It's time once again to take a look at how the electoral math is shaping up for Barack Obama and John McCain. While the news this time around isn't all that great for Obama, I wanted to take another of these snapshots of the polls -- before the running mates are announced and before the conventions happen -- in order to provide a statistical baseline to see how big a "bump" in the polls either candidate will get in the next few weeks. My analysis in short: while the news isn't dire quite yet, Obama could certainly use such a bump at this point.
Now, there are caveats to taking such snapshots, which I fully outlined in earlier electoral math columns (6/30/08, 7/21/08, and most recently 8/6/08). In a nutshell, all data is from electoral-vote.com, and you can't trust every poll you read. See the first paragraphs of my previous article on the subject for a full list of these caveats.
Without further ado, let's take a look at the overall electoral vote, expressed as a percentage.
As you can see, Obama is losing ground. In the last two weeks, he has gone from almost 54% of the electoral vote, down to just over 49%. In the same time period, John McCain has gone from around 44% of the electoral vote up to 48.5% (state polls which are tied are not counted, meaning the numbers don't add up to 100% unless there are no current ties). This is the continuation of what I called a worrisome trend last time around. Obama has slipped below the magic 270 number for the first time since he became the Democratic presumptive nominee, and McCain has just about caught up with him.
But these numbers don't tell the whole story. For that, we have to look at the relative level of support for each candidate, starting with John McCain. As always, "Strong" means a ten-point lead (or better) in the polls, "Weak" is five percent or better, and "Barely" means less than a five percent lead.
To be honest, this is mostly good news for McCain, although there is one metric which somewhat goes against this general march upwards.
McCain's "Strong" numbers improved by over a third (from 97 to 131 electoral votes), but this was due to firming up support in just one state -- Texas -- which was probably out of reach for Obama anyway. But because Texas has a whopping 34 electoral votes, this means a lot of movement on the chart.
The really big news for John McCain is the movement in the "Barely" section of the graph, though. Three states (Nevada, Colorado, and Florida) are now in McCain's column, although just barely. But again, Florida is a biggie (27 electoral votes), so this translates into improving his number in this column from 44 two weeks ago to 85 now. This should be worrying the Obama camp, as these are the states where the contest will be won or lost.
But there is some bad news for McCain in this chart. The real measure of his solid support comes from adding the "Strong" numbers to the "Weak" numbers, and McCain has actually lost ground here as compared to two weeks ago. Because both Florida and Texas used to be in this column, McCain went from 95 "Weak" electoral votes down to 45 this time. This line just went up today, though, with a new poll out of Indiana, switching the state over to the "Weak" column for McCain. Still, overall, McCain's "Strong" plus "Weak" went down from 192 to 176.
With McCain out of the way, let's take a look at Barack Obama's details.
First, the bad news. Obama's support is generally weakening. Because state polls aren't done as often as national polls, this follows the news for the past few weeks of Obama's weakening nationwide, so it comes as no real surprise. And while it is not great news (obviously), there are a few counter-trends to be award of here. In other words, it's not time to panic... yet. Obama is still in good shape to win this thing, but he's got to reverse a few of these trendlines in order to comfortably do so.
Obama's "Strong" support shows significant weakening over two weeks ago. He lost four states from this category (Iowa, Wisconsin, New Jersey, and New York), and only gained back one (Massachusetts, where he's back to a double-digit lead). Obama just lost New York a few days ago, which is the last big dropoff on the graph line (New York has 31 big electoral votes). Now, I don't realistically think any of those states are going for McCain (at least at this moment), but it would be a lot more cheerful to look at this chart if they moved back into the dark, dark blue of "Strong" once again. Which means Obama could use a poll bump from the convention here. In the past two weeks alone, Obama's "Strong" support dropped from 185 electoral votes to 134.
The other (and more troubling) trend is Obama's loss of support among the "battleground" states of Indiana, Nevada and Colorado. They all switched from Barely Obama to McCain in the last two weeks. Obama's "Barely" numbers fell from 46 electoral votes down to 14, which is why he has slipped below the winning 270 number overall.
But there is a silver lining here. One very important state bucked the trend of the last few weeks, and it's an important one -- Michigan. Obama has widened his lead in the Great Lakes State, which will be crucial to his success in November. Of course, if John McCain picks Romney this could change (Mitt's father, George Romney, is a former Michigan governor), but for now it's looking better and better for Obama here.
This also helped the one bit of good news for Obama in this chart. Because while his support is softening here and there, when you add together the "Strong" and "Weak" states, Obama has actually gained ground over where he was last time we looked. Obama's "Weak" number alone went from 58 to 116 electoral votes in two weeks, making the total for "Strong" plus "Weak" a healthy 250 (up from 243). So, like I said, there's no need to panic yet. 250 is only 20 electoral votes away from victory.
For another view, as a check on my own charts, we turn to Sam Minter of abulsme.com, who provides daily tracking graphs and maps which aren't as volatile as mine (he takes the last five polls in each state into account, while mine only reflect the most recent available). [Full disclosure, with blatant and gratuitous plug: Since I only do this about every two weeks or so, I have provided Minter's maps and charts on my webpage for those seeking up-to-date info.] His chart combines my three charts above into one. Obama starts from the top, McCain starts from the bottom, and wherever the double pink/baby blue line is determines who is ahead.
His take on today's graph is similar, as on his Ohio switches from Obama to McCain today. His full comments are worth a read. An excerpt:
McCain Best Case - McCain 298, Obama 240
Obama Best Case - Obama 384, McCain 154
If everybody gets their leans (and Obama gets DC) - Obama 273, McCain 265.
. . .
This is yet more McCain momentum. He's been on a roll for a month now. In mid-July Obama had McCain on the ropes. We were almost at the point where Obama could win without ANY swing states. McCain was in a position where he would have to essentially completely sweep all the swing states to win.
No longer. Obama still has a better best case scenario than McCain's best case scenario. But the situation is MUCH more even. Yes, Obama needs far fewer of the swing states to come to his side. But McCain is ahead in almost enough of those states.
. . .
[Obama] can not keep letting Solid states move to Weak states and Weak states move to Lean states, and Lean states to McCain Lean states... which is what he has been doing for the last month.
That does sound a little passive though. This isn't just happening to Obama in isolation, McCain is doing it to him. McCain was a little late getting spun up and started in this campaign, but for the last month he has been firing on all cylinders, while Obama has been sputtering.
OK, enough with the graphs. Here's my admittedly subjective view of the way the race stands now. Taking all these poll numbers, churning them around in my fevered brain, and adding a goodly dollop of gut feeling, I've come up with rankings for all states into likely states for Obama and McCain (broken down into "safe" and "probable"), and the tossup states (broken down into "leaning" or "too close to call"). More details can be found in the "data" section at the end of this article.
Likely States -- Obama
Obama loses one state (Minnesota) from the safe category, due to more than one poll showing McCain making ground here. Obama currently has 16 safe states, for a total of 204 electoral votes -- CA, CT, DC, HI, IA, IL, MA, MD, ME, NJ, NY, OR, RI, VT, WA, WI.
There are six probable states for Obama, adding two from last time. Minnesota moved down from safe, but Michigan moved up from lean, which as I said is good news indeed. These six states have a total of 60 electoral votes -- DE, MI, MN, NH, NM, PA.
This still gives Obama a total of 264 likely electoral votes, only six shy of winning the whole caboodle. So while the trendlines have been down for Obama this week, he still needs only one medium-to-large tossup state (or two smaller ones) in order to be our next president.
Safe States -- McCain
John McCain, due to solidifying support in Texas, improved quite a bit from last time around. He now has 15 safe states, totaling 131 electoral votes -- AL, AR, AZ, ID, KS, KY, LA, MS, NE, OK, SC, TN, TX, UT, WY.
McCain's probable states lost Texas, however, and only added Missouri (up from leaning McCain last time around). He now only has three probable states, for a total of 19 electoral votes -- AK, MO, WV.
Adding these together still only gives McCain 150 electoral votes, though. Although McCain has been doing better, he hasn't even begun to match Obama's lead in this category. When you compare the two, Obama's still got 114 more electoral votes wrapped up than John McCain does. And McCain has to win 120 more electoral votes from the tossup states in order to squeak out a win. Just to put things in perspective.
Unfortunately, Obama has no battleground states really leaning his way right now. Until today's poll, I had considered putting Indiana here, but decided to leave it in "too close to call" since there hadn't been a poll done there for almost two months -- and then today's poll confirmed my decision (note: there's a new line in the data section at the bottom which shows the states that haven't been polled in more than a month -- in other words, the states that might be more questionable). Obama lost two states in this category from last time. One was good news (Michigan firming up for him) and one was not (McCain is now ahead in the last poll from Colorado).
John McCain now has three states leaning towards him: Georgia, North Carolina, and South Dakota. Georgia could still be volatile (due to Bob Barr's effect on the race), but McCain has kept his lead here for long enough that I have to put it into the "lean" category for McCain at this point. North Carolina might still be possible for Obama to pull out, but so far he hasn't put it over the top in a single poll yet. Likewise South Dakota. McCain's three states leaning his way have a total of 33 electoral votes among them.
Which brings us to our final group -- the "too close to call" states. There are eight of them, for a total of 91 electoral votes -- CO, FL, IN, MT, NV, ND, OH, VA. Since last time, Colorado was added to the list. If Barack Obama holds all his other states and wins any one of these (with the exception of Montana, Nevada, and North Dakota, where he'd have to win two), he is on his way to the White House. McCain, on the other hand, will have to win every single one of these (well, OK, he could lose either Montana or North Dakota, but still...) to win the election.
So while some of the trendlines are down, and while Obama could certainly use a big bump next week, he should still be seen as the odds-on favorite to win this thing. As long as he can hold on to what he's got, and reverse some of these ominous trendlines.
[Electoral Vote Data:]
Barack Obama Likely Easy Wins -- 22 States -- 264 Electoral Votes
Safe States -- 16 States -- 204 Electoral Votes
California (55), Connecticut (7), Hawaii (4), Illinois (21), Iowa (7), Maine (4), Maryland (10), Massachusetts (12), New Jersey (15), New York (31), Oregon (7), Rhode Island (4), Vermont (3), Washington (11), Washington DC (3), Wisconsin (10)
Probable States -- 6 States -- 60 Electoral Votes
Delaware (3), Michigan (17), Minnesota (10), New Hampshire (4), New Mexico (5), Pennsylvania (21)
John McCain Likely Easy Wins -- 18 States -- 150 Electoral Votes
Safe States -- 15 States -- 131 Electoral Votes
Alabama (9), 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 -- 3 States -- 19 Electoral Votes
Alaska (3), Missouri (11), West Virginia (5)
Tossup States -- 11 States -- 124 Electoral Votes
Tossup States Leaning Obama -- 0 States -- 0 Electoral Votes
Tossup States Leaning McCain -- 3 States -- 33 Electoral Votes
Georgia (15), North Carolina (15), South Dakota (3)
Too Close To Call -- 8 States -- 91 Electoral Votes
Colorado (9), Florida (27), Indiana (11), Montana (3), Nevada (5), North Dakota (3), Ohio (20), Virginia (13)
States Not Polled In Over A Month
AR (7/14), DC (1/1), DE (2/28), HI (2/28), MD (2/28), RI (6/30), SD (9/9), TN (6/24), UT (6/19), VT (2/28), WV (6/2), WY (5/21)
Chris Weigant blogs at: ChrisWeigant.com