Electoral College check-in: Obama 301, McCain 227

Been meaning to get back to you on the state of play in the Electoral College. Things have shifted quite a bit since I last checked in in mid-July. There was a brief period in mid-August, just as with the national popular vote polls, when it appeared that John McCain had taken an Electoral College lead. But things now are about back to where they were this summer.

The short version is that Barack Obama holds a solid position. He has a recognizable lead in states worth more electoral votes (EV) than does McCain, but there are enough toss-up states that if McCain got most of those, he could certainly win.

If you examine the polling on the toss-up states, Obama appears to have the easier and more likely path to victory. McCain is not currently ahead in any states that were carried by the Democrats in 2004. Obama leads in four or five states that went for President Bush in 2004 (depending on whose numbers you decide to trust). If he carries the John Kerry ’04 states and most of those four or five Bush ’04 states in which he is now leading, he will reach the 270 EV necessary to become president.

My analysis is based on four Electoral College maps maintained by three different websites. Pollster.com publishes a map with states colored dark or light blue (for solid Dem or slightly Dem), dark or light red, or yellow for tossups. Pollster.com uses a formula that combines several recent polls, giving extra weight to the most recent, and calculates a trend line. At present, this map shows the race:
• Dem: 229 EV (including 182 strong Dem, 47 leaning Dem)
• Repub: 174 EV (158 strong, 16 leaning)
• Toss-up: 135 EV

Real Clear Politics maintains two maps. The first, which uses a similar methodology to Pollster, shows the race:
• Dem: 228 EV (171 strong, 57 leaning)
• Repub: 163 EV (158 strong, 5 leaning)
• Toss-up: 147

As you can see, there is plenty of agreement on the general state of the race. The reason the Dem total is off by one between the two maps is simply that Pollster says Colorado (9 EV) is a toss-up while Wisconsin (10 EV) leans Dem; and RCP says Wisconsin is a toss-up while Colorado leans Dem. The 11 EV difference in the Repub total is because Pollster scores Missouri as pale red, while RCP calls it a toss-up.

Let’s use the Pollster map, which is slightly more favorable to McCain in the total numbers, to explore how the Obama candidacy, and the damage to the Republican brand generally, has changed the landscape as of this moment.

On that map, New Mexico, which Bush carried narrowly in 2004, is colored light blue, evidence of Obama’s success in recent polling among Hispanic voters. Pollster puts the trend line at 49.5-43.3, which must be on the edge of turning dark blue. Iowa, which Bush also carried, is dark  blue, meaning Obama has a solid lead (Pollster says that lead is 52.0-42.2). There are no states that Kerry carried in ’04, nor any that Gore carried in ’04, that are any shade of red.

In other words, before considering the toss-up states, Obama has taken a net 12 electoral votes from the former Repub base. That by itself would not be enough to change the result from ’04. Obama needs a pickup of 18 votes over Kerry’s 2004 total of 252 electoral votes. So to win, he will need to make some additional gains out of the toss-up states.

The list of current toss-ups, as rated by Pollster.com, is very favorable to Obama, not because he stands to win most of them (he doesn’t, according to the latest trend lines) but because they are mostly states that McCain has to win just to hold even.

The old toss-up list
Here are the 10 states from 2004 that were carried by the smallest margins (listed from the closest state on up), how many electoral votes each is worth, who won each that year, by how much, how the state is rated now by Pollster.com, and who’s ahead in the state according to the pollster.com trendline:
1. Wisconsin, 10 EV, Kerry by 0.38%, now leans Obama by 4.4%.
2. Iowa, 7 EV, Bush, 0.67%, now solid Dem, Obama by 9.8%.
3. New Mexico, 5 EV, Bush, 0.79%, now leans Dem, Obama by 6.2%.
4. New Hampshire, 4 EV, Kerry, 1.37%, now tossup, trend is exactly tied.
5. Ohio, 20 EV, Bush, 2.11%, now tossup, McCain by 2.9%.
6. Pennsylvania, 21 EV, Kerry, 2.50%, now tossup, Obama by 3.3%.
7. Nevada, 5 EV, Bush, 2.59%, now tossup, McCain by 1.5%.
8. Michigan, 17 EV, Kerry, 3.42%, now leans Obama by 4.3%.
9. Minnesota, 10 EV, Kerry, 3.48% now tossup, Obama by 3.2%.
10. Oregon, 7 EV, Kerry, 4.16%, now solid Dem., Obama by 7.9%.

So, of the 10 closest states last time, Kerry carried six and Bush four.

Of the six that went for Kerry (Oregon, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Minnesota and New Hampshire), Obama has taken Oregon off the list of tossups and turned it solid blue, Wisconsin and Michigan are also off the current toss-up list, but only leaning toward Obama, Minnesota and Pennsylvania are still rated tossups, but the trend favors Obama very slightly. McCain is not ahead in any of the six, but is exactly tied in New Hampshire.

Of the four states that Bush carried by narrow margins in ’04, Iowa has fallen off the toss-up list and become solid blue, New Mexico has fallen off the list and become a Dem leaner. Ohio and Nevada are still rated tossups but the trend favors McCain very slightly.

So five states have fallen off the list of last cycle’s 10 closest states (and all five are now rated light blue or solid blue).

The new toss-ups
Pollster still rates 10 states as tossups, which means there are five new tossups that weren’t among the 10 closest 2004 states. In order of how close they were last time, they are:
• Colorado, 9 EV, Bush, 4.67%, current Pollster trend favors Obama by 3.0%.
• Florida, 27 EV,  Bush, 5.0%, current Pollster trend favors McCain by 2.1%.
• Virginia, 13 EV, Bush, 8.2% current Pollster trend is exactly tied, 47.7%-47.7%.
• North Carolina, 13 EV, Bush, 12.5%, current Pollster trend favors McCain by 1.5%.
• Indiana, 11, Bush 20.6%, current Pollster trend favors McCain by 2.5%.

The good news for McCain on this list is that he is ahead in three of the five, including the enormously important Florida with its 27 electoral votes, tied in Virginia, and trailing only in Colorado.

The good news for Obama is that these are all states that Bush carried in ’04 that Obama has put into play this year, including states that Bush won by double digits. They are all potential Dem pickups. And Obama has led in eight of the last nine trial heat polls run in Colorado.
The bad news for McCain is that he needs all five of them. The more he has to spend resources on keeping red states red, the less he can spend on turning any blue states red.

If you were to hold the rest of the 2004 map even and just transfer Iowa (now rated solid blue) New Mexico (leaning blue) and Colorado (tossup with a trend that favors Obama) to the Dems, that would make the electoral vote Obama-Biden: 273- McCain-Palin: 265.

But two other Electoral College maps go further. (Remember at the top I said I was basing this piece on four maps.)

The no toss-up approach
A guy who calls himself Votemaster (actually Andrew S. Tanenbaum, a professor of computer science) and a second map maintained by Real Clear Politics have virtually eliminated the tossup category and assigned each state based on the most recent poll (in Votemaster’s method) or on an analysis of several recent polls (in the case of Real Clear).

Those two, as of Monday at sundown, showed the electoral breakdown:
• Votemaster: http://www.electoral-vote.com/index.html Obama-Biden: 286- McCain Palin: 252
• Real Clear Politics No Tossup Map: Obama: 301- McCain 237

These are the numbers I used as the slightly sensational title of this piece, but is the best current estimate of the highly regarded folks at Real Clear who do not, by reputation, favor Obama in their hearts.

Votemaster got his total roughly the way I suggested above, giving Obama all the Kerry states, plus the three Bush states in which Obamas now leading (Iowa, New Mexico and Colorado), plus Virginia, where he said he was relying on seven polls released on Thursday.
Real Clear got its even higher Obama margin by giving him Virginia (it says the trend is Obama 48.0, McCain 46.6)   and North Carolina (Real Clear says the trend there is Obama 47.0, McCain 46.3, but Real Clear has only recently been coloring North Carolina blue. I’ll believe it when I see it.)

If anything above suggests that anyone really knows how the electoral vote will come out on the night of Nov. 4, take a breath. No one knows. If Obama were to carry Ohio or Florida (both of which are rated as toss-ups with McCain holding a slight trend), the election will be a Dem rout. If McCain were to snag Pennsylvania (rated toss-up with a slight Obama trend) or Michigan (leaning Dem), then all the math starts over with a greatly increased likelihood of a President McCain.

By the way, if you go back to the minimal Obama success, before Real Clear gave him Virginia and North Carolina, it was 273-265. And if you just flip New Hampshire (4 EV), which everyone agrees is very close, you would get a 269-269 tie. But what say we worry about that another day?

L’shana tova tikatevu (that’s Happy Jewish New Year). And if you’re my mother, I got this written before the sun went down yesterday.

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Comments (4)

  1. Submitted by Brian Simon on 10/01/2008 - 11:33 am.

    For a quick summary of the race, I like electoral-vote.com. The map & score at the top is a clear & concise visual display of the latest polls. More interesting though, is to click on the link to the trend graph. He shows four graphs, the top two representing this race. Graph 1: graphs the red and blue scores, including close races, but not including ties (which are FL, OH & NC today). Graph 2: red and blue scores, excluding slight leads – i.e. show the electoral vote totals for each candidate only counting states where their lead is greater than 5%.

    Graph 2 is shocking.

    Obama has roughly 250 electoral votes in states where his lead is greater than 5%, McCain has roughly 170 in that category. In other words, McCain has to compete – and win – in far more markets than Obama.

    It is also worth noting that some states’ polling data is way out of date. MN is scored on polls from 9/21 – over a week ago. Given the changes we’ve seen in national polls & other states’ polls since then, it is likely that MN has changed significantly in the last week.

  2. Submitted by Erik Ostrom on 10/02/2008 - 10:54 am.

    Nate Silver from fivethirtyeight.com thinks RCP is cherry-picking its data to support Republicans:


    He’s a competitor (and a Democrat), so obviously he might be biased, but it’s worth considering.

  3. Submitted by Jim Meyer on 10/02/2008 - 03:16 pm.

    I am writing a few days after this article was published. Reports are that McCain is folding his campaign in Michigan which astounded me. I came back to reference this article, which made Michigan sound like it was more contested than a virtual surrender would indicate. As a previous comment(at)or notes, are the polls behind the times of even more recent shifts? I, myself, still wonder about people who may answer a poll differently than they vote. I grew up in Minneapolis but moved to a south burb bordering the farmlands and small towns that seem like an OCEAN of GOP/Coleman/Kline support. Am I reading too much into a preponderance of ENORMO lawn signs on the hilltops and grass banks, or is there invisible support for Obama out there somewhere. Even if there isn’t, how big would the rural/suburban sweep have to be for McCain and Palin to offset O-Biden’s urban advantage (an ocean of blue) and spring an upset in this or other hot states. 80%? 90%? It feels absolutely overwhelming right now. Is this Prez race just a battle in turning out the core raw demographic numbers, or is it actually more fluid and issue oriented?

  4. Submitted by Erik Ostrom on 10/02/2008 - 06:58 pm.

    Jim, here’s a press release from PPP about their latest Michigan poll, conducted earlier this week, which gives Obama a 51/41 lead (with 8% undecided):


    Basically they think Obama is winning voters due to a struggling economy, and McCain is losing a short-lived Sarah Palin boost.

    Michigan’s been regarded as a possible pickup for McCain, but if you look at Pollster.com’s tracker, he’s never actually been ahead in the state:


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