in New Mexico, which the president nabbed in 2008 and is considered safe this time, and Virginia, which has a sizable Latino population, a relatively strong economy, and polls consistently showing Obama ahead, he can hit 270 without winning Iowa, Florida, Ohio, New Hampshire, or North Carolina.

This is an amazing fact—and one that throws into stark relief the converse difficulties Romney will have in reaching the magic number. The dauntingness begins with his initial hurdle to surmount: clawing back at least six states Obama won last go-round. Almost all of Romney’s 270 scenarios revolve around a strategy outlined by Karl Rove and dubbed “3-2-1,” in which the GOP reclaims three of the traditionally red states snatched away by Obama (Indiana, North Carolina, and Virginia), wins the two perennial mega swing states (Florida and Ohio), and then snags one more from among those up for grabs.

A senior Obama campaign official scoffs at the notion that Romney could pull off such a feat. “To get there,” he says, “they’ve got to take away either Pennsylvania or Michigan, and they can’t do either one of them. Michigan is a motherfucking joke, to think they can do that, because of what he’s done on the auto stuff. And in Pennsylvania, we have a 900,000-person registration advantage. John Kerry had 250,000; we had 900,000 more Democrats than Republicans on the first day.”

As for the western states, Messina believes Romney’s problems with Hispanics are insoluble, although he, like everyone else on Team Obama, anticipates a vicious ad barrage aimed at depressing Latino turnout. “I expect to see what I’ve seen in the primaries, which is their super-PACs spending an impressive amount of money completely negative,” he tells me. “I expect us to counter that the way Harry Reid did [in his 2010 reelection battle]—with a full discussion of the issues and a huge ground game.”

In truth, the unprecedented flood of dollars that is about to engulf the presidential race—and the near certainty that the majority of them will be spent by the Republicans—is what keeps Messina and his brethren awake at night, gnawing at their fingernails like a pack of feral crystal addicts after a hellacious weeklong binge. And while the Obamans talk assuredly about how the effect of the TV ads can be counteracted by a robust turnout operation, the financial pinch is already being felt in terms of their strategy. When Messina detailed Obama’s pathways to 270, for example, the fifth option involved playing full-out in Arizona, whose large Hispanic population should make it ripe for the picking and where public polling shows Obama and Romney in a dead heat. But that possibility remains on hold, seen as a bridge too far (at least for now) for a campaign that desperately needs to husband its resources.

“The money is a huge problem,” confides a senior campaign maven. “We’ll see how long we can stand it. The money alone can’t beat us, but if we get bad jobs numbers a couple months in a row, then all of a sudden, things could get kinda hairy.”