The Road to 270: A Look at the Map Five Weeks Before the Election

Posted: September 30, 2008 in 2008 Elections, Barack Obama, John McCain
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This is the first in a series I will be doing every week from now until Election Day. The following map shows the race as it stands right now, and divides the 50 states into three categories: McCain (Red), Obama (Blue), and Swing (Yellow).

I’ve allocated states for John McCain and Barack Obama based on traditional and current voting trends and demographics. As always, the swing states – by my count, the 16 states which can go in favor of either candidate on Election Day – will determine which candidate wins the White House in November. The magic number of Electoral College votes needed to win the presidency is 270, hence the title of this entry.

A brief observation about the 16 swing states in this year’s race: many of them are perennially up for grabs in presidential elections, among them three of the biggest prizes up for grabs: Florida, Pennsylvania and Ohio. Their importance cannot be overestimated: two of these states have ultimately decided the winner of the last two presidential elections.

But what makes this year unusual is that the GOP is forced to play defense in three states that have been reliably Republican for decades: North Carolina, which hasn’t gone to a Democrat since Jimmy Carter’s 1976 campaign; and Virginia and Indiana, which were last won by Lyndon Johnson during his 1964 landslide victory. John Kerry made an attempt to pick up Virginia and North Carolina (the home state of his running mate John Edwards) four years ago, but ultimately gave up when poll numbers showed both states to be out of reach.

Montana is also a remote possibility as a swing state, although recent polls have the state leaning toward McCain. But the Democrats have had a bit of a resurgence at the state level in recent years. Historically, Bill Clinton won the state back in 1992, but he had help from Ross Perot, who siphoned off votes that might have otherwise gone to the incumbent president George H.W. Bush. George W. Bush routed Al Gore and John Kerry in Montana by 25 and 20 points respectively in his two presidential campaigns.

With the exception of these four states, the swing state map is virtually identical to 2004. In contrast, there are no solidly Democratic states (i.e. Massachusetts, Washington) that are up for grabs the way that Virginia, North Carolina, Indiana, and (to a lesser degree) Montana are now.

Based on recent trends and analysis, here’s what the map would look like if the election were held the week of September 29:

Barack Obama would win the election 291-247, with a majority of the swing states breaking in his favor. There are two reasons for this argument: first, James Carville’s famous line from the 1992 Clinton campaign “It’s the economy, stupid,”, second, the McCain campaign’s dizzying and near perpetual tailspin which began with the Lehman Brothers bankruptcy on September 15, which shifted the focus of the campaign from lipstick on a pig and national security – considered John McCain’s strong subject – to the economy, a subject which polls show voters prefer the Democrats.

McCain’s downward spiral has gotten progressively worse with his decision to suspend his campaign, essentially drawing against Barack Obama during the first presidential debate which helped to solidify the Democrat’s standing in the national and state polls, the failure of Congress to pass a bailout package in the House of Representatives, and the Dow Jones industrial average taking a record 777 point nosedive after the bill’s collapse.

McCain would narrowly win Florida and Ohio, two states out of the big three up for grabs that both went for George W. Bush in the last two elections. But Obama would compensate for those losses by winning Nevada, Colorado, New Mexico, and Virginia – worth a combined 32 Electoral College votes, almost enough to offset the combined loss of Ohio and Florida’s 47 Electoral College votes – while retaining all of the other states John Kerry won in 2004.

It’s a pretty safe bet that one of these states will push Obama or McCain past the 270 threshold to win the White House. If I had to pick one, based on the 2006 elections, I’d choose Virginia. It was the Webb-Allen Senate race that in the end gave the Democrats control of the U.S. Senate, and it was also the last race to be decided.

Ohio would be very close again, and the political terrain might shift in Obama’s favor compared to 2004 because of Democratic gains in the state during 2006 and because of the focus on the economy, particularly in a manufacturing state like Ohio which has been hit hard by outsourcing and unemployment. It wouldn’t be enough right now to flip to the Obama side, but McCain and the Republicans would have to spend a lot of time and money defending it, because without Ohio it would be virtually impossible for McCain to win the race.

McCain’s best chance at picking up a Kerry swing state from 2004 at this point is New Hampshire. Given the strong libertarian and independent streak in their electorate, and the fact that McCain won two critical victories in their primary in 2000 and 2008, that it is the most Republican-leaning state in New England, and that it was one of only three states (along with Iowa and New Mexico) that flipped parties between 2000 and 2004, don’t be surprised if you see him there a few times between now and November.

One thing working against him is recent political trends. When the Democrats retook control of Congress in 2006, one of the geographic areas where they made a significant amount of gains was in New England, where several incumbent moderate Republicans in the House (Nancy Johnson, Charlie Bass, etc.) and the Senate (Lincoln Chafee) were ousted. Now, there is only one House Republican from New England: Rep. Christopher Shays of Connecticut, and Sen. Susan Collins of Maine is facing a tough re-election fight.

As I said in a previous post, unless John McCain or some outside event can fundamentally shake the dynamic of the race away from Obama’s favor, it will become increasingly difficult to stop his momentum and of perceptions of undecided voters from hardening. A lot can change in a day or even a few weeks, as we’ve seen during the month of September, but time is running out for the McCain campaign.

His best hopes are either that Obama does disastrously in the final two presidential debates, or that some enterprising reporter unearths an October surprise that will damage his candidacy that could push just enough swing voters in McCain’s direction. But given that no reporter, or any opposition researcher from the Hillary Clinton campaign for that matter, was able to find a silver bullet to stop the Obama juggernaut, this is not a strategy I would plan the final weeks of a presidential campaign around.


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