The Gallup state-by-state average approval numbers for 2011 released this week don’t necessarily predict where President Obama will finish on Election Day, but they do measure the hill he must climb to win re-election.

The most important number in presidential elections, of course, is 270 – the number of Electoral College votes it takes to win. The best way to examine the Gallup numbers is to measure them against that yardstick.

In 2010, if you sorted down from Obama’s highest approval rating to his lowest, he could reach 270 Electoral College votes by carrying the 22 states plus the District of Columbia where his approval rating stood at 46.9 percent or more. Since one of the states above that line was Mississippi, a state Obama has almost no chance of carrying in practice, a more realistic scenario was that to reach an Electoral College majority he would have to carry those 21 states plus Virginia, where his approval rating stood at 46.6 percent.

In the 2011 numbers, the situation looks much more difficult for Obama. From 2010 to 2011, Gallup found, his average approval ratings dropped in every state except Connecticut, Maine and (oddly enough) Wyoming. As a result, to reach 270 Electoral College votes based on the 2011 numbers, he would need to win 20 states plus the District of Columbia where his approval rating stands at 44.5 percent or more. Since one of the states above that line is Georgia, which is also a stretch for Obama in practice, to reach 270 he would more likely need to carry Oregon and North Carolina, where his approval ratings stood at 44.5 percent and 43.7 percent, respectively. (It’s worth filing away that the scenario based on either year’s numbers – Virginia and North Carolina  stand right at the tipping point between victory and defeat for Obama.)

In sum then, Obama in 2010 could reach an Electoral College majority by carrying states where his approval rating stood at least at 46.6 percent, something that would be difficult but hardly impossible. To reach a majority based on the 2011 results, he’d need to carry states where his approval stood at 43.7 percent or above. That’s a much more daunting prospect.

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