Narrowing The Field

With 54 days until the election and four debates still to go, a lot can happen; the presidential race could still end up getting badly away from either McCain or Obama. But now that we have the benefit of polling done entirely after the two VPs were picked and the two conventions held, it’s possible to get a sense of what the playing field really looks like. On a national level, the race is still close, but looks much better for McCain, who leads by 2.5 in the RCP poll average; of the 9 polls listed, McCain leads in 6, Obama one, and two are tied, with all showing fewer undecideds than existed a month ago but only one poll giving either candidate 50% (the USA/Gallup poll showing a 54-44 McCain lead among likely voters – a result that would mean the race is effectively over if it was repeated in multiple polls, but which is apparently a serious outlier).

The race, however, will be conducted on a state-by-state basis, which sends us back to the Electoral College. You can run the polls yourself, but below the fold I will walk through what my gut is telling me after looking at those polls. The bottom line is that for all the talk of how Obama and McCain were map-changing candidates, this race now looks like it will go down to the wire in just a handful of crucial battleground states, with most of the Bush-Gore/Bush-Kerry red-blue patterns holding steady (the persistence of these patterns being good news for Republicans after the 2010 census, but that’s another day’s argument).The RCP map shows Obama up 217-216, with nine states up for grabs

I generally think that’s correct as far as the states that RCP has moved into each candidate’s column – those are states that are not going to be in play unless you get a big national movement. For example:

  1. McCain largely burned his bridges long ago in Iowa, a 2004 Bush state, by his principled opposition to ethanol subsidies; he skipped the 2000 Iowa caucuses and finished a distant third there in 2008. Obama, by contrast, is one of the ethanol industry’s largest recipients of cash and (perhaps not coincidentally) a booster of subsidies. Iowa launched Obama, and is likely to stay in his column along with politically similar Minnesota and Wisconsin, even though all three will end up being fairly close.

  2. A surge of African-American voter turnout will make North Carolina closer, but I expect McCain to hold his turf there.

  3. Florida may be close in the polls, but really it’s been a steady Republican state. There were two anomalous factors that conspired to make it close in 2000: the popularity of Joe Lieberman on the ticket with older Jewish voters transplanted from the Northeast, and the early call by Fox and other networks for Gore that sent Republicans home in the panhandle before the polls had closed. Absent those factors, 2002, 2004 and even 2006 were all good Republican years in Florida.

When push comes to shove, I also expect Indiana – a rock-ribbed Republican state even in the Clinton years – and most likely Ohio and Virginia to stay home with the Republicans, close though all three will be, and while Obama has struggled in Pennsylvania (recall the “bitter” comment and his thumping in the primary there), I suspect that traditional party loyalty and Ed Rendell’s machine will put him over the top at the end. As you will see as you walk through these maps, it’s all but impossible for McCain to win without both Ohio and Virginia (and, obviously, Florida) – he’s unlikely to swipe Michigan or Pennsylvania unless he’s winning Ohio – and even more implausible for Obama to win without Pennsylvania. These are bedrock states of each party’s path to victory.

If you add in those states to each side, that gives us a map with only five swing states, and a 260-238 McCain lead:

McCain has a lot of atmospheric help going for him in Michigan: Democratic mismanagement of the state government and the economy; the arrest and resignation of Detroit’s Democratic mayor, who supported Obama; lingering bitterness over Obama’s effort to avoid seating the Michigan delegation during his battle with Hillary. On the other hand, McCain got beat in the Michigan primary himself after his comment about jobs not leaving and not coming back was taken as a sign of undue pessimism about the economy. Fundamentally, though, Michigan is a Democratic state, albeit narrowly; it’s still an uphill battle. If we assume Obama holds onto it, we get McCain 260, Obama 255, with only Colorado and Nevada (won by Bush twice), New Mexico (won by Bush and Gore), and New Hampshire (won by Bush and Kerry):

All four of these states seem legitimately too close to call if you’ve been reading the polls. There are individual factors at work. McCain’s been popular forever in New Hampshire, site of his crucial primary victories in 2000 and 2008 (both of which depended on his popularity with independents) and the home of countless McCain town halls and bus rides over the years, whereas Obama fared poorly in the primary there. In Nevada, the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste disposal site is a flashpoint; McCain’s support of the site and ambitious plan to build more nuclear plants, compared to Obama’s unwillingness to embrace either, put McCain in a bind there. Colorado’s been trending Democratic due to a large influx of Latinos as well as liberal Californians. Then again, the distinctly Western flavor of the McCain-Palin ticket could prove appealing over prolonged exposure in CO, NV and NM.

This is where things get really hairy, because there are three different combinations (McCain wins CO, or NM + NH, or NV + NH) that get us a 269-269 tie. I think we can all agree that this would be a terrible outcome for the nation, and would cripple the next president’s ability to govern, just as the recount made it impossible for Bush, even before he took office, to even approach the “uniter, not a divider” tag he’d campaigned under; the Democrats were permanently estranged from him before Day One.

The first problem, if there’s a 269-269 tie, is the “faithless elector” problem, i.e., some elector bolting sides to break the tie, a result that would create an enormous outcry. If we get past that, the 12th Amendment explains what happens:

The person having the greatest number of votes for President, shall be the President, if such number be a majority of the whole number of Electors appointed; and if no person have such majority, then from the persons having the highest numbers not exceeding three on the list of those voted for as President, the House of Representatives shall choose immediately, by ballot, the President, the votes shall be taken by states, the representation from each state having one vote; a quorum for this purpose shall consist of a member or members from two-thirds of the states, and a majority of all the states shall be necessary to a choice. And if the House of Representatives shall not choose a President whenever the right of choice shall devolve upon them, before the fourth day of March next following, then the Vice-President shall act as President, as in the case of the death or other constitutional disability of the President.–The person having the greatest number of votes as Vice-President, shall be the Vice-President, if such number be a majority of the whole number of Electors appointed, and if no person have a majority, then from the two highest numbers on the list, the Senate shall choose the Vice-President; a quorum for the purpose shall consist of two-thirds of the whole number of Senators, and a majority of the whole number shall be necessary to a choice.

We’ll skip over here the part where some bizarre deadlock prevents the House from deciding, and Dick Cheney ends up the President…basically, the vote would come down to which party controls the most state delegations in the House, and at least at present, that’s the Democrats by a margin of 2 or 3 states as of last count – I believe the most recent special elections swung them another state. I’m sure we’ll all count more closely if it happens. Of course, that’s the current Congress; I’m a little less clear on whether the current Congress or the one elected in November would tally the electoral votes…but assuming it’s still the Democrats, this probably means Obama wins if it’s 269-269.

Then we get the VP, picked by the Senate. The Senate currently has 49 Democrats, 49 Republicans, one Socialist, one member of the Connecticut for Lieberman party who has endorsed McCain-Palin, and a tiebreaking vote by Dick Cheney. My guess is that given Senatorial courtesies and the like, especially with Biden as the opponent, McCain would probably dissuade Republicans from putting up a fight to saddle Obama with Palin as his VP, another outcome that would be highly unstable and bad for the country.

Well, that was a long digression into the parade of horribles, but the bottom line is, McCain needs 270 to win, Obama probably needs 269. And at this writing, the single state most likely to swing that difference is Colorado. The odds are pretty good that the margin of victory will be one state, maybe two, that are decided by just a percentage point or two.

Fasten your seatbelts.