The presidential race has seen quite a few dramatic momentum swings over the past few weeks, and that is reflected in the bounciness of my presidential ratings. The margin between Obama and McCain was relatively stable from mid-June to late August, but McCain’s momentum the first two weeks of this month allowed him to close the gap to only 6 electoral votes in my most recent electoral ratings. Since then, however, the economic crisis and the natural fading of McCain’s bounce have allowed Obama to regain his footing and jump to his biggest lead yet - 55 electoral votes.
Obama’s new found advantage comes primarily from the erosion of McCain’s base. Only 174 electoral votes are rated McCain, which is by far his lowest ever (see full history). While the Arizona Senator seems to have solidified his hold on the Mountain West (Obama gave up on contesting North Dakota, and Montana polls suggest that McCain has recaptured a double-digit lead), there is little question that other states that McCain should be winning comfortably have become dead heats: Last week, I moved Indiana to the toss-up column. This week, it is North Carolina’s turn to head out of the McCain column, in what is a devastating development for McCain; Florida also returns to the toss-ups, though that is less dramatic a move, and Obama is close to erasing McCain’s advantage in Missouri as well.
What is most worrisome for McCain in this erosion is that late September is a time a candidate wants to start locking away his most secure states. Instead, the GOP has had to expand its advertisement to Florida late last month, North Carolina two weeks ago and Indiana starting next week. In fact, Indiana and North Carolina’s move to the toss-up column isn’t due to any dramatic and surprising change in those states’ numbers but rather to the fact that we have now reached the final stretch with no sign that these states’ usual partisan affiliation is kicking in.
(Also, note that Indiana and North Carolina - the two reddest states which are now part of the toss-up category - were the two states that held their primaries on May 6th. Could Obama have been this competitive in either state this late in the game had it not been for the extended primary?)
All of this does not mean that McCain is doomed, because Obama has not yet been able to expand his base. This week, 239 electoral votes are rated Obama this week - and that is more or less the level the Illinois Senator has been at for months. He has been able to solidify his hold on Iowa and New Mexico, but other states (notably Minnesota and Wisconsin) have tightened. And while Virginia and Colorado showed signs of moving towards Obama this week (with a number of polls showing Obama leading outside the margin of error in both), a few days of strong polling for Obama in one of his best weeks isn’t enough to remove either from the toss-up column. Yet, Michigan returns to the Obama camp - the only state to move out of the toss-up column this week. McCain has deployed tremendous efforts in the Wolverine State, but it seems like the financial crisis has allowed Obama to finally gain an advantage.
For Obama, the path to 270 remains far more clear than it is for McCain. With Iowa and New Mexico tilting in his direction, Obama needs to retain four endangered blue states (Michigan, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Minnesota) and pick-up one more state, with Colorado then Virginia looking like the most promising at the moment (if Obama wins either of those, he would not need to save New Hampshire since 269 should be enough). Those 6 states thus look like the most important at the moment - and take this as further proof that no, it does not all come down to Ohio or Florida this year.
Without further delay, here are the ninth electoral college ratings (states whose ratings have been changed are in bold). Remember that states that are in the “lean” category are considered to be very competitive and certain to be hotly contested, but it is possible to say that one candidate has a slight edge at this time.
- Safe McCain: Alabama, Arkansas, Idaho, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Nebraska (at large + 3rd congressional district), Oklahoma, South Carolina, South Dakota, Utah, Tennessee, Texas, Wyoming (122 EVs)
- Likely McCain: Alaska, Arizona, Georgia, Nebraska (1st and 2nd congressional districts), North Dakota, West Virginia (38 EVs)
- Lean McCain: Missouri, Montana (14 EVs)
- Toss-up: Colorado, Florida, Indiana, Nevada, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia (125 EV)
- Lean Obama: Michigan, Minnesota, New Mexico, Wisconsin (42 EVs)
- Likely Obama: Iowa, Oregon, Maine (at-large, 2nd district), New Jersey, Washington (43 EVs)
- Safe Obama: California, Connecticut, DC, Delaware, Hawaii, Illinois, Maine’s 1st district, Maryland, Massachusetts, New York, Rhode Island, Vermont (154 EVs)
This gives us the following map and totals:
- Safe + Likely Obama: 197 electoral votes
- Safe + Likely + Lean Obama: 239
- Toss-up: 125
- Safe + Likely + Lean McCain: 174
- Safe + Likely McCain: 160
I will naturally not attempt to provide an explanation for every single one of these ratings and will concentrate instead on those that have shifted over the past two weeks:
Florida, lean McCain to toss-up: McCain was expected to have a more comfortable time in the Sunshine State than Bush did in 2000 and 2004, but the millions Obama poured in the state throughout the summer allowed him to close the gap and have forced McCain to invest in the state - something he did not want to do. But it seems that the Democrats’ goal was not simply to put McCain into a defensive position, and the Obama campaign is dead serious about winning Florida’s 27 electoral votes (and, with them, almost certainly ensuring that they get to 270 electoral votes).
Obama spent a lot of time in Florida last week - and a candidate’s time in late September is a sure sign that the race is hot. David Plouffe has said that his campaign intends as much as $39 million in Florida this fall (that’s almost half as much as McCain can spent nationally), and the Obama campaign dramatically increased its ads last week, as they are now spending about $2 million a week - more than in any other state. While McCain had a consistent edge in August and early September, both men have been leading in recent surveys, almost always within the margin of error.
Iowa, lean Obama to likely Obama: Iowa becomes the only state rated likely or safe Obama in which McCain is airing ads, but we always knew that the Hawkeye State would be very difficult terrain for McCain. He skipped the state’s caucuses both in 2000 and 2008, simultaneously angering residents and missing opportunities to introduce himself to voters. Obama, on the other hand, built an extensive organization here in the lead-up to his January 3rd victory and that network boosts his November 4th prospects. The latest polls have Obama regularly leading by double-digits, and it would surprise no one if McCain were to pull out of Iowa in the weeks ahead to concentrate in resources in states he has a better chance of winning.
Michigan, toss-up to lean Obama: Throughout the spring and early summer, it looked like the GOP was looking to replace Pennsylvania with Michigan as the biggest endangered blue state - and Obama was clearly struggling to perform at the level of a generic Democrat in a state in which his weakness among blue-collar Democrats looked like it could be fatal. And McCain and Palin’s frequent visits to the state confirmed how high it was on the GOP’s priority list. That made it particularly curious to notice earlier this month that the McCain campaign was spending significantly more in Pennsylvania than in Michigan, perhaps a sign that Republicans noticed they were losing ground here.
And as Obama has gained ground nationally in the aftermath of the financial crisis, he was boosted that much more in Michigan - taking a stunning double-digit lead in a number of recent polls (especially the major Michigan pollster EPIC-MRA). Nowhere are Democrats in a better position when the conversation turns to the national economy than in Michigan, one of the most hard-hit states. That said, McCain remains highly competitive in the state, and the race could tighten again if national security comes to occupy a greater place in the campaign in October. And the amount of legal action in the state testifies to its continuing competitiveness.
North Carolina, lean McCain to toss-up: I wrote a long post devoted exclusively to North Carolina’s tightening just two days ago, so you can read that for a full analysis. Obama’s North Carolina numbers had been stunningly strong in the Tar Heel state since the beginning of the year, but the fact that McCain kept a consistent (albeit narrow) edge in every public poll suggested that the state remained McCain’s to lose. That has changed over the past week, as PPP and Civitas released two polls that had the candidates tied (those were only the second and third surveys ever to find such a result, and the first since April) and Rasmussen had Obama narrowly leading - his first edge ever in North Carolina! And there are other indications that North Carolina is highly competitive: The McCain campaign finally went up on the air earlier this month, and the Tar Heel state was Obama’s first campaign stop after the first debate.
Oregon, lean Obama to likely Obama: Oregon was one of the most endangered blue states in both 2000 or 2004, but Obama has always looked stronger the average Democrat in the Northwest. When Clinton was still in the race, general election surveys showed that this region was one of the only ones in the country in which it seemed safe to say that one candidate looked more electable than the other. And the last few months have confirmed Obama’s strength in Oregon: He now regularly leads by double-digits in a state Gore won by only 7,000 (14% according to Research 2000, 11% according to SUSA and ARG).
South Dakota, likely McCain to safe McCain: This deeply conservative state was not rated in the safest of McCain’s columns because of Obama’s surprising strength in the Mountain West throughout the summer. While Obama had only invested in North Dakota and in Montana, some polls suggested South Dakota might not be entirely out of reach - but that door appears to have slam shut as McCain has regained his footing throughout the region.
Washington, lean Obama to likely Obama: Surprisingly, Obama is having more trouble pulling ahead in Washington polls than in Oregon, which is generally considered to be a more competitive state than its Northern neighbor. But what I wrote about Oregon applies here, namely that Northwestern independents and Democrats appear to harbor warmer feelings for Obama than those in the rest of the country, allowing Obama to hold an edge in a region McCain would have loved to contest. And while I had moved the state to the lean Obama column last week, the Democrat has since then recovered in national polls; it is unlikely McCain can contest Washington without holding a national edge.
- September 27th: + 55 Obama (239 for Obama [154 safe, 43 likely, 42 lean] and 174 for McCain [122 safe, 38 likely, 14])
- September 20th: +6 Obama (222 for Obama [154 safe, 19 likely, 49 lean] and 216 for McCain [119 safe, 41 likely, 56 lean])
- August 31st: + 16 Obama (243 for Obama [154 safe, 29 likely, 60 lean] and 227 for McCain [93 safe, 75 likely, 59 lean])
- August 20th: + 14 Obama (238 for Obama [151 safe, 32 likely, 55 lean] and 224 for McCain [90 safe, 75 likely, 59 lean])
- July 30th: + 38 Obama (238 for Obama [151 safe, 42 likely, 45 lean] and 200 for McCain [90 safe, 75 likely, 35 lean])
- July 16th: +28 Obama (255 for Obama [150 safe, 43 likely, 62 lean] and 227 for McCain [90 safe, 78 likely, 59 lean])
- July 2rd: +11 Obama (238 for Obama [143 safe, 50 likely, 45 lean] and 227 for McCain [93 safe, 78 likely, 56 lean])
- June 18th: +22 Obama (238 for Obama [86 safe, 97 likely, 55 lean] and 216 for McCain [87 safe, 87 likely, 42 lean])
- June 4th: +20 McCain (207 for Obama [76 base, 107 likely, 24 lean] and 227 for McCain [97 safe, 77 likely, 53 lean])