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Electoral College Watch I: Obama 317, McCain 221

You can look at national popular vote polls if you choose to.

You can look at national popular vote polls if you choose to. (They generally show Barack Obama with a consistent but certainly not insurmountable lead; the current average of polls maintained by Real Clear Politics has it Obama 48.3 to John McCain’s 40.8).

But, of course, the presidential election is really 51 separate elections. (That’s 50 states plus the District of Columbia. And yes, you can run that number up to 56 by taking into account the two states, Nebraska and Maine, that aren’t winner take all and therefore have a separate race in each congressional district.) But the point is that electoral votes that matter. So I propose an occasional check-in.

If I find a better way to measure the state of the race for electoral votes, I’ll adjust. But for now, I’m going with the geniuses at Real Clear Politics. They look at state-by-state presidential trial heat polls. Then they post two maps. But first, please, make sure to take what follows with a great deal of salt, not only because of the inherent vagaries of the polls and the overall exercise but also because the campaign has only just begun. OK? Salt. You promise? Then here goes:

On the first map, they create five categories: solid blue for states with a big Obama lead (91 electoral votes as of Tuesday afternoon), light blue for a smaller Dem lead (147 EV), bright red for McCain’s best states (93 EV), pink for Repub leaners (70) and grey for the closest toss-up states (11 states, 137 EV). If you give both sides their leaners, you get Obama: 238; McCain: 163; toss-up 137.

If you look at the states that are already colored red or blue, you’ll note that one state that President Bush carried in 2004 , Iowa (7 EV), is colored light blue. No states that John Kerry carried are any shade of red. And speaking of Iowa, you’ll note that the three upper-Midwest states that are often described as forming some kind of key swing region, Minnesota (10), Wisconsin (10) and Iowa, are all light blue, not rated as swing states at the moment.

The 11 toss-ups, in electoral vote order, are:

Florida (27 EV); Ohio (20); Michigan (17); North Carolina (15); Virginia (13); Indiana (11); Missouri (11); Colorado (9); New Mexico (5); Nevada (5); New Hampshire (4).

The really scary thing about this list, for Republicans, is that only two of them (Michigan and New Mexico) were Kerry states in 2004. That means nine of them, worth a combined116 of the 137 toss-up electoral votes, are states where the Repubs have to play defense. They would have to turn almost all of them red to get to the 270 electoral votes necessary to win. (This is a little like the situation in the Senate races, where nine of the 10 tightest races are for seats currently held by Republicans.)

Another view
But the folks at Real Clear decided to show another version of the map, in which every state is assigned to whichever party is ahead in the most recent polls, no matter how small the lead. This of course makes a mockery of margin of error caution and requires entire salt mines. But still…

In that version of the map, if the election were held today and every state was won by the party that is currently ahead no matter how small their polling lead, it comes out: Obama 317, McCain 221.

On this map, McCain does not pick up a single state that was carried by Kerry in 2004, while Obama carries Ohio (20), Indiana !!!! (11), Virginia (13), Missouri (11) and Colorado (9).

The Obama leads in Indiana, Virginia, Missouri and Colorado are small, well within the margin. In Indiana, Obama leds only in one recent poll so I don’t think RCP should really shade it blue. But in the RCP average of several recent Ohio trial heats, Obama leads by 47.0-41.7.

As they plot their general election strategies, McCain faces a very daunting map.

Late update: The L.A. Times this morning published a national horserace poll taken Friday through Monday. With Obama and McCain the only choices, Obama leads by an impressive 49-37 margin. When likely voters were offered four choices who will be on the ballot in many states — Obama, McCain, independent Ralph Nader and Libertarian Party Nominee Bob Barr — Obama’s lead grew to 48-33. Nader received support from 4 percent, Bar from 3 percent.

In the writeup of the poll, the Times said that most of those who supported Nader and Barr were independents who had said they supported McCain when Obama and McCain were the only two choices offered. On several measures of enthusiasm, the poll find Obama supporters considerably more fired up about their candidate than McCain supporters were about theirs. It’s difficult to find the good news for McCain anywhere in the current polling picture. But remember, it’s just the current polling picture. Salt.