Sunday, September 7, 2008

The Electoral College Map (9/7/08)

We have had just enough of a trickle of polls released over the last two weeks to have kept FHQ from putting up the same ol' map with no means of change. [And during a change election, too!] I would expect a steady stream to start coming out on Monday -- despite the fact that the recent trend has been away from weekend polling and especially releases -- and by the middle of the week we'll begin seeing a vastly larger number of polls. The conventions are over and state polling, like all the other polling, will kick into overdrive as this presidential race enters the home stretch.

New Polls (Sept. 3-7)
(With Leaners/ Without Leaners)
North Carolina
Democracy Corps

The trickle of polls during the latter half of the week included releases from a trio of McCain states. And that adds a nice symmetry to the week's polls. The first half of the week saw three polls from states favoring Obama. We have to be careful about how we treat the trends we see in each due to the timing of the polls. In other words, Indiana, for example, is close -- closer than one might think -- but it was done in the two days after the Democratic convention. Yes, that is during the time when Sarah Palin's selection was rolled out, but still, the caveat should be added. In the case of the North Carolina poll, it was conducted over the course of a week, the end of which overlapped with the first two days of the Democratic convention. There may, then, be some respondents in the poll who heard Hillary Clinton's speech, but that certainly would have been a late hour for polling firms to have been making their calls. Regardless, this is around where the Old North state has been for much of the summer -- right around the 3 or 4 point range.

Changes (Sept. 3-7)
AlaskaToss Up McCainMcCain lean

And that leaves us with Alaska, the home of the GOP vice presidential selection. The Last Frontier has been much closer in the polls than history would otherwise tell us. With the selection of Governor Sarah Palin, though, that closeness -- real or just simply in the polls -- seems to be disappearing quickly. Granted, this is just one poll, but this trend will likely continue. What else could come out about Palin to shift things back toward Obama, and even if it did, it seems that most people have made up their minds about her. On average, only 17% of respondents in recent favorablility polls which have added in the Alaska governor failed to view her either favorably or not. That is the lowest of any vice presidential nominee over the last three cycles. Palin also has, again on average, the highest favorable and unfavorable ratings among that group of VP selections. Even with all the bombshells thus far, perceptions appear to formed.

[Click Map to Enlarge]

So Alaska moves into the McCain lean area and will likely continue to move even further to the right of the Electoral College Spectrum, becoming even more intensely red. This may change some in the coming weeks, but, as of now, the underlying distribution of electoral votes is the same. There is an equal distribution of electoral votes between the McCain and Obama toss up and lean categories, but the real difference is between the strong categories, where Obama still holds a 70 electoral vote advantage. That is built on California and New York being firmly on Obama's side. But that is a large part of Obama's -- and any Democrat's -- electoral math. The truth remains that Obama is ahead but not irreversibly so.

The Electoral College Spectrum*
*Follow the link for a detailed explanation on how to read the Electoral College Spectrum.
**The numbers in the parentheses refer to the number of electoral votes a candidate would have if he won all the states ranked prior to that state. If, for example, McCain won all the states up to and including Pennsylvania (all Obama's toss up states, but Michigan), he would have 299 electoral votes. Both candidates numbers are only totaled through their rival's toss up states. In those cases, Obama's number is on the left and McCain's is on the right in italics.

***The line between Colorado and New Hampshire is the where Obama crosses (or McCain would cross) the 270 electoral vote threshold to win the presidential election. That line is referred to as the victory line.

We can talk about this cushion that Obama has based on the comparison between his and McCain's strong category electoral votes, but this election is still based on what is going to happen in those toss up states and to a large extent independent voters in them. The top five states in the Spectrum's middle column above are still the states where much of the action will take place. It is no coincidence then that Obama/Biden and McCain/Palin have been in Virginia and Ohio and Colorado. But the race certainly stretches beyond those boundaries. Florida, Indiana, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin are also targets. All four are toss up states as well with the exception of Wisconsin, which is, as you can see both above and below in the Watch List, on the line between being a lean or toss up state favoring Obama.

The Watch List*
Georgiafrom McCain leanto Strong McCain
Minnesotafrom Obama leanto Strong Obama
Mississippifrom Strong McCainto McCain lean
Nevadafrom Tieto Toss Up McCain/Obama
Ohiofrom Toss Up Obamato Toss Up McCain
Virginiafrom Toss Up McCainto Toss Up Obama
Washingtonfrom Strong Obamato Obama lean
Wisconsinfrom Obama leanto Toss Up Obama
*Weighted Average within a fraction of a point of changing categories.

Once again, the Watch List shrinks by one this week. With Alaska moving off, and more firmly into the McCain side, the list is down to just eight states. And only three of those states are on the verge of switching partisan sides and just one additional state -- Wisconsin -- is near moving toward being more competitive. The remaining four are either in the high single digits or low double digits. This is one indication that the list of competitive states for these final two months of the campaign are solidifying. What was talked about early on as a map-changing election, then, has narrowed, as can be expected to some extent approaching election day, to the regular group of swing states with a few exceptions (Colorado, Indiana and Virginia to name a few). We will have to see in the coming weeks whether either campaign expands or contracts its operations, as was the case with Georgia recently. That will provide an even clearer indication of where the fight will take place moving forward.

Recent Posts:
On to the Debates! -- And a Note on Compression

Presidential Primary Reform: Still Alive with the GOP?

Why Attack the Community Organizer?


SarahLawrenceScott said...

The map is still quite different from previous elections: all you have to do it is note the states that are closer than Florida and Missouri, two "traditional" sqing states: Virginia, North Dakota, Montana, and Indiana. That's kind of a wacky group.

On another matter, there's something I've been wondering but I've been too lazy to find the data. Is there a correlation between how much the Presidential nominee outshines the VP nominee in favorability rating and success in non-incumbent elections? Anecdotally, that seems possible. In 2000, Lieberman generated as much enthusiasm as Gore; not so with Cheney. In 1988, Quayle was a laughinstock, while Bentsen was well-liked. I was young in 1976, but Dole probably had pretty good favorables compared to Ford; was that true with Mondale compared to Carter? 1968 had Sprio Agnew--enough said.

It does seem possible that it's a bad idea to have your VP outshine you.

Josh Putnam said...

You're right of course. That was more talking point than anything. Yes, there are those traditional swing states, but there are some extras thrown into the mix that are different from the usual list. Demographic changes have brought Colorado and Virginia into play. They have come on the scene as states like Iowa and New Mexico have been pushed to the left.

North Dakota is a tricky one. I've been saying, and will continue to do so, that it is one of those states where we need more evidence. Yes, we had the poll out there this week that had Obama up three, but that was a partisan, union-funded poll conducted primarily for the House race.

But that brings up an interesting question: to what extent does an election deemed a "change" election bring unusual states into play for the out-party? 1992 was such an election. Montana, Georgia and Colorado were among the states the GOP traditionally did well in that Bill Clinton was able to win 16 years ago. 1976, in the post-Watergate era was another example. Carter's candidacy was able to pull in much of the South, the same region splintered during 1968 -- another election that could be considered a change election.

Of course there are two problems with this question.
1) How do you define a "change" election?


2) This speaks toward the VP question you posed as well. It has to deal with the small N problem that plagues research on the presidency and presidential elections. I mean, we can think of a handful of incidents where a VP outshone the presidential nominee, or of a "change" election, but there are so few that it is difficult to separate whether the changes we see are based on any one of those factors or some other variable unique to that election.

Both are worth exploring though, but with that limitation in mind. It is ultimately just a generalizability issue. I'll have to think a bit more about both.

Robert said...


A little historical note here. Although Spiro Agnew is now considered a joke, he was a strong pick for Richard Nixon in 1968. He was considered to be a a moderate/ liberal Republican who had a strong, positive civil rights record, a sort of Charlie Crist of his day. Despite that, Baltimore had experienced civil unrest, and Spiro, as Governor of Maryland, had brought in the civil rights leaders to his office and given them a very public scolding. In an era of riots and other unrest, this was considered bold and viewed favorably by much of the country. He was a very effective attack dog against the Humphrey-Muskie ticket. His act got old, however, while he was VP, and he became an impeachment insurance policy for Nixon when Watergate burst on the scene. I remember distinctly one night when I came home to watch TV that at 7:30 there was an announcement to the effect "To Tell the Truth will not be shown tonight so that we can present an important new story." The story was Spiro Agnew announcing his resignation. We all figured that Nixon was cooked. According to a chapter in "Hard Call" by John McCain and Mark Salter, Nixon nominated Gerald Ford as Agnew's replacement because he belieived that (1) Congress would easily ratify his nomination and (2) they would never impeach him to make Ford President. He was right on the first count but wrong on the second.

Robert said...

McCain is definitely getting a convention bounce. Will he drop back down, or is Obama in serious trouble?

Josh Putnam said...

I think that is the question of the hour (, week, month, etc.). I'll have a partial, yet tangential, answer up in a little bit.

Robert said...

If McCain wins this one, you won't ever get me believe that VP picks don't matter.

Josh Putnam said...

VP's don't matter.

...except for that one time way back in aught eight.

Anonymous said...

McCain and Palin may have a post-Convention lead, but to win they must keep it. They must deliver fresh messages, lest they get dull -- and they must avoid drawing unwelcome attention to their campaigns. Remember that the Republicans had the stage last week.

The current President is extremely unpopular, and McCain absolutely cannot win by seeming to be a continuation -- something that the Obama campaign seeks to establish. To win, McCain must succeed at creating fresh, positive, and relevant images of himself. But should he get dull, Obama takes over because he keeps creating fresh, positive, and relevant images of himself. That is his great strength as a campaigner.

Americans want change -- major change. The economy is shaky and everyone knows that. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are getting unpopular. But change means more than a war record or a quirky biography.

There are three sure ways to lose this campaign for the McCain/Palin team. The first is to be dull. The second is for either to appear extreme. Obama and Biden are running as moderates -- and the majority of Americans are no longer Hard Right. The third is some personal scandal, something that nobody can ever predict.

Robert said...


I won't live long enough to be able to say "way back in Aught 8", but I can always refer back to Spiro Agnew.


To win this election, McCain has to convince the social conservatives that he is really a social conservative (he is banking on the Palin selection to do that) and convince the swing voters he is really a moderate (he is using the maverick adds to do that). So far it seems to be working. Can he keep it up for then next 55 days? We will see.

The Bristol Palin story being embraced by the Christian right is mind boggling to me. Can you imagine what they would say if Bristol's last name was Sibelius and the Democrats had an Obama-Sibelius ticket?