McCain's Electoral College Math

The 2008 Presidential contest should logically be one where the Democratic Party nominee, still likely to be Barack Obama despite his latest case of foot in mouth disease, would win a solid victory. The turnout in the Democratic Party primaries has been near double that in the Republican race (and was 50% higher while the GOP race was still competitive).

The Democrats' advantage

The two remaining Democratic contenders have raised campaign contributions that are multiples of what John McCain has  raised, and Democrats combined have raised more than twice what all GOP contenders raised.  Party identification now runs almost 10% higher for Democrats than Republicans. Millions of African Americans and younger voters have been energized and excited by the Obama campaign, and women by the Clinton campaign, and contributed to record turnout in individual state Democratic Primaries. The Republican nominee would be the oldest President at the start of his term, if he won and he may run against a man 25 years younger than he.

And then there are issues that should work to the Democrats' advantage: the economy is sliding, and the party in power rarely survives an economic downturn.  Despite progress in Iraq since the "surge" began, an upturn in violence in recent weeks has again demonstrated that much remains to be done, and Americans continue to bear a high price for our effort there. Finally, it is not often that the Party in power for two terms can maintain control in the succeeding election even when there is the appearance of peace and prosperity (e.g. 1960 with Richard Nixon, 2000 with Al Gore).

McCain's strength

Despite all this, John McCain is in very good shape for the general election run. The Republicans have landed on the one candidate in their party ideally suited for the race this year, with broad appeal among Democrats and independents, a veteran and war hero during a time of war, a candidate with a reputation for being a straight talker (and not talking down to voters, or outright lying to them), and with real strength in larger swing states.  McCain is also benefiting from the fact that the Democrats continue to snipe  at each other rather than at him, and each candidate has exposed weaknesses in the other, which become ammunition for McCain in the fall campaign.

McCain opens up the map to a broader Electoral College victory than George Bush achieved in 2000 and 2004, particularly against Barack Obama.  Though Bush won 30 states in 2000 and 31 states 4 years later, the loss of any state Bush won in 2000 would have given the election to Al Gore, and the shift of 60,000 votes in Ohio in 2004 would have resulted in a John Kerry victory.

The polls

Though there are more polls being generated this year than ever before, only two organizations are currently tracking national head-to-head  matchups between McCain and either Obama or Clinton: Rasmussen and Gallup.  My preferred poll is the Rasmussen survey, even though the Gallup survey has a larger daily sample, because Rasmussen also frequently conducts state polls, and has the tightest likely voter screen. The latest four day results from Rasmussen give McCain an 8 point lead nationally over either Clinton or Obama

I do not expect McCain to win by an 8 point margin in November. Nor do I expect a blowout win of that size for the Democratic nominee. The last time the Republicans achieved an 8 point national popular vote margin, George Herbert Walker Bush won 40 states, and 426 Electoral College votes against Michael Dukakis in1988. The last time a Democratic candidate had a margin that large was Bill Clinton with his 8% point win in 1996, and he won 31 states and 379 Electoral College votes.  Lyndon Johnson in 1964 is the only other Democrat who won by more than 8% since FDR.

Putting together a win

The goal of a party is first and foremost to win, which means getting to 270 Electoral college votes. The popular vote margin is a secondary issue (though bigger margins give the winner more of a national mandate, and help the party's candidates  down ballot). Al Gore won the popular vote by 0.5% in 2000, Bush by 2.4% in 2004.  In the Electoral College, George Bush won 271 in 2000 and 286 in 2004.  Only three states: Iowa, New Mexico and New Hampshire shifted from 2000 to 2004, the first two moving to the GOP, New Hampshire to the Democrats.  

At the start of this seemingly interminable Presidential campaign, Democrats saw a very favorable Electoral College map.  With Hillary Clinton as the likely nominee, Democrats believed they could turn many states from red to blue, including Ohio (20), Florida (27), Iowa (7), New Mexico (5), Nevada (5), Colorado (9), and possibly Arizona (11), Virginia (13), West Virginia (5), Arkansas (6) and Missouri (11).  But Clinton is unlikely to get the nomination.

Barack Obama is a far weaker candidate in many of these targeted states, but  in particular in Ohio, Florida., Missouri, Arkansas, and West Virginia. McCain takes Arizona off the table against either nominee. Obama is polling better than Clinton in the competitive southwestern states and Iowa, as well as in Oregon, but trails badly in Virginia, which has elected a string of Democrats in recent years to statewide office.  Some Democratic Party officials have written off Florida if Obama is the nominee (in some surveys he trails in the state  by 10% or more, though he only trails by 4% in the Rasmussen survey). The Rasmussen survey shows McCain with a 7% lead over Obama in Ohio. Obama lost badly in that state's Democratic primary (by 10% to Clinton) winning only 5 of 88 counties. Now having insulted rural voters for their attachment to guns and God, the state has become even less friendly turf for him.

The Electoral math looks this way: if Florida and Ohio are safe for McCain, and Virginia and Missouri are too, as they now all appear to be, then McCain has a base of 260 Electoral College votes of the 270 he needs to win.  He would need to  only win10 from among the states Bush won last time that are in play this year: Colorado (currently tied), New Mexico (3 point Obama lead), Iowa (4 point Obama lead)  and Nevada (4 point Obama lead), and several tempting blue states in which McCain is currently competitive: Michigan (18), Pennsylvania (21), New Jersey (15) Wisconsin (10), Minnesota (10), Oregon (7), and New Hampshire (4), among them.

McCain currently is narrowly ahead of Obama in New Hampshire, New Jersey, Wisconsin and Michigan, and behind in the others. A Marist survey last week shocked many by showing McCain ahead of Obama by 2% in New York State (an 18% Kerry win in 2004). If McCain is within 10% of winning in New York in November, he will not need the state to win the election, for he likely will have won most or all  of the blue states on his target list above. 

It is worth noting that many of Rasmussen's state surveys were conducted before the collapse in Obama's national numbers this week. Rasmussen now shows Clinton 1% ahead of Obama in the Democratic race, after being 10% behind Obama a week ago, after her Bosnia lie became the story of the prior week. Obama led McCain by 1% five days ago, and now trails by 8%. That is equivalent to a shift of 5 million votes from Democrat to Republican (a ten million vote margin shift), in part to be sure attributable to Obama's well-publicized statement on rural voters at a San Francisco fundraiser.

Obama's Electoral College problem is that his strongest states, where he runs better than Clinton, are states where the Democrats are still likely to lose, though maybe a bit less decisively with Obama at the top of the ticket. These states include deep South states with high African American percentages of the population: Georgia, Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, and North Carolina, and some central and western states with very few black voters: Nebraska, Kansas, Montana, Alaska, and the Dakotas. Losing a state by 10% rather than 20% still collects zero Electoral College votes. On the other hand, Obama is running ahead of Clinton in some states the Democrats have been winning regularly of late: Oregon, Washington, Vermont, Maine, Hawaii, and Maryland, which adds no Electoral College votes to the Party's count. In general, Obama is running better among white voters in states with few black voters, and worse than Clinton among white voters in states with higher percentages of blacks.

The sociologists can opine on what that means, but the  Electoral College math shows this: the most competitive of the large swing states -- Ohio (4% margin for Bush in 2000, 2% for Bush in 2004), Michigan (5% Gore win in 2000, 3% Kerry win in 2004), Pennsylvania (5% Gore win in 2000, 2% Kerry win in 2004), and Florida (tie in 2000, 5% Bush win in 2004) -- are all states where Clinton is more competitive with McCain than Obama is with McCain at the moment (though Rasmussen has Obama a bit closer in Florida, differing from all other surveys of that state). 

Clinton's long-shot bid for the nomination depends on convincing superdelegates that she can win in November and Obama cannot. If McCain wins by 8% , it will not matter who his opponent is -- he will likely win all the close states. But if we get another 3% or narrower popular vote contest, then Clinton has an argument based on her strength in the competitive Electoral College states, versus Obama's relative strength in non-competitive states.

It is a long way ‘til November, and the Arizona Senator could be hurt if the economic downturn is deeper and longer than most economists expect it to be, or if the Iraq situation starts to unravel again. The Democrats are likely to have a large money advantage in the fall campaign. But they may also have a candidate tied to Reverend Jeremiah Wright ,and his anti-American rants, and a candidate and his wife who can't seem to escape appearing to be condescending to those not of their social/economic/educational class.

None of this will matter to those on the left, or to young people who are buying Obama's content-free but well delivered messages on hope and change. But to many Americans in the "flyover zone" who do not live for politics, but still vote every four years, John McCain may appear to be more tested, and a safer choice in troubled times than his young, and untested opponent.  At least that is what the polls now show. 

Bill Clinton, hardly a novice at politics, said last year that John McCain was the GOP's best candidate for the general election this year.  In November we will know if best is good enough for the GOP this year.

Richard Baehr is political director of American Thinker.
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