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Chris Weigant Headshot

Electoral Math -- Obama Holds His Lead

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It's quiet out there... too quiet.

Well, not really, but I always wanted to start a column with that line. The news this week is that there's not much news. The state-by-state polls have been remarkably stable for how close we are to Election Day. Some fringe states have shifted slightly for both candidates, but most states appear to be more and more "locked in" at this point.

Which reminds me, what the heck is John McCain doing in Pennsylvania? He must be counting on one whopping big Bradley Effect there, because almost every poll I've seen says he doesn't stand a chance in the Keystone State.

What it may be is that McCain could be pinning his hopes for the entire race on Pennsylvania. It has an impressive 21 electoral votes, and it is looking more and more unlikely that McCain has any way of putting together a 270-vote win. So maybe their electoral math has come down to: if we lose Pennsylvania, we lose the race.

That would be great news for Obama, if it were true. The list of states McCain is rumored to be pulling out of continues to grow (Maine, Michigan, Wisconsin, Iowa, Colorado), meaning McCain's got fewer and fewer chances remaining, and possibly no chance at all without Pennsylvania.

More and more, it is looking like Virginia will be the state that decides Election Night in Obama's favor, and (hopefully) very early in the evening. Sure, it could be Florida or Ohio, but my guess is that the vote-counting is going to take a while in both of them, while Virginia will be a big enough Obama victory that the networks will call it early, just from exit polling.

I could be wrong, but that's my educated guess at this point.

But enough rampant speculation, let's get on to the charts and numbers and stuff. First up, the Electoral College totals. [Click on any of these charts to see a larger image. Compare with last week's column to see the graphs' movement in the past week.]


[Obama's percentage starts from the bottom (blue) and McCain's starts from the top (red), and winning means getting your line over (or under, for McCain) the 50% mark. Tied states are in white.]

As I said, remarkably stable. Obama lost a little bit, then gained it back. McCain lost a little bit, and didn't gain it back.

The week started with West Virginia flipping to McCain (and then, just today, firming up for him significantly). But at the same time, North Carolina flipped from McCain to being tied. Three days later, it flipped over to Obama's column. But it truly could go either way, so while it's in Obama's column this week it could just as easily go back.

Case in point: North Dakota. After just five days in Obama's column, it flipped back to being tied this week. And still could go either way.

John McCain is now at the lowest point he's hit during the entire campaign. And Obama has set a new record high. McCain has just 171 electoral votes (EV), or 31.8%. Obama, meanwhile, has an astonishing 364 EV, for a total of 67.7%. In other words, Obama is now doing better than two-thirds, and McCain has slipped below one-third of the total votes.

This is a very nice place for Obama to be, with less than two weeks to go.

Let's look at each candidate's relative support within their numbers, starting as always with John McCain.


[Definition of terms: Strong means 10% or better in the polls, Weak means 5% or better, and Barely is under five percent.]

Starting with McCain's Strong numbers, he gained one state early in the week (Mississippi) but then lost one later on (South Dakota). This leaves him with a modest gain of three electoral votes here, up to a total of 134 EV.

McCain's Weak numbers also moved a bit, but not by much. He lost Mississippi upwards to Safe, and then he lost Montana downwards to Barely. Just today, he made some ground back here by moving West Virginia up from Barely, leaving him with a net loss of only one electoral vote this week, down to 23 EV total.

McCain's Barely numbers also quivered a bit this week. He started the week off by grabbing West Virginia from Obama's column, but unfortunately on the same day North Carolina moved to being tied (and later moved into Obama's column). And West Virginia later moved up to Weak for McCain, which was good news for him but reduced his numbers here. Conversely, his Barely number bumped up with the addition of Montana, but this isn't good news at all since it is moving downwards from Weak McCain. Overall, McCain suffered a net loss of 12 EV in the Barely column this week, finishing up with a total of 14 EV.

The metric I trust more than any other to show true support is Strong plus Weak. Adding these together didn't show much movement at all this week for McCain. The line went down a bit, then recovered a bit. McCain ends up the week with a net gain of only two electoral votes, for a total of 157 EV. While the line is moving upwards, it is just not moving upwards fast enough to give even the staunchest McCain supporter much hope.

Speaking of hope, let's turn to Obama's numbers.


Obama gained three states in his Strong category, and then lost one at the very end. He started the week off by firming up New Mexico, followed by firming up Maine and Minnesota, and then right at the end fell back a bit by losing New Hampshire down to Weak.

At his peak, he hit the highest number he has ever hit in this category -- 264 EV. Since New Hampshire slid back, he's still at a comfortable 260 EV, up 15 EV from last week. Will 264 EV wind up being the best he does in this category? I wonder, but I'm still holding out hope for New Hampshire to come back, and there is a very real possibility of adding either Colorado or Virginia (or both!) as well, which means Obama could still reach a number in his Strong category alone which would be enough to win the entire race -- a stunning accomplishment.

Obama lost ground in Weak this week, most of it (thankfully) upwards to his Strong category. He started the week off losing New Mexico up to Strong, but at the same time also losing Missouri down to Barely and West Virginia to McCain entirely. The best news was on the same day, when Obama moved Virginia back to Weak from Barely. Later in the week, Maine and Minnesota moved up to Strong, and then at the end of the week New Hampshire fell back to Weak from Strong. That's a lot of movement, which resulted in a net loss for Obama here of 18 EV, down to a total of 26 EV.

At the same time, though, Obama gained some ground in Barely. He lost North Dakota down to a tie, but picked up North Carolina from a tie at almost the same time. He also gained Missouri, down from Weak. Overall, his Barely numbers improved by 10 EV to a total of 78 EV.

Looking at Strong plus Weak for Obama reveals that he is steadily holding his ground. While he had a small peak last Wednesday up to 289 EV, this dropped three but then stayed exactly the same throughout all the movement elsewhere for the entire week. Now, it would certainly be nice to see this number get a bit higher by moving some of the Barely states into at least Weak (NV, MO, OH, NC, or FL) to provide Obama a bigger cushion for error on Election Day. But for Strong plus Weak to be as high as 286 EV means Obama doesn't need a single battleground state at this point to win outright, he just needs to hold the states he's got. Which he did admirably well this week.


Sam's Picks

We turn once again to the analysis from Sam Minter and his website His chart averages the last five state polls, while I just take the most recent data from, so his data is more stable than mine.

His chart combines my three charts above into one. Obama starts from the top, McCain starts from the bottom, and wherever the double baby-blue/pink line currently is determines who is ahead, measured from the centerline.

Minter's most recent comments sum up his view of the race:

New Summary:

McCain Best Case -- Obama 277, McCain 261
Obama Best Case -- Obama 383, McCain 155
If everybody gets their leans -- 364 Obama, 174 McCain

So where does that put us?

Well, McCain's best case if he wins every single swing state is still to lose.

Over the last week or so, McCain has been able to move a couple of states (Florida and Colorado) from being blue states back to being swing states. The lead hasn't flipped toward McCain in any of the swing states, but he has made them close again, which is of course the needed first step. He still however needs to pull at least 9 more electoral votes from "Weak Obama" to "Lean Obama" in order to have a possible path to victory.

Meanwhile, there is another line I hadn't paid much attention to lately. That is the "Strong Obama" line. That is, the number of electoral votes Obama has including ONLY the states where his lead is over 10%. Obama does not seem to have peaked yet on this metric. Obama now has 245 electoral votes with just these states. That means he only needs 25 electoral votes from his Weak or Lean states in order to win. There are 119 electoral votes in those categories at the moment that he can pick from to try to get those 25.

The question here is not if McCain can win. The question is if he can even pull enough states back out of Obama's world to even have an imaginable way to win.

Not a good week for McCain fans, I guess.


My Picks

As we've had a relatively stable week, my picks haven't moved a whole lot either. There have been some changes at the margins, but mostly among states with less than 10 electoral votes, meaning that while a few states moved around, the totals really haven't much. Obama's skyrocketing gains appear to have slowed, McCain seems to have largely staunched the bleeding, but there are no signs of any sort of turnaround for him yet at the state-by-state level.

If this keeps up for another week, one wouldn't be surprised to hear that Malia and Sasha Obama have started measuring Amy Carter's treehouse for drapes.

So to speak.

Anyway, here are my personal picks for the week. As always, the categories used are: Likely Obama (broken down to Safe Obama and Probable Obama); Likely McCain (Safe/Probable); and Tossup (broken down to Lean Obama, Lean McCain, and Too Close To Call). And at the very end is a section with all the full data for those who just can't get enough of this stuff.


Likely States -- Obama

Safe Obama (21 states, 260 EV) -- CA, CT, DC, DE, HI, IA, IL, MA, MD, ME, MI, MN, NJ, NM, NY, OR, PA, RI, VT, WA, WI.

Very little movement here. Maine moves up from Probable, New Hampshire moves down to Probable. Because they both have four electoral votes, the numbers don't move at all. Just counting Safe Obama gives 260 EV, or only ten away from victory in this category alone.

Probable Obama (3 states, 26 EV) -- CO, NH, VA.

Maine moves up to Safe, New Hampshire moves down. But the good news here is that Colorado is looking firmer and firmer for Obama. Because of this stability, Colorado can now be considered a Probable state for Obama.

This improves Obama's overall Likely numbers to 24 states and a whopping 286 EV. Meaning that if Obama only wins these states, and none of the tossups, he will still have 16 electoral votes more than he needs to win the race.


Likely States -- McCain

Safe McCain (16 states, 134 EV) -- AK, AL, AR, AZ, ID, KS, KY, LA, MS, NE, OK, SC, TN, TX, UT, WY.

McCain also picks up one and loses one in his Safe category this week. South Dakota softened up, and moves down to Probable. But Mississippi firmed up for McCain, meaning he has a very small net gain this week of three electoral votes.

Probable McCain (2 states, 18 EV) -- GA, SD.

South Dakota moves down from Safe, Mississippi moves up to Safe, but the real bad news for McCain is he's seemingly got a new (red) battleground state to play defense in, since Montana moves down to Lean McCain (and could even move further, this is a continuing trend for Montana).

Overall, McCain loses one state and three electoral votes from his Likely states, for a total of 18 states and an anemic 152 EV.


Tossup States

Lean Obama (2 states, 47 EV) -- FL, OH.

The good news here for Obama is that Colorado moved up from Lean Obama to Probable Obama this week. The bad news is that his numbers in both Florida and Ohio have flattened out and may even have dipped. If either state gets any closer, it will move down to Too Close To Call next week. But the really good news is it is looking more and more like Obama is not going to need either of them to win the race. These two states may mean the difference between "comfortable win" and "landslide" for Obama, but they likely won't mean "President McCain" even if Obama loses them both.

Lean McCain (3 states, 19 EV) -- IN, MT, WV.

Some mixed news here for McCain as well. The good news for McCain is that West Virginia seems to be moving away from its brief flirtation with Obama. McCain's numbers here have continued to improve, meaning the state moves up from Too Close To Call this week. But the bad news for McCain is that Indiana still hasn't shown strong enough support to move up to Probable McCain, and the really bad news is that Montana has moved down from a Likely state to merely a Lean McCain state.

Too Close To Call (4 states, 34 EV) -- MO, NC, ND, NV.

Surprisingly little movement here, for being so close to the finish line. Missouri, Nevada, and North Carolina are showing a very slight lead to Obama, but not enough to move them into any of his categories. And North Dakota is a complete tossup at this point. West Virginia moved out of this column up to Lean McCain, but otherwise this is the same list as last week.


[Program Note: Only two more of these columns to go! Next Wednesday as usual, and then a special "My Election Picks" column, which will appear on Election Day before the polls close.]


[Electoral Vote Data:]

Previous electoral math columns:

[6/30/08], [7/21/08], [8/6/08], [8/20/08], [9/17/08], [9/24/08], [10/1/08], [10/8/08], and [10/15/08].


Barack Obama Likely Easy Wins -- 24 States -- 286 Electoral Votes:

Safe States -- 21 States -- 260 Electoral Votes
California (55), Connecticut (7), Delaware (3), Hawaii (4), Illinois (21), Iowa (7), Maine (4), Maryland (10), Massachusetts (12), Michigan (17), Minnesota (10), New Jersey (15), New Mexico (5), New York (31), Oregon (7), Pennsylvania (21), Rhode Island (4), Vermont (3), Washington, D.C. (3), Washington (11), Wisconsin (10)

Probable States -- 3 States -- 26 Electoral Votes
Colorado (9), New Hampshire (4), Virginia (13)


John McCain Likely Easy Wins -- 18 States -- 152 Electoral Votes:

Safe States -- 16 States -- 134 Electoral Votes
Alabama (9), Alaska (3), Arizona (10), Arkansas (6), Idaho (4), Kansas (6), Kentucky (8), Louisiana (9), Mississippi (6), Nebraska (5), Oklahoma (7), South Carolina (8), Tennessee (11), Texas (34), Utah (5), Wyoming (3)

Probable States -- 2 States -- 18 Electoral Votes
Georgia (15), South Dakota (3)


Tossup States -- 9 States -- 100 Electoral Votes:

Tossup States Leaning Obama -- 2 States -- 47 Electoral Votes
Florida (27), Ohio (20)

Tossup States Leaning McCain -- 3 States -- 19 Electoral Votes
Indiana (11), Montana (3), West Virginia (5)

Too Close To Call -- 4 States -- 34 Electoral Votes
Missouri (11), Nevada (5), North Carolina (15), North Dakota (3)


Oldest data -- no polls in October yet:

9/18: Utah, Washington, D.C.
9/20: Idaho
9/25: Hawaii, Maryland
9/26: Arkansas
9/28: Louisiana


Chris Weigant blogs at: