Wednesday, October 15, 2008

The Electoral College Map (10/16/08)

On the day of the final presidential debate of 2008 there were another 16 new polls released in 12 states. And none were bigger than the three polls out of Florida. No, there's nothing out of the ordinary in those three polls given what we've seen since the economic crisis began. However, there was enough support for Barack Obama across the three to shift the Sunshine state into the blue. Now, several other sites have had Florida going for Obama for a week or more, but I've argued that when and if the state shifted here at FHQ, it would mean something. In states like Florida, where there has been a lot of polling all year, there is a tendency for our weighted averages to react slowly. For Florida, the early part of the year and even into the summer saw the establishment of a pretty clear McCain lead there. And even when the past polls were discounted, the Arizona senator still held on to a lead; a diminished one, but a lead nonetheless. In other words, when shifts occur here at FHQ -- especially in frequently polled states -- they are usually lasting changes. The worst of it, then, for the McCain campaign is that when trackers with conservative methodologies start showing vital states to the Arizona senator's electoral fortunes turning blue. [I feel the need to stress once again that the "conservative" in that last sentence refers to the statistics behind our weighted averages. It is not an ideological issue. The average is set up to react but not react too easily to new information. The attempt here is always to be as impartial as possible.]

New Polls (Oct. 15)
Insider Advantage
Survey USA
Insider Advantage
New Mexico
Survey USA
New Mexico
North Carolina
Insider Advantage
West Virginia
Insider Advantage

On the heels of a fiery debate performance that, at first glance didn't go over too well, this Florida situation is not a positive development for the McCain campaign. They don't need some two-bit electoral college analysis to tell them that, though. The GOP standard bearer's campaign has likely known this for a while. After pulling out of Michigan altogether a couple of weeks ago and now having the RNC pull its ads in Wisconsin to focus on "red states," there just isn't any doubt that those resources are being shifted to states like Florida, North Carolina and Virginia. All three were Bush states just four years ago.

Changes (Oct. 15)
Toss Up McCain
Toss Up Obama

While the Sunshine state was the only mover of the day, that didn't mean that the rest of the polling wasn't enlightening. Again, the list is overwhelmingly blue, with the exception of a healthy, but below normal margin in Kansas and a trio of "too close" surveys from Georgia, Missouri and West Virginia.

But let's not doom and gloom it too much. There's only so much negativity this campaign can take, right? Let's shift our focus to some of those blue polls and how Obama is doing. Other than Florida, the Illinois senator is also in good shape in Massachusetts, where some surprisingly low numbers earlier in the year have given way to the typically pro-Democratic tilt of the Bay state. And among the closest states polled today, Colorado, Nevada and Virginia, in addition to Florida, continue to show Obama ahead. The same is true in North Carolina as well. But the Tar Heel state is one of the few remaining McCain toss ups that has not crossed the partisan line to join Obama's coalition of states. Polling has been scant in Indiana, but the other three toss ups on McCain's side of the partisan line have all shown Obama ahead in the last week. But in a wave election, all four states are likely on the table as potential changes over the remaining 19 days of the race.

[Click Map to Enlarge]

The fact that there are just four McCain toss up states left is indicative of the current state of the race. Not only is McCain now behind in every category comparison (strong to strong, lean to lean and toss up to toss up), but he has been pushed to the brink in the electoral college tally as well, teetering on the threshold between the 200s and 100s. I don't want to overstate matters too much, but if the battle over the next two and a half weeks is in North Carolina and Missouri, then the race is over. McCain's only hope is to somehow swing Florida, Ohio and Pennsylvania and even then he would come up two electoral votes shy of what is needed. Sweeping those three is a tall order in any election, but having to do it when Pennsylvania is moving rapidly into the darker blue, is nigh impossible.

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 Colorado (all Obama's toss up states), he would have 274 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.

But that's what the McCain campaign is facing currently. And with the thresholds between categories being dropped over the weekend, the perception is only going to get worse. The Obama lean blue has already stretched into the middle column of the Electoral College Spectrum and the light blue is gradually inching downward into formerly McCain states as well. I haven't decided on where I'll shift the strong/lean line yet (wherever a natural break occurs), but the lean/toss up line will be dropped to a 3% margin. In other words, our estimation of what is an attainable amount of ground to be made up in two and a half weeks time is three points. Any state outside of that margin is going to be difficult to swing without an outside factor intervening. [Then again, changing the overall dynamic of the race depends on that also.] Colorado would turn darker blue and Indiana and West Virginia darker red. That leaves the states between Virginia and North Carolina within that range. Those six states account for 91 electoral votes and McCain would have to sweep them all plus another state to break 270. And that's another scenario that is difficult to envision in the current environment.

The Watch List*
Floridafrom Toss Up Obama
to Toss Up McCain
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
*Weighted Average within a fraction of a point of changing categories.

Though there is still some jockeying for position going on, the Watch List is essentially down to just three states now, Florida, Nevada and Ohio. Yes, you could throw Indiana in there as well, but I'll focus on just those states most likely to shift sides of the partisan line for the time being. The rest of the list is comprised of states that just are not likely at this point to switch sides. But Florida, Nevada and Ohio are. All three are within a fraction of a point in our averages of moving back toward McCain.

But what would it take to do that? What is each state's magic polling number do get that done. In Florida, there is enough McCain support in those past polls that a tie in the next poll would bring the Sunshine state back into the pink. But there has not been a tie or a pro-McCain result in Florida since the end of September. In Nevada, it would take a survey showing the Arizona senator ahead by four points to shift the Silver state toward McCain. There hasn't been a poll showing anything greater than McCain +3 since August though. Finally in Ohio, the news is a bit more grim. Again, when we have a lot of data on one state, it becomes much more difficult to shift. That is certainly the case in Ohio. It took a while for the Buckeye state to turn blue here when it had shifted on other sites, but the move here is indicative of a lasting shift. At this point, it would take one poll showing McCain ahead by 11 points to shift Ohio back to him. There just haven't been those types of margins in Ohio. The more likely route to a change is a series of polls showing McCain ahead in Ohio, but time is running out on that possibility.

Time is running out on this race, period, at this point. 19 days to go.

Recent Posts:
Live Blog and Open Thread: Final Presidential Debate

Breaking: Florida to Turn Blue

The Electoral College Map (10/15/08)


SarahLawrenceScott said...

The Watch List is a little messed up (Florida, for instance, appears to have a few chads hanging). I assume you'll fix it in the morning.

Josh Putnam said...

Good catch. Thanks. Fix coming.

Robert said...

I can't find it now, but someone (Maybe Scott) claimed that the big chance for a gamechanger was not last night but on Letterman tonight. The pressure is on McCain.

Josh Putnam said...

It was Scott.

Anonymous said...

Larry Sabato from Virginia has an updated map.

I agree with his map except I would have Missouri and North Carolina leaning McCain.
The 2 pure toss up states to me are Ohio and Virginia.
Nevada and Colorado to me are definitely in the bag for Obama and Florida is going that way.
But with Nevada and Colorado in the bag, it means game over, Florida, Ohio, Virginia are irrelevant.

By the way at the bottom of his column he explains why he has Virginia as toss up despite polls showing Obama ahead.

Josh Putnam said...

Here's that Crystal Ball link from Anon12:31.

Here is that note on Virginia from Sabato:
"One note about Virginia: We have preserved its toss-up status despite a series of polls showing Obama winning by double digits (such as yesterday's CNN-Opinion Research Corporation survey, with Obama at 53% and McCain at 43%). It's not that we think the polls are necessarily wrong. In fact, the Crystal Ball was the very first analyst website to call Virginia a toss up last spring, at a time when the McCain campaign denounced the very notion, and listed the state as "Solid Republican". Still, we have covered Virginia closely for almost forty years. We have yet to talk to a single experienced political observer in Virginia who believes that the state isn't relatively close. Almost all say, if Obama wins Virginia, it will be by two or three points--certainly not ten. So while Obama probably leads in Virginia today, as he does in almost all our remaining toss-ups, we're going to hold off tilting the state for now. This represents an abundance of caution, perhaps, but wise from our perspective. There is plenty of time to color in the whole map before Election Day."

I have approximately 40 years less experience covering Virginia politics, but that is my general sense of the state of play in the Old Dominion as well. Even when the lean/toss up line gets dropped, Virginia will not be on the Watch List (...for a switch to Obama lean). It is properly classified here with no caveats.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I need to go take a couple of deep breaths and let my head deflate some.

Jack said...

I know that I, 20-year-old college student, have no right to question Larry Sabato (or Josh Putnam, for that matter), but I completely and respectfully disagree with both of you about Virginia. The election is leaning towards Obama by about eight points. If several months ago, when the election was closer, VA was a tossup state, then why shouldn't it be at least "Leans Democratic" now?

Josh Putnam said...

I don't disagree with you, but my gut is telling me one thing about Virginia and I suppose I'm glad that the numbers here back me up on it. There is some validity to this rising ships sort of analogy. If it is a state that isn't anchored down by an overwhelming number of conservatives then there should be some uniform gain in all other states when the waters rise. We've certainly seen evidence of that sort of phenomenon in Virginia and elsewhere. The difference is that our measure kept Virginia in the toss up category (but favoring McCain) for so long, that and the overall competitiveness of the state until recently kept the Old Dominion grounded enough to only allow for a move to an Obama toss up when the water began to rise.

As to why Sabato left Virginia where it was I have no idea. There is no indication of the methodology there.

SarahLawrenceScott said...

Why put the strong/lean line at "a natural break"? Anywhere that's a natural break now won't necessarily be one two weeks from now.

Josh Putnam said...

Natural break may be a bit of a misnomer in this case. It is more of a gap. There aren't that many states right now between 7 and 9 points. All those current lean states, then are packed between 4 and 6 points with one exception: Minnesota. My inclination is to drop that strong/lean line to seven. That will likely hold up pretty well for the remaining two and a half weeks.

Montana would be on the Watch List on the red side of the partisan line and New Mexico, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin would be there on the blue side. Each would be there on the verge of switching from lean to strong. Minnesota would be close to a strong to lean change.

Jack said...

Pardon my ignorance, but what is a "natural break"? I've never heard that term before.

Josh Putnam said...

It isn't a technical term. As I said, I'm using it to mean a gap in between certain states in the rankings on the Spectrum. But the gap provides a nice break between categories.

We have a range then of choices as to where to drop the line. I'm certainly open to suggestions, but the averages are pointing us to where there may be a line of differentiation between certain states. To me, seven seems good.

Scott's point is certainly a valid one, though. Why follow the gap when it may not be there in two weeks? My answer is that I don't think there will be any states outside of those that would be on the Watch List that move or threaten to move beyond that point. Certainly, New Mexico, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin seem like states that are on the verge of moving out of McCain's grasp. Montana offers a similar example on the other side of the partisan line.

Jack said...

Alright, thanks for the explanation.

Josh Putnam said...

Sure, no problem.