By Chris Cillizza
The Washington Post
There's little question that come Nov. 6 President Barack Obama won't equal the 365 electoral votes that the then-candidate Obama won in the 2008 election.
But the bigger and more important question when it comes to the electoral college conversation is whether former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney can come close to replicating the path to victory that then-President George W. Bush took during his 2004 reelection race. At the moment that looks like a dicey proposition, and that should make Republicans very nervous.
Let's start with the Bush map that delivered him 286 electoral votes and a second term. Bush won 31 states - a sum that included victories in the following swing states: Nevada, Colorado, New Mexico, Iowa, Ohio and Florida. Those five wins gave Bush 73 electoral votes and the presidency.
If Romney was able to exactly follow Bush's 2004 winning map, he would wind up with 292 electoral votes - due to population changes reflected in the decennial reapportionment of congressional seats in 2011 - but that scenario seems unlikely.
New Mexico and its five electoral votes will go for Obama. In Iowa, a state the Romney team had real hopes of winning, those hopes have faded somewhat with a new NBC/Marist/Wall Street Journal poll showing Obama up eight points, and even GOP operatives privately conceding the state is not moving in their direction.
Subtract New Mexico and Iowa from Romney's total and he drops to 281 electoral votes - still enough for him to win. But that's not the full picture. Poll after poll shows Romney steadily behind - in mid-single-digits - in Ohio. Subtract Ohio (as well as New Mexico and Iowa) from Romney's attempt to re-create the Bush map and he drops to 263 electoral votes and loses.
And that's not even considering the fact that the three other swing states Bush won in 2004 - Colorado, Florida and Nevada - are, at best, toss-up races right now for Romney. (A new independent poll in Florida released over the weekend showed Obama at 48 percent among likely voters to Romney's 47 percent.)
Or the fact that some states that President Bush never worried about - Virginia and North Carolina in particular - are quite competitive; a new Washington Post poll shows Obama with a statistically significant lead over Romney in Virginia. (Democrats insist they have data that shows Arizona to be a low single-digit race, but we remain unconvinced Obama can win there after losing it in 2008.)
The other problem for Romney when it comes to comparing Bush's 2004 map with his own blueprint for 2012 is that while there are plenty of states that Bush won where Romney will or could lose, there are very few states that Bush lost where Romney looks to come out on top.
Wisconsin is Romney's best chance to turn a blue state in 2004 into a red state in 2012. Obama's trip to Milwaukee on Saturday - his first since February - suggests that his campaign may be worried about the numbers but, again, the latest independent polling in the Badger State pegs Obama to a mid-single-digit lead. New Hampshire is another state Romney, who spent four years as governor of neighboring Massachusetts, could turn blue to red in 2012.
Aside from those two states, there is little evidence that Romney can or will expand the Bush 2004 map. That failure to expand begins (and could well end) in Pennsylvania and Michigan, two massive electoral-vote treasure troves that Republicans thought might move in their direction this year due to the economic difficulties that have affected the entire Rust Belt region. Romney's close personal ties to Michigan also gave Republicans some hope that this year would be different for them.
Put Pennsylvania (20 electoral votes) or Michigan (16 electoral votes) into Romney's column and all of the sudden a loss in Ohio is nullified; if Romney won Ohio and Michigan, it would all but cancel out defeats in Iowa, New Mexico and Nevada.
But victory for Romney in either Pennsylvania or Michigan seems remote at the moment, a reality that when coupled with the gains Obama has made from the 2004 Bush victory map makes one thing abundantly clear: If Romney is to win in November, he must run an increasingly narrow electoral college gauntlet to do so.
While threading that needle is, obviously, not out of the question, Romney's current electoral vote ceiling is - at best - in the mid 280s, a no-room-for-error map that no candidate wants to face six weeks before an election.