Saturday, September 27, 2008

The Electoral College Map (9/27/08)

Another day, another 10 state polls. But it wasn't just any regular ol' day. The first presidential debate, like convention season, offered the potential for a shift in polling in this race. Over the next couple of weeks we'll see if and and how much change occurs. If last night is any indication of what's in store, then it likely won't be much. However, what we have in the beginning debate season in the 2008 presidential campaign is a natural break, from pre-debate to during debate. FHQ is taking advantage of that line of demarcation to make some slight changes to how we are describing the race.

For starters, we are shifting our lines between categories. So, the point at which a toss up becomes a lean state is now a margin of four points in our weighted average. That one point point drop is mirrored by an equivalent move the next category up. A strong state is now defined as any state where the weighted average is more than nine points.

FHQ will also take this opportunity to remove the ever-popular Zogby Interactive polls from our data set and to make a change from taking polls based on registered voters to those with likely voters. That latter decision has pretty much been made for us, as most of the polling firms -- and the outlets disseminating their survey results -- have made the switch already.

But back to the polls...

New Polls (Sept. 26)
Research 2000/St. Louis Dispatch
Research 2000/Daily Kos
New Hampshire
South Carolina
Research 2000/Daily Kos
Research 2000/Daily Kos

After a couple of days chock full of Obama-favorable polls, things came back a bit for McCain on Friday. Now, some of the Obama's advantage on Wednesday and Thursday was that the polling released was coming from a host of already blue states. McCain got some polls from some of his states on Friday. South Carolina and Wyoming are safe for the Arizona senator and door seems to have been closed on Obama in Montana. The Treasure state had showed Obama ahead in July, but that edge has dissipated with the GOP convention and the selection of Sarah Palin as the GOP vice presidential nominee. On the Obama end of things, Rasmussen shows the Illinois senator ahead in Virginia. That is the third such poll for Obama in Virginia to give him an edge outside of the margin of error. And as a result, the Old Dominion is creeping back toward a tie both in our average and in relation to the margin of error.

The real mark of this set of polls is how close the other six are. And four of those polls are within a point, in either direction. There's a split decision in the two polls out of Florida, Missouri continues to narrow and the third one point margin in a week has been released from New Hampshire.

Changes (Sept. 26)
North Carolina*
Toss Up McCain
McCain lean
Obama lean
Strong Obama
*Change brought about by shifting of the lean/strong and toss up/lean lines, not new polling.

But none of these new polls move any of the nine states into an alternate category. However, shifting the lines between the categories brought about a couple of changes. North Carolina now becomes a McCain lean just a day after it looked like the Tar Heel state might threaten to stay in toss up territory. Much of that is based on the removal of a trio of favorable polls from Zogby. North Carolina does stay within range of changing back, however, and the way polling in the Tar Heel state has gone over the last week, that is a distinct possibility. Also, Washington moves further into Obama's column, becoming a strong state again for the Illinois senator. The Evergreen state, like North Carolina, is still within the range, though, of switching back. The recent polling in the northwest has been a bit more muddled. Tighter, yes, but still favoring Obama.

[Click Map to Enlarge]

So a couple of midrange electoral vote states move into more comforable positions for their respective candidates. Montana, North Dakota and West Virginia get some company in that McCain lean category from North Carolina and Washington rejoins the group of strong Obama states. But neither move changes the distribution of electoral votes between McCain and Obama. The Illinois senator maintains the same eight electoral vote advantage he has held for the couple of weeks or 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. Both states are currently favoring Obama, thus the blue text in those two cells.

What dropping the Zogby polls does do is shake up the Electoral College Spectrum and Watch List to some extent. Virginia jumps Ohio and North Carolina moves into the lean category, but other than those changes the toss ups states continue to be in the same positions. There are other subtle changes to the Spectrum, but Minnesota is the most notable one. The North Star state again moves closer to the toss up category based on a series a narrower and narrower polls in the state recently.

The Watch List*
Floridafrom Toss Up McCainto McCain lean
Indianafrom Toss Up McCainto McCain lean
Michiganfrom Toss Up Obama
to Obama lean
Missourifrom Toss Up McCainto McCain lean
Nevadafrom Toss Up McCainto Toss Up Obama
North Carolinafrom McCain lean
to Toss Up McCain
Ohiofrom Toss Up McCain
to Toss Up Obama
Oregonfrom Obama lean
to Strong Obama
Virginiafrom Toss Up McCain
to Toss Up Obama
Washingtonfrom Strong Obama
to Obama lean
*Weighted Average within a fraction of a point of changing categories.

But Minnesota is not in a position that an imminent change is upon us. What is striking about the states that are now on the Watch List is that other than Oregon and Washington, we are dealing with a series of states that are on the verge of either moving into or out of the toss up category. With the toss up/lean line now at four, there is a lot more potential for some action. However, Nevada, Ohio and Virginia remain the only three states anywhere close to crossing the partisan line into Obama's side. The point from the candidates' perspective, though, is that these toss up states are the ones that could easily shift as a group to one side or the other based on the momentum heading down the stretch. When John Zogby (Yes, that John Zogby.) spoke about the potential for a landslide increasing in the context of the current economic turmoil, this is how it would likely play out. As the Spectrum indicates, if one candidates captured the momentum heading into election day and was able to completely sweep the toss up states, that would net McCain 316 electoral votes and Obama 360 electoral votes. And given how close the last two presidential elections have been, both would likely be interpreted as landslides. Now, whether that happens, we'll see over the next five plus weeks.

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Jack said...

McCain should be far more concerned about the consistently close polling in FL and Obama's string of good polls in VA than excited about one isolated +3 in Colorado.

Anonymous said...

Is there a place where I can report abuse on this site? It's as if I don't understand what a string of polls is.

Seriously though, losing the Florida firewall would be disastrous for McCain. There are four big states. Obama has Pennsylvania and Michigan and McCain has Florida and Ohio. If someone is able to pick up a third, then that person is going to be the winner. Yeah, there are other permutations, but with the electoral vote totals in those states, that's where the action is.

Having said that, if I'm the Obama campaign, I'd like to see a consistent two or three point lead in Florida before I thought this was anything more than just the narrowing effect at work. I'd like to make a parallel between the recent Florida polling and Pennsylvania polling but I think New Hampshire is the best possible corollary on Obama's side.

Unknown said...

I think we're not in electoral college math territory at this point. While the FHQ methodology stresses stability, the momentum for Obama is pointing toward blowout territory. Well, as Josh said, blowout compared to the last two cycles anyway.

In the silly football analogy that's been serving us pretty well so far, it's probably about 33-24, early in the fourth quarter, with Obama's team having the ball deep in McCain territory, and Obama having a good rushing game. It's not to the point yet where McCain needs a miracle, but stopping the bleeding or throwing another long bomb isn't enough--he needs to find a way to stop Obama's "three yards and a cloud of dust" methodical offense. (End of silly football analogy)

So let me put on my thinking cap and ask--at this point, what would a McCain win look like?

Possibility one: Geopolitics. Obama's carved into McCain's edge on foreign affairs, but hasn't destroyed it. If there's some geopolitical event that plays to McCain's storyline--say, Russia invades the Ukraine--then I think McCain wins.

Possibility two: Back from the dead. McCain channels Hillary Clinton and his own previous campaigns. He relaxes a little because it looks like he's going to lose, and finds his voice. Pennsylvania slides gradually to McCain. Under this scenario, the map could end up looking very strange, almost like Obama-Hillary as far as the battleground states go. In fact, this is the scenario that for a time during the primary campaign the Clinton campaign was trying to lay out.

Possibility three: Economic armageddon. If the Wall Street crisis becomes catastrophic, it's hard to predict what will happen. McCain might react a little faster to truly awful developments than Obama. Even if the reactions didn't make any sense, at some point the notion of "doing something" might gain some traction.

That's all I can come up with. Any of you have other McCain scenarios?

Anonymous said...

I think this is an interesting question, Scott. It is one thing to say, well, this is a presidential election, they're usually pretty close, right. But it is quite another to sit down and try to come up with a scenario where McCain wins.

What you list makes sense. You have two external events. One plays to McCain and the Republicans' strengths and the other assumes a quicker campaign response. The latter I think you rely heavily on timing. If it was late enough in the process, that may make a difference.

The middle example is intriguing to me. McCain loosens up and catches lightning in a bottle again. He would have to wipe the floor with Obama in one of the final debates to trigger that I'd think. My initial thought was the town hall debate, but the expectations will be high for him in that one simply because that is perceived to be his bread and butter. But if he somehow managed to beat Obama in that domestic policy debate, that may trigger something similar to what you've described. That triggers a change, but the remaining part of this leans on campaign effects and I'm not convinced the McCain campaign is disciplined enough to pull that one off. They have just been way too inconsistent.

But back to your question: What about other scenarios? Let's dispense with the obvious October surprise. Something comes out on Obama that totally undermines his campaign. I have no idea what that is and I think it would have to be really bad to shift opinions enough to make a difference.

Biden sticks his foot in his mouth in a major way; to the point that his place on the ticket really comes into question. Obama, then, faced with that decision, drags his feet and takes too long to act one way or the other. That undermines Obama's decision-making and takes him down in the process.

But these are both very narrow in scope and fairly far-fetched. They also assume that something outside of McCain's power intervenes to help him. But what can McCain's campaign do to actively change things for the better? I'm going to have to think about that one for a bit.

Jack said...

I don't think Russia invading Georgia is enough to ensure a McCain victory, simply because most Americans think Georgia is that state north of Florida, and even if they did know where the country is, wouldn't care. I know that it would focus the debate on McCain's advantageous territory of foreign policy, but probably not enough to override a significant Obama advantage.

And I don't really see a situation where the economy winds up helping McCain. Obama has too much of a natural advantage there.

Possibility two is more likely, but it probably won't be enough unless combined with an Obama gaffe or at least a series of poor performances. If Obama runs a good campaign, McCain would have to be amazing to win. Even if McCain finds his voice, Obama already has his.

Perhaps a combination of these things happening (most likely 1 and 2) would be enough, though.

Other, very unlikely, possibilities are that we're totally wrong about the irrelevance of the Bradley Effect, or we see weaker youth voter turnout than expected, but I don't see either one of those being the case.

Or maybe I'm wrong, and Obama is a secret Muslim, and this will come out before November. In that case, Obama loses 535-3 in the electoral college in a defeat that makes 1984 look like a good year for Democrats.

Jack said...

Posted the last one before I saw Josh's comment. I'm sure Obama's campaign has contingency plans for all possible Biden dontopedalogy.

Robert said...

I think the world event scenario is the greatest possibility for McCain at this point, but some gamechanger in the economy is also credible. It seems like it is getting a little late in the game for a successful swift-boating incident, but the Republicans are very good at this sort of thing.

Unknown said...

The Obama campaign has chimed in with their McCain victory scenario: low turnout.

Anonymous said...

Ah yes. If the race looks like a done deal, does complacency set in? Interesting.

Thanks for the link, Scott.

Jack said...

I saw that ad, and meant to post it too, but forgot while I was writing — Scott clearly has a better memory than I. But I don't think the worry is that complacency will lead to people not voting. The type of people that sometimes don't vote aren't generally very interested in politics and therefore probably don't know that Obama is well ahead.

Rather, the worry is that young people just don't always vote in the numbers they should. This is true no matter how close the election is.

One of my first political experiences was following the Dean campaign in 2004. I was 16 and too young to vote, and was only interested in his campaign because somebody told me about him and that he was good, a true liberal, etc. I really didn't do much more than get emails from him. But I bring it up because we all know what happened to Dean. Obama wants to make sure it doesn't happen to him.

Anonymous said...

I don't disagree with you, but I would add one thing. The Dean example is one from the primary phase. What were talking about in terms of Obama now is in the context of a general election campaign. I think that distinction is an important one. If the perception is that Obama is going to win, it could affect turnout and I would call that complacency.

Now, will that happen? I don't know, but the Obama folks are awfully confident in their GOTV efforts and ground game generally. And I definitely think the Dean example is very much in their minds.