Tuesday, September 23, 2008

The Electoral College from a Different Angle

The other day one of FHQ's loyal readers, SarahLawrenceScott, proposed an alternate way of looking at the presidential race and for mapping the trends to the electoral college. State-by-state trial-heat polls are still the data of choice, but what Scott has done is to set the lines of demarcation between different states based on the 50% threshold in Pollster's averages in the time since McCain became the presumptive Republican nominee following the March 4 contests.

There are two basic questions being asked:
1) Is one of the candidates above the 50% mark in a state currently?

2) Has one of the candidates been the only one to surpass 50% in Pollster's average in a state any reputable state poll?

If the answer is yes to both, then that implies there has been some consistency to the candidate being or having been over 50% in those averages. Those are the states that are designated solid states for either McCain or Obama.

If the answer to the second question is yes but the answer to the first question is no, that state is a lean state. In other words, there is some potential there for one of the candidates to cross that threshold. It has happened before. However, that support has either waned and is dormant or is latent in the current period.

If the answers to both questions are no, then that state is a toss up according to this metric. In this scenario, neither candidate has demonstrated the level of support in the polls to translate to an outright win in the state. As Scott puts it:
"The idea is that if a state consistently polls 50-47, regardless of the methodology of the poll or the state of the national race, it's very hard for the trailing candidate to win. But if a state has a lot of polls like 46-40, but the leading candidate never breaks 50, the trailing candidate has a chance."
He adds:
"There are two different ways a state can end up a toss-up. One is to have neither candidate reach 50 in any poll since McCain became the presumptive nominee. The other is to have both candidates do it, but to have neither break 50 in the pollster.com average."
So where do each of the states fall? Well, Scott provided us with a list, but that wasn't good enough for me. I like to see these things; preferably on a map. [As an aside, if Chad Johnson can legally change his name to Chad Ocho Cinco, then perhaps I should consider a new moniker myself. Josh Mapmaker, perhaps. Ooh, or the hyphenated version, Josh Map-Maker. But I digress...] Here's how the map looks:
[Click Map to Enlarge]

All of the toss up states (the states in white) have been or are toss up states by FHQ's estimate. The exception is West Virginia, where a large swath of undecideds continues to cloud the picture in the Mountain state. As Scott admits, though there is a caveat to the West Virginia result:
"It's true McCain broke 50 in late February, which is just before my cut-off, so it could easily be called a McCain lean. But still, I agree with Josh that Obama should have put some more resources there. Maybe it's not too late."
Hey, if you're the Obama campaign, sending in Bill and/or Hillary Clinton should be a top priority, strategically speaking. Clinton was the last Democrat to carry the state. Is it too late in West Virginia? I don't know, but any Obama effort there is akin to the efforts being made by the GOP to catch up in areas where they are lagging in the ground game. Improbable, but not necessarily impossible.

But how about the two distinctions Scott makes within the toss up category?
"Nevada and West Virginia fall in the first category [neither McCain nor Obama has reached 50% in individual polls]; Ohio, Virginia, New Mexico, and New Hampshire in the second [the 50% line was crossed by both candidates in individual polls but not in the Pollster average]. The first two may be toss-ups because they are underpolled. That second group of four are true battlegrounds--at some point, by some methodology, a poll suggested that each candidate had a victory in hand, regardless of how undecideds break. But Obama hasn't done that in Ohio since June, and McCain hasn't done that in New Mexico or New Hampshire since April. That would suggest that they have the potential to go to either candidate if circumstances changed, but if the election were held today, Ohio would be a McCain lean while New Mexico and New Hampshire would be Obama leans.

"That leaves Virginia. Virginia has had each candidate break 50 in the last week, and at least twice since the conventions. It has also had each candidate break 50 in polls from the same pollster: SurveyUSA. Under this way of looking at things, that makes Virginia ground zero, the one true, get-out-the-vote type neutral battleground. In 2000, it was Florida; in 2004, Ohio; this time, it's Virginia, as improbable as that would have sounded a year ago."
Finally, it is...
"[a]lso notable that Colorado is an Obama lean but New Mexico is a toss-up. Obama winning Colorado and losing New Mexico is not a popular parlay, but it's not out of the question.

"Those are the most notable surprises, although there are a few others that caught my eye (Maine and North Dakota are safe, New Jersey, Arkansas, and Washington not entirely so."
Of course, with the polling out over and since the weekend, Obama is right up against the 50% mark in New Mexico. And if Obama wins the blue states on the map above and adds New Mexico, that gets him to 269 electoral votes. The Illinois senator would be assured of at least a tie and would have to pick up any one of the remaining five white states to secure a victory. Conversely, McCain would have to sweep the toss up states on that map just to get to 274 electoral votes. And that is a tall order. Suddenly, McCain partisans are asking for the more palatable scenarios described on FHQ's standard map and Electoral College Spectrum.

Let me add a special note of thanks to Scott for a solid contribution to our efforts here at FHQ. This is a nice addition to our understanding of the direction of this campaign.

Recent Posts:
About Those Zogby Interactive Polls...(The McCain Bounce Revisited)

The Electoral College Map (9/22/08)

Today's Agenda


SarahLawrenceScott said...

...and thanks to you Josh, for featuring this and making the spiffy map.

One correction, though to the methodology:

The second question is actually:

"Has one of the candidates been the only one to surpass 50% in any reputable poll?"

If I'd used the pollster.com average for the second question, I'd have very few lean states, and that would mostly depend on getting a 50+ result early, rather than recently, which doesn't seem to be a good criterion.

Josh Putnam said...

Oops. I'll make the change. And yeah, that would constrain your middle category.

SarahLawrenceScott said...

It's been about two weeks, so I figured it was time to update this map. Here are the changes:

Obama lean to Obama solid: NJ, OR, WA
Toss-up to Obama lean: NV
McCain lean to toss-up: FL, NC

McCain lean to McCain solid: AR, MT
Toss-up to McCain lean: WV

New totals:

Solid Obama: 197
Obama lean: 72
Toss up: 84
McCain lean: 27
McCain solid: 158

Obama lean+solid: 269
McCain lean + solid: 185

Commentary: There are more toss-up EV's than previously, not less, but all of the gain came out of McCain's lean totals. In addition, Nevada moves out of toss-up status toward Obama, and New Mexico stands right on the edge of doing so.

Josh Putnam said...

Awesome! If I've got time tonight, I'll change the map to reflect these changes and put it in a new post.