Monday, October 13, 2008

The Electoral College Map (10/14/08)

Monday brought a welcomed infusion of survey data from mostly battleground states. In all, 14 new polls from 12 states made even clearer our picture of the race for the White House. And as the table below can attest, it is an almost entirely blue picture. Of all the toss up states, Missouri and Indiana had been the most solidly McCain in the wake of the most recent Obama surge in state level polling. Indiana remains as solidly McCain as a toss up can be (In fact, if the line separating the toss up and lean categories were dropped to a 3 point margin, as it will be later in the week, Indiana would turn darker red by the slimmest of margins.), but Missouri has gone in the other direction since the middle part of last week. Of the four polls released from the Show-Me state in that time, three have show Obama ahead by anywhere from 1 to 8 points. The 8 point edge in the Survey USA poll out yesterday seems like an outlier given the totality of polling information from the state as well as in the context of these most recent polls. Outlier, though it may be, this poll is indicative of a larger trend toward Obama in Missouri. The mid- to lower single digit leads for McCain in the aftermath of the GOP convention have dissipated and been replaced with more Obama-friendly numbers since the Lehman collapse kicked off the economic crisis.

New Polls (Oct. 13)
Survey USA
Survey USA
New Jersey
Survey USA
New York
Survey USA
North Carolina
North Dakota
Survey USA

Other than Missouri, Ohio and North Carolina are noteworthy. On a gut level, both "feel" closer than they did just a week ago. North Carolina did seem to peak last week and has since turned in a run of margins well within the margin of error. However, any North Carolina number less than two for McCain or anything leaning in Obama's direction is narrowing the gap in the Tar Heel state. So, while things look a little closer in North Carolina, given the last few polls, the truth is that it is still closing. The same sort of thing is playing out in Ohio. The Buckeye state crested in the the Obama economic surge period, but has settled into an Obama +2-5 point range that is occasionally peppered with a positive McCain poll.

Changes (Oct. 13)
New Jersey
Obama lean
Strong Obama
North Dakota
Strong McCain
McCain lean
Obama lean
Strong Obama

And what about that North Dakota poll? [Yeah, why did I wait so long to talk about that one?] The North Dakota poll from Forum led us into the week with a surprisingly positive Obama result. Unlike West Virginia last week, though, North Dakota is a bit more insulated by more polling data. In other words, it wasn't as vulnerable to a (potential) outlier as the Mountain state was. Yet, North Dakota did move into the McCain lean category, joining Montana as the only other lean state for the Arizona senator. North Dakota, then, is more competitive as a result -- at least according to our average -- but the number of days left are waning and the Peace Garden state is likely too far out of the Illinois senator's reach. If this poll is, in fact, indicative of what is happening in North Dakota, then Obama's North Dakota pull out, has not had the same effect on his numbers there, as McCain's in Michigan after the Arizona senator move resources out of the Wolverine state. Granted, one of those got a touch more press than the other.

Other than North Dakota, New Jersey and Oregon joined Iowa in shifting into the strong Obama category. What we are seeing is the continued movement across the map toward Obama. The darkest red states are impervious for the most part and we see that in the fact that there are so few lean states on the McCain side of the partisan line (see Electoral College Spectrum below). There continue to be two types of McCain states: solid McCain and toss up. In other words, there's a group of states that are safe for McCain, but outside of those states, the Arizona senator's potentially vulnerable. Those McCain toss ups have for the most part shift toward Obama, Obama toss ups have shifted toward Obama leans and Obama leans have shifted toward strong Obama states. But there remain three distinct tiers of states on the Obama side of the partisan line. If the line between strong states and lean states were dropped today to, say, 7 points, Minnesota would be the only state to move (into the strong Obama category). The polling movement during debate season, then, has gone as expected as the campaign draws ever closer to its conclusion. What I mean is that the categories of states are largely solidified now and there are natural breaks between them.
[Click Map to Enlarge]

Despite the moves, nothing has really been altered in terms of the distribution of electoral votes between the two candidates. Obama moves 22 electoral votes onto safer ground, but still holds 264 electoral votes between his lean and strong states. McCain on the other hand, maintains comfortable leads in states with 158 electoral votes. That would leave McCain in a position of having to sweep all the toss up states to clear the 270 electoral vote hurdle.

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 New Hampshire (all Obama's toss up states), he would have 278 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.

Colorado is the state 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. It is currently favoring Obama, thus the blue text in that cell.

As Scott pointed out in the comments to yesterday's post, that seems unlikely. But to win without sweeping the toss ups, McCain would have to pick up Pennsylvania. The Arizona senator could cede Colorado and Virginia to Obama, swing Ohio and Pennsylvania and only get to 268, which is obviously short of the goal. But pulling Nevada in as well, would get McCain over the top. Is Pennsylvania an attainable target though? That's the question. Recent polling does not give him much of a shot. The type of North Carolina and Ohio movement discussed above is not present in Pennsylvania. Whereas the the Tar Heel and Buckeye states peaked and settled into a new equilibrium below that peak point, Pennsylvania has bounced and plateaued in the lower double digits for Obama.

The Watch List*
Floridafrom Toss Up McCain
to Toss Up Obama
Indianafrom Toss Up McCain
to McCain lean
Iowafrom Strong Obama
to Obama lean
Michiganfrom Obama lean
to Toss Up Obama
Nevadafrom Toss Up Obama
to Toss Up McCain
New Hampshirefrom Obama lean
to Toss Up Obama
New Jerseyfrom Strong Obama
to Obama lean
Ohiofrom Toss Up Obama
to Toss Up McCain
Oregonfrom Strong Obama
to Obama lean
Washingtonfrom Strong Obama
to Obama lean
*Weighted Average within a fraction of a point of changing categories.

The Keystone state isn't even on the Watch List. In fact, Pennsylvania is moving deeper into the Obama lean category with each new poll that is released. But the ten states above are on the list of states most likely to move in the event that new polling is released. And there is a lot of blue there. The lack of red of any shade again underlines that idea that the McCain side of things has solidified. The only thing left to settle is if those pink toss ups will shift toward Obama. Florida is the most likely at this point. To put the Florida situation in the terminology of a baseball pennant chase, the Sunshine state now has a magic number of 7. If a new poll were to give Obama a 7 point advantage, Florida would turn blue. That's down from 10 points before the Rasmussen poll was added in last night.

Just to be fair here, Nevada and Ohio are also close to changing sides. What are their respective magic numbers. McCain would need just a two point poll margin to shift Nevada to his side of the partisan line. Ohio, though, is a different story. We have much more data in the case of the Buckeye state, and thus a pretty good idea of how it is leaning. In other words, it, in all likelihood, takes more than just one poll to shift Ohio. If one poll were to do it, though, it would have to give McCain a 9 point edge. Given our discussion above -- about how Ohio had basically averaged one positive poll in the lower single digits for McCain recently -- that is very unlikely.

The story today is similar to what it was yesterday (and the day before and so on): McCain has to find a way to shift the race in his direction. The problem is that he is running out of time.

Recent Posts:
The Electoral College Map (10/13/08)

A Follow-Up on ACORN

The Electoral College Map (10/12/08)


SarahLawrenceScott said...

OK, so there's another pair of questions I'd like to throw out from (and for) the peanut gallery.

For most recent presidential elections, a narrative centered around a key incident has been created to explain the result. A partial list: the Swiftboat ad in 2004, Gore's sighs in 2000, George H. W. Bush and the checkout scanner in 1992, Dukakis in the tank in 1988, Ford's Poland gaffe in 1976.

In my opinion, most of these issues are more "just-so" stories than anything; they illustrate something crucial about an election but aren't themselves as crucial as is made out. After all, in an election won by a large margin, it's doubtful they were more than a trigger to a move that was waiting to happen (like a pin to a balloon), while in a close election like 2000 there are zillions of incidents which, if they had gone differently, could have changed the outcome.

OK, enough disclaimer.

Question #1: If Obama wins this election, what will be seen as the key incident that led to his victory? I can think of many possibilities.

Question #2: If Obama wins this election, what should be seen as the key incident that led to his victory? This question isn't about broad campaign strategies or structural factors, it's about picking a single news event, gaffe, sound bite ("it's the economy, stupid"), commercial, or visual that encapsulates what went down.

I'm curious what y'all come up with, so I'll be back with my choices later...

Robert said...

My candidate would be the suspension of the campaign and rush to Washington.

Jack said...

1) The economy, and if you want a specific event, well, whatever it was that triggered the rise in the polls. Wasn't it Lehman?

2) Same as (1). Once this happened, the race went from very close to a significant lead for Obama, and I don't think anyone believes this is a coincidence.

SarahLawrenceScott said...

My choises:

1) Lehman. That's already being taken as the marker. But I think McCain still had a chance of taking control of the issue during that week. Which brings me to

2) I agree with Robert, but I can narrow it to a specific moment: McCain getting make-up applied for his interview with Couric while bailing on Letterman when he was supposed to be rushing back to Washington. Could there be a worse moment. I mean--sitting there while they put make-up on him? Dissing Letterman? Making up for Palin with a Couric interview? Supposedly while suspending his campaign?

It symbolized everything that was going wrong at once.

And that means that the important night for McCain this week is not Wednesday, but Thursday. As long as Obama doesn't declare jihad on the United States or something, the debate won't change the narrative. But Letterman represents an old area of strength for McCain which has turned into a lion's den. If he's going to engineer any kind of turnaround at all, it begins on Letterman on Thursday.

Josh Putnam said...

I can't disagree with any of these comments. The fact is, the economic situation and the candidates' reactions to it seems to have been the turning point in the race that has gotten us to where we are now.

Allow me a moment to turn the tables in a way similar to what we did in discussing landslides possibilities for both Obama and McCain. If there was no economic crisis and McCain was able to sustain his post-convention numbers with only a moderate fade in support over time, what would we view as the turning point?

Obviously, there have been several Hail Marys that the McCain campaign has lobbed over the summer and into the fall, but which one take precedence?

The Palin selection likely wins out, but it is hard to say how that story would have gone in the absence of the Lehman, etc. collapse. It seemed to be fading heading into that weekend, but who knows what would have happened.

The other thing that comes to mind is the celebrity commercial and attack. If that hadn't been one in a series of different tacks the McCain campaign took in the time before the conventions, it would have perhaps blended nicely with the current attack on Obama over his relationship with Bill Ayers. But again, the economy intervened and changed the dynamic of the race completely.


dneedle1 said...

No one specific event, but yes, the financial meltdown. If you had to choose one event, Lehman's collapse. It got the whole country's attention. Suddenly, minor things, like Ayers, seemd very unimportant.

S.D. said...

1. As for what likely will be seen as the defining moment, it's a toss-up between the (pseudo-)suspension of McCain's campaign and the selection of Palin as a running mate. Both are examples of what is currently seen as the storyline of McCain's campaign: that he is erratic and that he will do anything to get elected.

2. My personal choice of what should be seen as the turning point would be the selection of Palin, since it was the first of the Hail Mary plays. But perhaps consideration should be given to suspending the first day of the Republican convention. Until then, the selection of Palin seemed an isolated event (and was seen by many as bold, not erratic). But the convention suspension (I have a Schoolhouse Rock song stuck in my head after typing that) was the first indication of a pattern of headline-grabbing moves.

Robert said...

I have to disagree with the Palin nomination as being the turning point. Who else could he have nominated? Maybe Pawlenty? If he had chosen Lieberman or Ridge, there was a strong possibility that the convention would have revolted and perhaps nominated Palin or someone else. He would have been mortally wounded, received a dip and not a bounce from the convention, and not have been able to recover during the financial crisis. With the financial collapse, the Couric interviews reinforced the erratic behavior of McCain, but it was the collapse and McCain's actions after that were the coalescing events.

Robert said...

See Jay Cost's comments on the Palin effect:

Josh Putnam said...

Here's that Cost link from Rob.

Incidentally, as a follow up to our discussion of Cost's piece the other day, I asked Dr. Bullock, whose article was cited, for his thoughts. I suppose I was hoping for some fireworks, but all he indicated was that Cost's linking of the article was just proof that there was no research on the subject at the presidential level. Indeed. Aspiring political scientists, you have been alerted.

SarahLawrenceScott said...

My belief is without the financial meltdown, Obama was headed for a narrow victory. So I have to add to your hypothetical, Josh, that McCain found one more thing to push him over the top.

But if I do that, I have to agree that the conventional wisdom would have traced it back to the celebrity ad--after all, it punctured the Obama European trip.

I do really like s.d.'s idea that the real turning point would have been Gustav and the first day of the Republican convention. It looked like the convention was going to be a mess, with platform fights, competition from Ron Paul, and appearances by Bush and Cheney. Suddenly in one fell swoop, Republicans showed they could handle a hurricane, put country first, moved Cheney to a secure location, kept the President from being a liability, and showed that the McCain-Palin team could think on their feet.

SarahLawrenceScott said...

The Cost blog makes good points, but it misses one important element of the Palin effect: she plays into the narrative of McCain as impulsive and erratic. In my opinion, picking Palin and suspending-but-not-suspending his campaign were much worse in combination than either was separately.

Robert said...


I agree that the two decisions -- Palin and the suspension -- acted in concert to allow Obama to paint McCain as erratic.