07/25/2008 05:12 am ET Updated 3 days ago

Obama: Operation Blue Mountains

It’s Wednesday, Project Runway has debuted and it is time for the fourth installment of the biweekly electoral college ratings. The ground continues to shift towards Barack Obama, as the focal point of the election moves further and further into red territory. Two weeks ago, it became clear that Obama’s base was looking increasingly solid and McCain’s was looking increasingly vulnerable; today, that trend continues.

Over the past two weeks, it has become clear that the two candidates would wage battle over the Mountain West. That is by itself a stunning development: who would have thought just a few months ago that Montana, two of Nebraska’s congressional districts, North Dakota (and, to a far lesser degree, South Dakota) would all be talked about as presidential battleground? But that is exactly what has happened, not only because Rasmussen polls in MT and the Dakotas have shown unexpectedly tight races, but because Obama has actually gone up on air in both MT and ND and followed that up with campaign stops in those states! Obama has the region for himself right now, and the longer McCain waits to organize a counter-offensive the trickier it could get. All these states by themselves account for only 3 electoral votes (2 for Nebraska), but taken together this is a bloc of 11 electoral votes that has become one of the campaign’s unexpected battlegrounds.

These shifting dynamics are also evident in the national count. In my first ratings on June 4th, 4 of the 9 “toss-up” states were won by Kerry in 2004 and 76 electoral votes were rated to be safe for Obama. Today, Michigan’s entrance into the lean Obama column leaves only one Kerry state in the toss-up column. The number of safe electoral votes for Obama went from 76 to 86 to 143 to 150 today. At the same time, McCain’s base is eroding as states that are supposed to be safe Republican are looking increasingly vulnerable. Last week, Arizona and Alaska were bumped down; this week, it’s Montana and South Dakota.

As a result, Obama has a distinct advantage in the electoral college for the first time, up 256 electoral votes to 227 electoral votes. However, the election remains highly competitive: 5 of the 6 toss-ups remaining are Bush states and a number of states that are now “lean Obama” remain very highly competitive, particularly MI and PA.

Without further delay, here are the fourth 2008 electoral college ratings (states whose ratings have been changed are in bold). Remember that states that are in the “lean” category are still considered to be very competitive and certain to be hotly contested, but it is possible to say that one candidate has a slight edge at this time.

  • Safe McCain: Alabama, Arkansas, Idaho, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Nebraska (at large + 3rd congressional district), Oklahoma, South Carolina, Utah, Tennessee, West Virginia, Wyoming (90 EVs)
  • Likely McCain: Arizona, Georgia, Indiana, Nebraska (1st and 2nd congressional districts), North Dakota, South Dakota, Texas (78 EVs)
  • Lean McCain: Alaska, Florida, Montana, Missouri, North Carolina (59 EVs)
  • Toss-up: Colorado, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Mexico, Ohio, Virginia (55 EV)
  • Lean Obama: Iowa, Michigan, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin (63 EVs)
  • Likely Obama: Delaware, Maine, Minnesota, New Jersey, Washington (43 EVs)
  • Safe Obama: California, Connecticut, DC, Hawaii, Illinois, Maryland, Massachusetts, New York, Rhode Island, Vermont (150 EVs)

This gives us the following map and totals:

  • Safe + Likely Obama: 193 electoral votes
  • Safe + Likely + Lean Obama: 256
  • Toss-up: 55
  • Safe + Likely + Lean McCain: 227
  • Safe + Likely McCain: 168

I will naturally not attempt to provide an explanation for every single one of these ratings and will concentrate instead on those that have shifted over the past two weeks:

Connecticut, Likely Obama to Safe Obama: There was never any doubt that any Democratic nominee would be favored in Connecticut, but John McCain’s confidence that he could seduce independent-minded voters made Connecticut and New Jersey particularly intriguing states for the GOP to contest. In a neutral year, McCain might have had a chance to force Obama to defend Connecticut, but it has become increasingly apparent over the past few weeks that states that are already leaning Democratic are solidifying in the blue column as a large proportion of independent voters (especially in the Northeast) are behaving as Democrats. This might not be enough to consider Obama as the sure victor in New Jersey, but unless the fundamentals change McCain would be wasting his time campaigning in Connecticut. His one weapon in the state (Joe Lieberman) seems to be getting less effective, as the Democrat-turned-independent is now posting the worst approval ratings of his Senate career.

Michigan, Toss-up to Lean Obama: Longtime readers of this blog know that I have long considered Michigan as one of the two most competitive Kerry states (along with New Hampshire). A string of polls from March to May found McCain leading in one of the most economically devastated state in the country, but the resolution of the Democratic primary seems to have allowed Obama to turn the page of the delegate fiasco and secure a Democratic best that looked particularly restless. Combined with the year’s pro-Democratic fundamentals and with McCain’s discomfort on economic issues, it is now possible to say that Obama has a slight edge in Michigan. Yes, Michigan remains one of the two most vulnerable Kerry states — but only one state won by the Democrat in 2004 now remains in the toss-up column. The election’s epicenter has moved in red territory, and that is hurting McCain here.

That said, there is no question that Michigan will remain very competitive. The McCain campaign is reported to be preparing a bigger operation here than in Pennsylvania, and while Republicans are generally at a disadvantage on economic issues, Michigan is one in which voters also blame Democrats for the downturn give the recent Democratic dominance at the state level. McCain needs to keep Obama playing defense to offset the growing number of states he has to protect, and Michigan’s 18 electoral votes remain a ripe target. If McCain picks Romney as his running-mate, you can be sure that Michigan will become one of the hottest battleground states of the general election.

Montana, Likely McCain to Lean McCain: Montana is one of the massively red states Obama has targeted in his early ad buys, along with Indiana, Georgia, Alaska and North Dakota. And Obama proved that this is not an empty gesture by visiting the state, whose two Senators and Governor are now Democratic. A recent Rasmussen poll had Obama leading by 5%, confirming that the GOP cannot take the Mountain West for granted, and particularly not this state with libertarian leanings, who many liberals believe is ready to turn its back on the modern Republican Party. Keep in mind that Obama has the state for himself right now, and that is definitely impacting the poll numbers.

South Dakota, Safe McCain to Likely McCain: Unlike in neighboring Montana and North Dakota, the Obama campaign has not included South Dakota in its list of 18 targeted states. South Dakota is indeed considered even more conservative than its neighbors, and Bush won here by 22% in 2004. Yet, Obama’s opening in MT and ND cannot not impact the state of the race in South Dakota and ought to make McCain worried that something is about to break in the entire region. A recent Rasmussen poll had McCain leading by only 4%, confirming what just a month ago would have been unthinkable: South Dakota is no longer safe for the GOP.

History of Campaign Diaries’ electoral ratings:

  • July 16th: +29 Obama (256 for Obama [150 safe, 43 likely, 63 lean] and 227 for McCain [90 safe, 78 likely, 59 lean]
  • July 2rd: +11 Obama (238 for Obama [143 safe, 50 likely, 45 lean] and 227 for McCain [93 safe, 78 likely, 56 lean])
  • June 18th: +22 Obama (238 for Obama [86 safe, 97 likely, 55 lean] and 216 for McCain [87 safe, 87 likely, 42 lean])
  • June 4th: +20 McCain (207 for Obama [76 base, 107 likely, 24 lean] and 227 for McCain [97 safe, 77 likely, 53 lean])

Read more at the Daniel Nichanian's blog, Campaign Diaries.