We have been talking so much about Missouri, Indiana and North Carolina that it would also seem that Barack Obama’s electoral fortunes depend on these highly competitive states. If that were true, we would be in for quite an unpredictable Election Day indeed.
Unfortunately for McCain, a sweep of those states - even if we add Florida, Ohio, Georgia to his column - would get him no closer to the fundamental challenge he faces if he wants to reach 270 electoral votes: closing the gap in Pennsylvania, Colorado, Nevada and Virginia.
As it is looking increasingly unlikely that McCain can save Colorado given the huge share of the electorate that has already voted, all Obama needs is to hold on to Pennsylvania. The battle of Pennsylvania is sometimes portrayed as a sign McCain is still on the offensive, but this is the ultimate defensive move dictated by the need to survive.
Even if McCain can tap into the discontent of culturally conservative Democratic voters and somehow prove all Pennsylvania polls wrong, he would still face an uphill climb as he would also have to win one of Colorado, Nevada and Virginia - all states that are currently rated likely Obama. This is certainly not an easy proposal, especially in the two Southwestern states in which Obama has already locked in big majorities in early voting. And a McCain comeback in Pennsylvania would not necessarily mean that he has closed the gap in Virginia since the electoral coalitions Obama needs to assemble to win both states are different enough.
All of this suggests that Pennsylvania and Virginia are the states to watch tomorrow night, as it is difficult to imagine - though still technically possible - that Obama loses the election if he wins either of those states.
None of this is to underestimate the importance of Florida and Ohio: Both states lean ever so slightly towards the Democratic nominee, and a win in either state would surely guarantee him an electoral college majority. (The same is true in any of the other competitive red states, and the Obama organization is so dominant in some of them that for him to win there but not in other states would not surprise me.) But saying that the election’s fate is in the hands of Florida, Ohio or in states other than Pennsylvania, Virginia, Colorado and Nevada would be overstating McCain’s chances of survival.
Since the first presidential ratings I posted on June 4th, there has been an unmistakable shift towards Obama. Of the nine states that were then rated toss-ups (CO, MI, NV, NH, NM, OH, PA, VA and WI), eight are now in the likely Obama column and one in the lean Obama column; all states that were rated lean McCain are now toss-ups, and all states that were rated lean Obama are now likely Obama. And the GOP base has significantly eroded: Of the eight states that were listed as likely McCain, four are now toss-ups - as would Alaska have been had McCain not picked Sarah Palin as his running-mate.
Without further delay, here are the thirteenth presidential ratings (states whose ratings have been changed towards Obama are colored blue, those whose ratings have been changed towards McCain are colored red):
- Safe McCain: Alabama, Alaska, Idaho, Kansas, Kentucky, Mississippi, Nebraska (at large + 3rd congressional district), Oklahoma, Utah, Tennessee, Texas, Wyoming (99 EVs)
- Likely McCain: Arkansas, Louisiana, Nebraska’s 1st district, South Carolina, South Dakota, West Virginia (29 EVs)
- Lean McCain: Arizona, Nebraska’s 2nd district (11 EVs)
- Toss-up: Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Missouri, Montana, North Carolina, North Dakota (85 EV)
- Lean Obama: Ohio (20 EVs)
- Likely Obama: Colorado, Iowa, Maine (at-large + 1st district + 2nd district), Michigan, Minnesota, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Mexico, Pennsylvania, Virginia, Wisconsin (96 EVs)
- Safe Obama: California, Connecticut, DC, Delaware, Hawaii, Illinois, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, Oregon, Rhode Island, Vermont, Washington (185 EVs)
This gives us the following map and totals:
- Safe + Likely Obama: 286 electoral votes
- Safe + Likely + Lean Obama: 311
- Toss-up: 85
- Safe + Likely + Lean McCain: 142
- Safe + Likely McCain: 128
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 week:
Arizona, likely McCain to lean McCain: This seemingly last-minute development was a long time coming: Arizona polls have shown a surprisingly tight race for months, and McCain’s first signs of vulnerability came when he failed to break 50% in the state’s primary on Super Tuesday. But no one really believed that McCain’s home state could possibly be that competitive and, despite some occasional noise about an optimistic state Democratic Party, the Obama campaign did not make a move. Until this week, that is, when a big wave of polls showing McCain’s lead within the margin of error forced Obama into action; his campaign bought air time in Arizona and mobilized state volunteers.
It’s hard to think of a scenario in which Arizona is the decisive state, but at the very least, Arizona’s yearning to be a battleground state is a very good sign for Democrats in future presidential elections, and it will pay dividends at the House level, where Democrats are poised to pick up one to two seats after the two they won over in 2006.
Georgia, lean McCain to toss-up: It’s hard to believe that we are thinking of Georgia as a battleground state - let alone as a toss-up - but until Republicans prove that they are enthusiastic enough to actually vote, they are facing a catastrophe in the state: More than half of the electorate cast an early ballot, and African-Americans make up 35% of those voters - up from the 25% they represented in 2004. If strong Republican and white turnout on Tuesday does not push that number south to 30-31%, Barack Obama will be ideally placed for a (somewhat unexpected) pick-up. His campaign had invested in the state throughout the summer but went dark in mid-September, in the aftermath of the GOP convention; they are now back, airing at least one of ad tying McCain to President Bush.
Louisiana, safe McCain to likely McCain: Merely mentioning this state in the context of presidential politics would have been unthinkable just a month ago, but in the current climate an upset cannot be ruled out in any states that have a history of voting Democratic. Of course, Louisiana’s situation is complicated by the post-Katrina migrations, and no one truly knows whether the African-American population is large enough for a Democrat to pull off victory in a competitive race here. Mary Landrieu’s fate is, of course, far more dependent on this question than Obama’s.
Nevada, toss-up to likely Obama: Different forces have conspired to make Nevada look like a likely Obama pick-up. For one, he dominates among Hispanics by margins that Al Gore and John Kerry would be jealous of, as well as among the West’s independent voters, who have always been one of his strongest constituencies. Polls released over the past 10 days by CNN/Time, Suffolk, Research 2000 show Obama has jumped to a commanding lead that rivals his advantage in Colorado. As if this was not enough, early voting is looking very promising for Obama. In Clark County and Washoe County, which together account for 87% of registered voters, the gap between Democratic and Republican early voters is far larger than that of the electorate at large; if conservatives do not vote at a far higher pace, the GOP could not only lose the state at the presidential level but also one or both of its House seats.
New Hampshire, lean Obama to likely Obama: I am weary of underestimating McCain in this state, but all polls have shown a very clear trend towards the Democrat over the past few weeks, who now leads by double-digits in most polls. The UNH/WMUR, surely the most trusted poll in the state, just released its final survey showing Obama leading by 11% and holding a big lead among independents. Who knew New Hampshire independents would prove McCain’s undoing?
New Jersey, likely Obama to safe Obama: Once upon a time, Republicans believed that the September 11th effect would swing the Garden State their way, and Bush made a lot of progress in this state between 2000 and 2004. How times have changed, as Obama has now seized a dominant lead in nearly all of the state’s polling. New Jersey typically flirts with Republicans for a while before giving itself to a Democrat reluctantly, but even that pattern hasn’t really held true this year, as McCain only came close to making the state competitive in the immediate aftermath of the Republican convention.
South Carolina, safe McCain to likely McCain: Just as in Louisiana, an Obama victory in South Carolina would mean that the Democratic nominee is on his way to an electoral college landslide of well above 400 EVs. But if Obama clinches a 10% win in the popular vote, it’s not inconceivable that states like South Carolina would fall in his column. A recent Mason-Dixon poll showed McCain leading by only 6% in a state Bush carried by 17%. The boost in African-American turnout that we have been seeing in other states’ early voting could help Obama close the gap by a few more points.
Washington, likely Obama to safe Obama: Just as he believed he could put the Northeast in play, John McCain once had ambitions in the Pacific Northwest. But Barack Obama’s uncommon strength among the region’s independents (evidenced by the fact that this was the one region in which Obama ran consistently ahead of Hillary Clinton in general election polls) undercut McCain’s potential; also helping Obama is the fact that blue-collar voters in the West are less resistant, making it easier for him to unify the Democratic base. The result is an impressive lead that would have made Al Gore jealous. The main question in this state is whether Obama’s margin of victory is big enough to guarantee that Gregoire survives.
West Virginia, lean McCain to likely McCain: The site of Hillary Clinton’s greatest triumph was the most unlikely of states for Barack Obama to score an upset; the state is filled with blue-collar white Democrats who have not voted for a Democratic presidential candidate for more than a decade. But a wave of polls in late September and early October showed a highly competitive contest, and Obama (presumably not sure of what to do with the millions he had in the bank) decided to invest in the state’s airwaves. However, Obama has been unable to make more progress over the past few weeks, and most polls that have been released over the past three weeks have McCain solidifying his position and holding a lead that hovers around the 10% mark. Obama was not even able to force McCain to spend time playing defense here. That said, that the state even got on the list of potential battleground states is a testament to how much the economic crisis transformed the presidential race.
- November 2nd: +169 Obama (311-142)
- October 27th: +149 Obama (306-157)
- October 20th: + 153 Obama (313-160)
- October 12th: + 150 Obama (313-163)
- September 27th: + 55 Obama (239-174)
- September 20th: +6 Obama (222-216)
- August 31st: + 16 Obama (243-227)
- August 20th: + 14 Obama (238-224)
- July 30th: + 38 Obama (238-200)
- July 16th: +28 Obama (255-227)
- July 2rd: +11 Obama (238-227)
- June 18th: +22 Obama (238-216)
- June 4th: +20 McCain (227-207)