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Is The Electoral Dam Breaking for Obama

A Commentary By Larry J. Sabato

Thursday, October 09, 2008

All season, political observers have been speculating when, if ever, the Electoral College and the state and national polls would reflect the basic pro-Democratic fundamentals of the presidential election year. Those fundamentals, historic true-blues (pun intended in this case), include presidential popularity (the Republican incumbent is at rock-bottom), a horribly weak economy, and a disliked foreign war. All point to a sizeable Democratic victory.

Yet the public opinion polls have often painted a very different picture. While the surveys haven't been as volatile as some have suggested, and Obama has usually been ahead, the bottom-line numbers were close. Most of the summer, Barack Obama led by a small margin, and then John McCain vaulted ahead of Obama with a sizeable convention bounce in early September. Some believed an upset by McCain was in the making---history be damned. Was Obama a flawed candidate? Was his racial identity preventing a victory? Was McCain running a brilliant tactical campaign that would enable him to cheat history?

On July 24th, the Crystal Ball published an essay by Alan Abramowitz, Thomas E. Mann, and this author, entitled "The Myth of a Toss-Up Election". Controversial at the time, it suggested that, sooner or later, the election fundamentals would be reflected in the polls, and Obama would assume a strong frontrunner's position. The meltdown of America's financial superstructure in late September was clearly the triggering event that re-focused voters on the two most likely motives for casting a Democratic ballot: the economy and President Bush's stewardship of it. When the history of the 2008 campaign is written, the most fateful words uttered may be John McCain's clumsy statement in mid-September: "The fundamentals of our economy are strong."

Through the first two presidential debates and the one vice presidential debate, Obama has been able to maintain his newly won lead, averaging about 5% in RealClearPolitics' poll of polls. And the instant polls have unanimously awarded both debate victories to Obama by sizeable margins.

It is always theoretically possible that the final presidential debate or another intervening "big event" domestically or in foreign affairs could give McCain an electoral shot in the arm, so that he can make up some or all of the lost ground. One could argue that there is enough time for the momentum to shift once, or even twice, depending on developments. While Americans personally like both candidates, some have doubts about Obama because of his inexperience, yet many see a McCain triumph as rewarding the deeply disliked President Bush (he's back at 25% in the Gallup poll, a point below where Richard Nixon stood on the day he resigned). These contrary evaluations might produce a bit of blowback for the candidate who holds the lead. Yet time is growing short for major upheavals.

For the moment, and probably longer, Obama has begun to build up margins in some of the previous toss-up states. With this issue, the Crystal Ball now has Obama over the magic number of 270 for the first time, with potentially many more electoral votes to be piled on top. It is difficult to believe that John McCain is going to carry all the remaining toss-up states, which have a total of 86 electoral votes. The GOP nightmare is that McCain will carry few of them, pushing Obama's Electoral College total well above 300. Coattails at the congressional level are starting to become a real worry for the GOP.

Here was our mid-September Electoral College map:

Based on current polling and other state trends, including information gathered during our personal visits to some toss-up states, we reckon that Obama now has 190 Solid, 49 Likely, and 39 Leaning electoral votes, for a total of 278, or 8 more than needed for election. McCain now has 143 Solid, 20 Likely, and 11 Leaning electoral votes.

Here is our mid-October Electoral College map:

What has Obama added? In our view, the Democrat has the edge in Colorado (9), Michigan (17), Pennsylvania (21), New Hampshire (4), Nevada (5). New registrations have made much of the difference in CO and NV. We see CO, NH, NV, and PA as Leaning Obama, while MI is now Likely Obama, having been essentially abandoned by the McCain campaign. (We'll make it Solid Obama once we know McCain won't be reentering the fray in Michigan as a ploy in late October.)

Nothing is necessarily permanent in a fluid presidential campaign. We'll watch all four Obama 'leaning' states carefully, and especially NH, which is quirky and has rescued McCain twice (in both the 2000 and 2008 primaries). In addition, we'll keep a close eye on PA, where Democratic ground reports continue to suggest there is racial resistance to Obama in blue collar areas and where McCain operatives are determined to pull an upset.

Adding to Obama's good news, Iowa has firmed up to Solid Obama, and New Mexico is now Likely Obama rather than just Leaning.

It is actually worse for McCain than the straight-forward Obama gains suggest. Three states we previously listed as Leaning McCain have become pure Toss-Ups: Florida (27), Missouri (11), and North Carolina (15). The loss of Florida would be absolutely fatal to McCain's chances. Practically speaking, McCain's defeat in any of the three states would probably guarantee the Republican's loss.

Moreover, while they all remain in McCain's column, we have moved Indiana from Likely McCain to Lean McCain. Georgia and West Virginia are now Likely McCain rather than Solid McCain.

With FL, MO, and NC the new Toss-Ups, the two holdover Toss-Up states (Ohio and Virginia) now have company. Yes, there has been a spate of recent polls suggesting Obama leads in both the Buckeye State and the Old Dominion, but a closer examination of survey data, combined with historical data, would argue for caution. Ohio has been good to GOP presidential candidates over the years, and Virginia has recorded multiple, contradictory polling results almost by the day. Of course, both are Bush Red states, and McCain almost certainly cannot win without both of them, unless he somehow manages to steal Pennsylvania.

The McCain forces are trying to win the one electoral vote possibly available in Maine's somewhat more Republican and rural Second congressional district, while the Obama camp hopes to win the vote available in Nebraska's somewhat more Democratic Second congressional district---these two states being the only ones that divide electoral votes in part by district. At present, we still consider it unlikely that either campaign will succeed in splitting the states' electoral votes. McCain probably has all of Nebraska and Obama has all of Maine.

There is no question that, if McCain is to upset Obama's applecart, he has much Electoral College ground to firm up or capture---and he has to do it quickly. Will there be any October surprises that will enable him to pull it out? A foreign policy crisis or a terrorist attempt may be the only events that can re-focus the campaign away from Obama's natural turf on the economy and toward McCain's "commander-in-chief" strengths. Character attacks are unlikely to have a major impact at this late juncture.

The last 25 days of this champagne of campaigns promise to be dramatic and possibly tumultuous. Therefore, we'll update the Electoral College map at least once each week until November 4th.

Larry J. Sabato is the director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia.

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