I've read a lot of conservative commentators lately who believe that just about any Republican nominee can whip Obama next year fairly handily.
It may indeed work out that way. Things may be so rotten by election day 2012 that Obama will be lucky to crack 100 electoral votes.
But as Chris Cillizza points out, despite near record low approval numbers and other factors working against him, Obama still has several paths through the electoral vote minefield to re-election:
"Although Obama has historically awful numbers, it still requires a herculean effort to defeat him," said Steven Law, the president of American Crossroads, a conservative group pledging to spend upward of $200 million on the race. "He will have the resources to contest and even give up huge chunks of territory - Florida, Ohio, Virginia and North Carolina - and still win."
To understand how Obama can maintain that edge - despite opinion polls showing that a majority of Americans think the country is on the wrong track and disapprove of the job he is doing - you need to start with the fact that he won 365 electoral votes in 2008, the largest haul since President Bill Clinton's 1996 reelection.
Obama won three states - Indiana, North Carolina and Virginia - that no Democrat had carried at the presidential level in at least two decades, and he scored victories in six other states (Colorado, Florida, Iowa, Nevada, New Mexico and Ohio) that George W. Bush had won in 2004. Those nine states will account for 112 electoral votes in 2012 and stand at the center of the fight for the presidency.
If Obama loses every one of them but holds on to the others he won, he will drop to 247 electoral votes and Republicans will win the White House. (The decennial reapportionment of congressional districts after the 2010 Census subtracts six electoral votes from states Obama won in 2008.)
But with the exception of Indiana and its 11 electoral votes, Obama is very much in the game in those states. In several, even Republicans acknowledge that he is favored.
I think the GOP basic strategy should be to keep Obama on the defensive, trying to protect some of those states he won in 2008 but are toss-ups today; Nevada is very close as is New Mexico; Iowa is leaning Obama but still a trouble spot. North Carolina is leaning GOP as is Virginia. And then there are the biggies: Pennsylvania, Wisconsn, and Michigan with their 46 electoral votes. The GOP is very competitive in all of those states -- states Obama must have to win. A GOP sweep of those rust belt states would mean certain victory.
So even though Cillizza makes some good points and his analysis is sound, the election will probably hinge on a few rust belt states and 2 or 3 other battleground states where the GOP has a decided advantage. Obama may have many paths to victory, but they will all have to pass through Lansing, Madison, and Harrisburg.