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The Map: The Crystal Ball's First Look at November's Electoral College

A Commentary By Larry Sabato

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Nobody now knows the exact contours of the November 4th Electoral College map. Nobody will know it until after the polls have closed. But except for the guessing game about the vice presidential nominations, there's no greater fun to be had in July. So the Crystal Ball is pleased to unveil our best estimates more than four months before the balloting. As always, we'll be revising the map all the way up to the campaign's end.

As everyone says, the map is due for some changes after a remarkably static red-and-blue divide. Only three states changed hands from 2000 to 2004: Iowa, New Hampshire, and New Mexico, and these three states were relative squeakers both times. It is highly likely that a half-dozen or more states will flip sides in 2008. Still, that suggests that around 40 states may keep the same color scheme. If November unexpectedly becomes a landslide for one party, then many states may temporarily defect from their usual allegiances.

An early-summer mapping simply has to assume that the election will be basically competitive, let's say with the winner receiving 52 percent or less of the two-party vote (with all third party votes excluded from the calculation). If one candidate's proportion of the vote climbs above 52 percent, then virtually all the swing states will move in his direction, coloring the toss-up white states either Blue or Red. Not even the most optimistic McCain analyst believes such a sweep can happen for the GOP in 2008. A McCain victory by any margin will have to be considered an upset, given historical precedents about the incumbent presidential party losing in bad economic times and when the sitting President is so roundly disliked. Therefore, a McCain triumph will be accomplished with a narrow Electoral College majority. A toss-up state sweep, if it happens, is very likely to be a Blue tide.

As the Democratic nominee in a year when conditions are truly awful for the incumbent Republican party, Barack Obama is considered the presidential frontrunner by a large majority of political observers (including many Republicans, privately), and the Crystal Ball is no different. If events intervene to reverse this, we'll revise the map, something we plan to do anyway throughout the fall campaign. The vice presidential nominees, if one or both are strong in their resident states or regions, may also trigger a map adjustment.

History also suggests that the Electoral College system is only critical when the popular vote is reasonably close or disputed. That is, the College can potentially or actually upend the popular vote just in elections where the major-party candidates are within a point or two of one another (such as Kennedy/Nixon-1960, Nixon/Humphrey-1968, Carter/Ford-1976, Bush/Gore-2000, and Bush/Kerry-2004). For the purposes of this essay, we are making a similar assumption about a close election in November 2008, though it may prove to be untrue in the end. The forces at work in '08 may produce a comfortable margin that eliminates state-by-state plotting on the map.

For now, we see the following states as

OBAMA - WA, CA, IL, MD, NY, VT, RI, MA, CT, NJ, DE, ME, DC, HI (183 electoral votes)

Comments: The McCain camp has made public statements suggesting they have hopes of winning CA, CT, ME, NJ and WA. If they are serious, then they will end up wasting a lot of money because they are destined to lose all these states-yes, even their chance at a single electoral vote in Maine, where the capture of one of the two congressional districts would yield McCain a vote.

McCAIN - ID, UT, AZ, WY, SD, NE, KS, OK, TX, LA, AR, IN, KY, WV, TN, AL, SC (144 electoral votes)

Comments: The Obama camp has made noises about trying to win in AR, AZ, IN, KS, LA, and ND. While the enormously superior Obama financial resources make their attempts at long-shot states more reasonable, and some early polls in Indiana have been close, we will be surprised if Obama secures any of these states. If Sen. Evan Bayh is added to the Democratic ticket, then an Obama upset in Indiana becomes a live possibility. Arizona, which has been abandoning its GOP ties in some elections, may well fall to the next Democratic candidate not running against an Arizonan. The odds are against Obama's capture of an electoral vote in Nebraska, which has a system similar to Maine's.

OBAMA - OR, MN (17 electoral votes)

Comments: The only West Coast state that McCain may sensibly target is Oregon. The results there in 2000 and 2004 were close but we believe that Obama is likely to duplicate Gore and Kerry's victories. The only way McCain could steal Minnesota is by picking Gov. Tim Pawlenty as his running-mate. However, even a McCain-Pawlenty ticket would have a 50-50 chance, at best, of carrying Minnesota. Pawlenty did not secure a majority of the vote in either of his gubernatorial victories (in 2002 and 2006).

McCAIN - AK, GA, MS, MT, ND (30 electoral votes)

Comments: Some Alaska polls have had Obama behind McCain in single digits, but the Republican label is probably too strong here for an upset. Several Montana and North Dakota polls have had Obama slightly ahead or in a statistical dead heat with McCain, and Obama is undeniably spending time and money in both states; we are monitoring them closely, noting that both states have two Democratic U.S. senators and Montana also has a Democratic Governor, Brian Schweitzer, who will win another term by a wide margin this November. If Libertarian nominee and former Georgia GOP Congressman Bob Barr wins his projected 6 to 8 percent in the Peach State, or if Obama chooses former U.S. Senator Sam Nunn of Georgia, Obama could have a shot at a plurality victory--but for now we'll bet on McCain there, despite one poll that has the two tied. A giant African-American turnout might shift Mississippi (38 percent black) to Obama, but that is not our gamble.

OBAMA - IA, NM (12 electoral votes)

Comments: Our guess is that both of these states end up in Obama's column. If only one does, it will be Iowa. If Gov. Bill Richardson is Obama's VP choice, then New Mexico is a cinch for the Democrats. McCain has no real strength in either state, and there appears to be a Democratic trend ongoing in both.

McCAIN - FL, MO, NC (53 electoral votes)

Comments: McCain will have to work very hard to hold these three usually Republican states. If he loses even one of them, he will be up against the Electoral College wall. His margins in all are currently weak to nonexistent. In leaning them to McCain we are simply assuming that the voters' history of going GOP in presidential years might enable McCain to pull out a narrow win. Watch these states. If McCain locks them down by mid-September, he has a shot at a November upset. If a wide variety of polls--not just one--shows Obama even or ahead in one or two of the states with only six weeks to go, then McCain is in considerable trouble.

CO, MI, NH, NV, OH, PA, VA, WI (99 electoral votes)

Comments: Remember, if one candidate is garnering 52 to 53 percent of the two-party popular vote, then all or almost all of them could move in the same direction. Looking at them from the perspective of June, Obama is doing well in Colorado and Pennsylvania. McCain probably can only carry the Keystone State if he puts former Gov. Tom Ridge on the GOP ticket--and Ridge is pro-choice on abortion, which would generate a walk-out of fundamentalist delegates to the Republican National Convention. Michigan has a natural Democratic lean. Will the state's voters warm again to the Democrats after the national party refused to count the Wolverine primary in January? Gov. Jennifer Granholm (D) is also unpopular, and in this state, she may partly balance President Bush's high negatives. Still, McCain has a small mountain to climb in Michigan, and even adding former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, whose father was Governor of Michigan, may not make the critical difference.

Wisconsin is traditionally close, as it was in both 2000 and 2004. Obama swept the Democratic primary here, though, and he has to be rated at least a slight favorite; some early polls have Obama well ahead. New Hampshire is the one state where McCain may be able to reverse a Bush '04 loss; it was the Granite State that embraced McCain in 2000 and rescued his moribund candidacy in 2008. A couple of polls have shown McCain ahead in New Hampshire, but more recent ones have Obama leading handily. By all indications, Nevada is as tight as a tick--the normal condition in the Silver State. The great unknown is Ohio, the all-important swing state of 2004. Obama did badly in the primary in the Buckeye State, and Bush carried it in both his presidential runs, though not by much. In 2006, the Democrats swept to power and a bad economy gives Obama a clear shot at these critical 20 electoral votes. It will be difficult for McCain to win without them, but Obama’s path to victory does not require Ohio.

Amazingly, given the fact that the Old Dominion has voted Democratic exactly once (1964) in the past fourteen presidential elections, Virginia is included in the toss-up list for the first time since 1976, when President Gerald Ford edged Democratic nominee Jimmy Carter by a mere percentage point. Virginia was the only Southern state not to vote for Carter, who became the first Deep-South President elected since Zachary Taylor in 1848. Thanks to dramatic population growth in Northern Virginia and university communities, this is not your father's Virginia. It is a Mid-Atlantic state rather than a Southern state.

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Time for some delightful electoral math. The totally safe and likely Obama states have 200 Electoral Votes (EVs). For McCain, the similar total is 174 EVs. Add in Iowa and New Mexico for Obama and he has 212 EVs. Let's give McCain FL, MO, and NC, and he's up to 227 EVs. If Obama carries CO, MI, PA, and WI, he's already at 269 (one vote short), and would need just one of the following states: OH, NH, NV, and VA. Of course, if McCain managed to secure OH, NH, NV, and VA, we'd be at that fabled 269-269 tie. If McCain can grab MI, PA, or WI, while holding OH, he's back in the hunt, with smaller toss-up states proving decisive.

My goodness, this is fun. And we have time for a lot more map-shuffling as we move toward the November 4th showdown. In the Crystal Ball 's cyberspace nirvana, THE MAP, much like Arnold Schwarzenegger's Terminator , will be back.

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