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Meet the New Map--Same as the Old Map (Almost)

A Commentary By Larry Sabato

In early summer, the Crystal Ball took its first look at the likely November 4th Electoral College map. Our assessment was that, in the College at least, the contest appeared close. John McCain had 174 solid or likely electoral votes to Barack Obama's 200 solid or likely. The lead switched once we added in states that were "leaning" to one or the other: McCain had 227 votes to Obama's 212, with 270 needed for election. Fully 99 electoral votes in eight other states (CO, MI, NH, NV, OH, PA, VA, and WI) remained in the toss-up category.

We based our map not just on current polling but also the recent historical record in presidential elections. To some degree, this explained the differences between our map and those of some other analysts. As we revise it in this essay, we will once again add a dose of history to current trends, and at least tentatively, we will attempt to narrow the number of toss-ups.

Just think about all that has happened since early July. Obama took his European trip, hailed in some quarters and condemned in others. The McCain campaign came alive for the first time in months, attacking Obama as "the biggest celebrity in the world" after his travels---a hint of the strategy that was to come. Polls narrowed between Obama and McCain, as Obama lost some of his earlier luster. The Democratic Convention in Denver temporarily revived Obama's survey numbers, producing a small convention bounce, mainly on the strength of Obama's closing night speech. Much of the rest of the week had been consumed by intrigue about what the Clintons would or would not do, and Obama's choice of Joe Biden as Veep-nominee was met with general approval but no special enthusiasm. It avoided any controversy but was not, in the overused term of 2008, a "game changer".

Then the presidential contest got its real shake-up. McCain and his staff had not been fooled by the polls that suggested he was gaining on Obama. The underlying, fundamental factors of this election year are strongly Democratic: a highly unpopular Republican president, a deteriorating economy in significant ways, a foreign war most Americans believe should not have been fought, and an enthusiasm gap between the parties that was producing record Democratic donations and voter registrations. McCain was on track to score a respectable second-place finish, the usual fate of candidates of the incumbent party who try to win a third consecutive term.

Always a gambler, McCain rolled the dice and selected a nearly unknown governor of Alaska. Despite scant experience in foreign affairs and on the national stage, Sarah Palin electrified the conservative base of the GOP. Never happy with the maverick McCain, the base recognized that Palin held their views on abortion, guns, creationism, and other social issues. Moreover, Palin shattered the stifling stereotype of the Republican party as the home of 'old white males'. She was young, attractive, dynamic, and plain spoken. The campaign called her a 'reform governor', reinforcing part of McCain's image, and instantly, the McCain-Palin ticket became another way for voters to cast a ballot for change. Palin's potential historic first neutralized somewhat Obama's; her age (44) was even younger than Obama's (47), projecting future-orientation. McCain gave up some of his advantage on experience over Obama---since Palin could hardly be termed more knowledgeable about government than Obama (except by predictable partisans who will always find their nominee's scant resume fuller than the other party's scant one)---but the experience theme wasn't working for McCain anyway.

We won't know for sure whether Palin was fully vetted by the McCain campaign until the post-election books are published, though it certainly looks as though she was not, given the results of various press investigations over the past couple of weeks. Recent history underlines the dangers for the campaign in this. The last two 'surprise' VP nominees were disasters for their parties (Democrat Geraldine Ferraro in 1984 and Republican Dan Quayle in 1988), in part because the campaign itself and party elders knew too little to defend the VP nominees from attack. But McCain's staff learned something from the earlier examples, especially Quayle's. Journalists can be counted upon to do their duty, as they see it, and ask a lot of uncomfortable questions about an obscure nominee who might be suddenly thrust into the most powerful office on earth. They will search relentlessly for negative information, and competitively publish and air it as soon as possible. Yet the campaign knew that Republicans hate the mainstream media. Nothing would set the grassroots on fire like a media firestorm about Palin. Presto! Both the media and the GOP base responded in predictable Pavlovian fashion, and for the first time ever, McCain became the hero of the Republican Right, alongside Palin. McCain is now actually free of the need to tend to the conservative base, enabling him to go hunting for the more moderate swing independents who will actually determine the election.

Combined with McCain's convention bounce, Palin's strength among the base, and according to some (but not all) polls, her ability to attract a percentage of white women away from Obama, produced the first sustained, narrow McCain lead of the campaign. As this is written, tracking polls suggest that this bounce has flattened considerably, perhaps entirely.

Whatever the short term picture, McCain is well aware that he has a mountain to climb. When the Palin effect dies down, as all such political phenomena eventually do, he will still have to contend with the albatrosses of Bush, the economy, and (to some degree) Iraq. The financial meltdown of the past week, shocking and appalling to virtually everyone regardless of political philosophy, has given Obama his first real general election opening to return the campaign to Democratic themes. A relieved Obama can be expected to capitalize on American capitalism's deep troubles, as would any candidate in his position.

To win, McCain must keep Obama on the defensive, and for a couple of weeks he did that. McCain and his staff understand that in this environment, he cannot win with a high-minded campaign enveloped in glittering patriotic generalities. McCain must undermine Obama at every turn, unceasingly creating doubts about the Democrat so that McCain becomes the default 'change' candidate once a majority of voters have decided that Obama is not the change they desire. In a very different time of peace and prosperity and a popular incumbent Republican president, George H.W. Bush accomplished precisely this, presenting himself as the 'kinder, gentler' successor to Ronald Reagan and tagging Michael Dukakis as the unacceptable anti-flag, friendly-to-criminals, pro-ACLU candidate. In 1988 Americans chose Bush's change of emphasis rather than the more drastic philosophical change seemingly embodied by Dukakis.

The Dukakis name is being bandied about now, not by Republicans but by Democrats. In the pit of their anguished stomachs, Democrats fear they are seeing an old movie play out yet again, one they were forced to watch in 1988 (Dukakis), 2000 (Gore), and 2004 (Kerry). For the fourth time, say these Democrats, they have a high-minded nominee who won't fight back, won't gut punch, and refuses to believe that voters will buy the negative attacks being launched against him. The Obama campaign leaders have called these Democrats 'handwringers' and 'bedwetters', and they may be right. If the Obama team has indeed done the job they claim in voter registration and fundraising, they may be able to ride out the current storms and win when it counts---especially given the pro-Democratic electoral conditions. On the other hand, with the first African-American presidential nominee, they still must worry about racial leakage on Election Day. There isn't a person in the country who can truly measure that effect in advance.

One thing is for sure: If Democrats cannot win in a year like this, when can they win? If American history is the guide, the 2008 election shouldn't be close---and yet it appears to be, at least in mid-September. Appearances can be deceiving, though, and a collapsing financial superstructure can only help the out-of-power party's nominee.

In a practical sense, the election is not near to being won by either side. Fundamental factors aside, campaigns are won day by day, in the trenches. More will happen in the next seven weeks than has occurred in the past seven months. The debates are sure to draw record audiences, and the TV ads and the ground mobilizations will be of a number and intensity never before witnessed. The remaining 46 days will tell the tale.

So let's move to the Electoral College. National surveys are fun but unrevealing. Obama is back on top narrowly, after a couple of weeks with McCain in the lead. As long as the national polls have Obama and McCain close to one another, it is really what happens in the individual leaning and toss-up states that matters.

The Electoral College appears to be closing up. Those partisans who dreamed that the nation would break the Red-and-Blue mold of 2000 and 2004 might be headed for disappointment---assuming the current economic trends do not break the contest wide open in a Democratic direction. McCain is not going to carry more than a couple of Blue states (at most), and Obama is unlikely to win more than a handful of Red states. We now are fairly certain that a minimum of 42 states will keep the same partisan color that they chose in 2004. We would not be shocked if this number topped 45. That's right: After expenditures in the hundreds of millions, all the controversial events of the past four years, and the marathon two-year campaign of 2008, the map may not be radically altered.

Last spring John McCain had hopes that he could appeal to Democratic states like California, New Jersey, and Washington. Those hopes are dashed. Realistically, he can carry only Blue Michigan and New Hampshire, with outside shots at Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. He currently trails in all four, though not by much.

Barack Obama talked optimistically of winning Western states such as Montana and North Dakota, as well as Southern states such as Georgia, Mississippi, and North Carolina. We believe his chances are greatly diminished in all five of these states.

Some shifts have occurred, so let's take a look at the mid-September map as a whole.

Solid -- No Real Chance for Upset

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

Comments: Nothing has changed for Obama in this category since mid-July. Obama gained no state he didn't already have by adding Joe Biden to his ticket. Delaware is solidly Democratic.

McCAIN - ID, UT, AZ, WY, SD, NE, KS, OK, TX, LA, AR, KY, WV, TN, AL, SC, MT, ND, GA, MS (163 electoral votes)

Comments: We have McCain gaining 30 electoral votes in this category since mid-July (AK, MT, ND, GA, MS). Sarah Palin has helped in her home state as well as the others. Had Obama chosen Sen. Evan Bayh of IN as his running-mate, we were prepared to move IN into the toss-up category. While some polls have suggested that McCain leads only narrowly there, we still believe it is unlikely that Obama will carry the Hoosier State in the end. Still, given its long border with Illinois, Indiana is going to be closer this year, and we have moved it out of the Solid McCain category and into the Likely McCain grouping.

Likely -- An Upset is Possible but Improbable

OBAMA - OR, MN (17 electoral votes)

Comments: Had McCain chosen Gov. Tim Pawlenty of MN as his running-mate, we were prepared to move MN to the toss-up category. But without Pawlenty, McCain is very unlikely to carry the state, despite a recent poll showing the state tied (right after the GOP Convention had been held in the Twin Cities). Similarly, McCain keeps making noises about Oregon but we see little Palin effect there, and Obama should be able to carry it.

McCAIN - Indiana (11 electoral votes)

Comments: All the states in this July category (AK, GA, MS, MT, and ND) have now firmed up for McCain. Remember that before Palin's nomination, some Alaska polls had Obama ahead in the state, or behind McCain in low single digits, but Palin will create a handsome victory for McCain. However, as we noted above, we have moved Indiana from Solid to Leaning McCain.

Leaning -- Currently Tilting to One Side but Reversible

OBAMA - IA, NM, WI (22 electoral votes)

Comments: Our guess still is that all three of these states end up in Obama's column. Wisconsin very narrowly voted for Gore and Kerry, but Obama has an excellent organization there. Public and private polls have Wisconsin close again, but Democrats get the edge here. Iowa and New Mexico voted for Bush in 2004. If only one of them switches to Obama this time, it will be Iowa, where McCain has always been weak. As a western state, New Mexico is at least open to voting for its Arizona neighbor. But Obama ought to be able to put New Mexico away, too.

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

Comments: McCain will have to work 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 margin in MO is decent at present, and we expect him to carry the Show Me State. McCain ought to win NC, but he's not going to do it by anything like George W. Bush's double-digit margins. Reliable Tar Heel observers insist to us that the contest is surprisingly close, so we're not about to move NC into a firmer column for McCain yet. Of these three states, we wonder most about FL. Obama was weak there in the Democratic primary and McCain-tilting veterans and seniors are major forces in the state. Yet this mega-state is quirky, and as we learned in both 1996 (when it voted for Clinton) and 2000 (when...oh, you remember), the Sunshine State can reflect national trends quickly. If McCain is faltering in any one of these states in October, it will be an important signal about the likely election outcome. It is difficult to see McCain surviving the loss of a single one.

Toss-Ups-The Real Deal

CO, MI, NH, NV, OH, PA, VA (89 electoral votes)

Comments: A few of these states are Red or Blue tinged, though not enough for us to have any real confidence yet in a prediction. If you put a gun to our head---and we hope you won't, since that makes us very nervous---we would say Obama will end up carrying MI and PA. These states have such a strong Democratic base that, even with Obama's problems from the primaries, he ought to be able to secure them narrowly. On the other side, we now believe that McCain has a tiny edge in Virginia, despite a large number of new voter registrations that tilt strongly Democratic. Obama is not doing well enough in all of Northern Virginia to overcome strong resistance to his candidacy in more rural parts of the state, especially in the western quarter. This could change, and Obama is better organized in the Old Dominion than any Democrat since Jimmy Carter in 1976. He has the strong support of Gov. Tim Kaine (D) and Senate nominee Mark Warner (D), who is a certain winner, possibly by a wide enough margin to help Obama.

We could argue the other states either way. Obama leads most Colorado polls, but that may be an afterglow of the Democratic Convention that will fade. Similarly, Obama appears to be ahead in New Hampshire, but after the Democratic primary there in January, what fool would believe Granite State polls? All reports suggest a big pick-up in Democratic registration in Nevada, but it's too early to move this one to Obama, given McCain's Arizona address.

Notice we haven't discussed Ohio. We aren't prepared to say that other states won't make the difference this year, but it's more than possible that, for a second straight election, the Buckeye State will essentially choose the next president. There are surveys putting the state in Obama's camp, and others saying it is McCain's. No one is going to call this one until they have to do it.

Time again for our summary 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, New Mexico, and Wisconsin for Obama and he has 222 EVs. Let's give McCain FL, MO, and NC, and he's up to 227 EVs. If Obama carries MI and PA, he's at 260 (ten votes short), and would need either Ohio or Virginia to win. If he carried Colorado and either NH or NV, Obama could win without OH or VA. And interestingly, Obama could lose CO, OH, and VA, while carrying just NH and NV, and achieve a 269 to 269 tie-that would very likely be resolved in the new U.S. House of Representatives in his favor (given probable Democratic gains coming in the House).

Now, on McCain's side, let's add VA to his 227, and he's at 240, 30 votes short of victory. If McCain falters in any of his Leaning states, he is likely out of the picture. But if he holds them all, his most likely path to victory at that point would be to win OH, CO, and either NH or NV. If he wins only OH and CO, the pro-Obama 269 to 269 tie is back. Should he lose OH but somehow carry PA, he would need only CO to get to 270; both NH and NV could go to Obama without effect.

Does your head hurt? Ours does, so we'll stop for now. But THE MAP will be back a couple more times before November 4th.

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

See Other Commentary by Larry Sabato

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