Here’s a prediction you can take to the bank: In the end, it will come down to the Electoral College. No duh, right?
This is all way premature, but here goes anyway with a basic fact to start our Electoral College deliberations: The Electoral College map in 2004 was almost identical to 2000. John Kerry picked up only one small state (New Hampshire) that Al Gore hadn’t carried. President Bush picked up only two small states (Iowa and New Mexico) that he hadn’t carried in 2000. It was historically unusual for so little to change electorally over four years. So, even though the political environment seems to have changed considerably for the bluer since then, the ’04 map is the starting point for thinking about 2008
The New York Times ran a piece Sunday headlined: “Already, Obama and McCain Map Fall Strategies.” According to the Times’ estimable Adam Nagourney and Jeff Zeleny, the Obama and McCain camps already agree on a list of states that are “clearly in play,” and it includes Minnesota. (Color me skeptical on that one.)
The full list (in alphabetical order, not according to in-play-ness): Colorado, Florida, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, New Hampshire, New Mexico, Nevada, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Virginia, Washington and Wisconsin.
This list is almost identical to the list of the 14 closest popular vote margins in 2004, which went as follows (state, winner, popular-vote margin).
1. Wisconsin, Kerry, 0.38%
2. Iowa, Bush, 0.67%
3. New Mexico, Bush, 0.79%
4. New Hampshire, Kerry, 1.37%
5. Ohio, Bush, 2.11%
6. Pennsylvania, Kerry, 2.50%
7. Nevada, Bush, 2.59%
8. Michigan, Kerry, 3.42%
9. Minnesota, Kerry, 3.48%
10. Oregon, Kerry, 4.16%
11. Colorado, Bush, 4.67%
12. Florida, Bush, 5.01%
13. New Jersey, Kerry, 6.68%
14. Washington, Kerry, 7.18%
The only state on the “clearly in play” in 2008 list that wasn’t among the 14 closest states in 2004 is Virginia, which Bush carried by 8.2 percentage points. The only state from the 2004 list that isn’t on the “in play” list is New Jersey, where the Times piece says the Repubs believe they may have a shot. So, point belabored, for all the political changes in the environment, the battleground starts from where it left off in 2004.
The next thing I note that is that the Repubs don’t start with many juicy pickup opportunities. New Hampshire seems to have a love affair with McCain, so maybe that’s one, although it’s worth only four electoral votes and it seems to be have blued up further since 2004.
But two of those close Kerry wins — Pennsylvania (21 electoral votes) and Michigan (17) — are big electoral vote prizes and neither is considered a special Obama stronghold. If McCain could capture either of those, the impact on the overall electoral math would be large.
From the other side, if the Dems could carry Ohio (20 electoral votes) or Florida (27!), they would erase the entire margin by which Bush won (if the Dems carry both, it’s about over.)
A last bit of math
Bush won the electoral vote 286-252. If McCain holds Florida and Ohio, where do the Dems get 17 electoral votes (which, by the way, would result in a tie). At first glance, the likeliest Dem pickups might be New Mexico (5 electoral votes) and Iowa (7), both of which Bush carried by less than 1%, both of which seem to be trending blue by other indicators (although Arizonan McCain may have a neighborly advantage in New Mexico).
But if the Dems pick up Iowa and New Mexico, the total is still 274-264 for the Repubs. If you add Nevada (5 electoral votes), you get (ulp) a tie.
Colorado, on the other hand, has gone red the last three elections and nine of the last 10, but seems to be trending strongly blue, with a Dem governor, one Dem senator and the other seat projected to turn from red to blue this year. It has nine electoral votes, which would put a dent in the GOP cushion. I know we should ignore the state-by-state matchup polls this far away from November — all the smart people say so. But I looked them up anyway on the excellent pollster.com. There have been five McCain-Obama trial heats in Colorado since February, and Obama has led on three of them (including the most recent), McCain on one, and one was a flat tie.