Electoral Math, From Knucklebiter To Landslide

[ Posted Monday, June 30th, 2008 – 15:30 UTC ]

For the first time in the general election campaign, I am ready to take a look at the electoral map and do some electoral math. Now, we're still pretty far out from Election Day, so likely any of these guesses will be laughably wrong when it rolls around. But we've got to start somewhere.

Before we get to crystal ball gazing, though, we have to clean up some old business here. I ran a contest (right before the Pennsylvania primaries) to see who could predict the outcome of the Democratic nomination race most accurately. Since the race has been over for weeks, and since I have been remiss in announcing winners, I'd like to kick off the general election prognosticating by giving the winners and near-winners from the primary campaign their due.

(Drumroll...) The runners-up in the "call the outcome of the whole shebang" contest are... MilwaukeeMarc and Thatcher. MilwaukeeMarc predicted: Obama wins, Clinton drops out the day after the last primary, June 4th. Thatcher was the closest who overshot the mark, predicting Obama would win on June 11th by delegate count. But alas, neither of you came closest, so please send in those quatloos as soon as you can.

But the grand prize overall winner is... (mega-drumroll...) azpaull!! Azpaull predicted that Obama would win and Clinton would be forced out by the party heavyweights on June 9th... but that the word would be on the street by June 7th.

Hillary Clinton gave her concession speech on Saturday, June 7th. Pretty close! So congratulations to azpaull, and your quatloos are in the mail. Ahem. So to speak.

With the excitement of the primaries a fading memory, we now take a look at how the map might turn out on election night. I've divided the states up into "safe" and "tossup" categories, and then provided four scenarios of possible outcomes -- a "best case" for McCain, what I consider to be a likely outcome, a "best case" for Obama, and then (just because I felt like it) an absolute blow-out landslide for Obama.

There is a list of states at the end of this article, provided as data, complete with their electoral votes, in case you'd like to put together your own scenario. USAToday has a fun map up on their site (which does all the math for you) where you can point and click and call the race as you see it, if you're interested.


Safe States

There are two categories of states for each candidate; states which are a "lock" and states which are probable, but not guaranteed. Since this exercise is complicated enough, for the most part these will not change in any of the scenarios outlined below. If a state or two flips in any scenario, it will be pointed out specifically.

Starting with the Republican "bet the farm on it" states, we come up with nine of them -- Alabama, Arizona (McCain's home state), Idaho, Kansas, Kentucky, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Utah, and Wyoming. If any of these states vote Democratic this time around, Barack Obama will be going down in history for his landslide win. There are two possible exceptions to this list, though. Kansas has some "favorite son" ties to Obama, and if Barack names Kathleen Sebelius (the current governor of the state) as his running mate, well then, all bets are off. The second exception may be Arizona, which would normally be considered the first state on McCain's list, but his support in his home state has been noticeably weak in the polls. This doesn't mean Obama's going to win it, but it is rather surprising.

The Democratic all-but-assured states are more numerous, and bigger in population, giving Obama an edge right from the get-go. There are thirteen states which would be shocking news if they went with McCain over Obama -- California, Hawaii (a "favorite son" state for Obama), Illinois (also a "home state" for Barack), Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, Rhode Island, Vermont, Washington, Wisconsin, and the District of Columbia. New Jersey has had a "soft" poll or two, but I fully expect it to be solidly Democratic by the fall.

But the real bad news for McCain is when you add up the electoral votes. From their "solid base" states, McCain has 63 and Obama has 183 votes already wrapped up. This is partly due to the size of California, New York, and Illinois, it should be pointed out, and the relatively small numbers from the McCain states in general. And also because I'm not putting Texas down as a Republican lock. Since the target number is 270 (to win in the Electoral College), this leaves Obama only 87 votes short, and McCain a whopping 207 to make up in order to win. This disparity will haunt McCain as he looks at the map and tries to put together a winning bunch of states all throughout the campaign.

It gets even worse when you consider the "likely" states in both columns. Now, this is where polling meets personal opinion, so some might disagree with the states I'm about to lock up for each of them, but (for now) I am going to stand by these.

For John McCain, there are six more states which are probably going to vote for him -- Arkansas, North Dakota, South Carolina, South Dakota, Nebraska, and West Virginia.

Barack Obama also has six states likely to vote for him -- Connecticut, Delaware, Iowa, Minnesota, New Hampshire, and New Mexico.

Like I said, some may quibble with these picks. The mainstream media, for the most part, is desperately trying to keep New Hampshire as a possibility for McCain, but I have news for them -- this is not the 2000 primaries. The polls show overwhelming support for Obama, and anyone who bothers to look at how Granite State Republicans are in full retreat within the state knows that Obama's going to win their four electoral votes this year. Others may have similar disagreements with North Dakota (Obama has a slim chance here), New Mexico, West Virginia, Connecticut (polls have been rather soft for Obama here), and the possibility of Obama picking up an electoral vote or two in Nebraska (they split their vote semi-proportionally). But I'm pretty comfortable standing by these "safe" picks for the time being.

Because, once again, Obama's states have more population, he gains a little more lead here. While Obama picks up 36 Electoral College votes from his six states, McCain only picks up 30. This leads to a baseline total in the Electoral College of 219 for Obama, and only 93 for McCain. This leaves Obama with a much easier road to victory, as he only has to pick up 51 votes from any of the battleground states, while McCain has a daunting 177 to win.

Outcome: a big advantage for Obama, right from the starting line.


The "battleground" states

If I could enter a time machine, travel to November, and come back with the results of just five states -- I bet I could pretty accurately predict the election results. Now, everybody's got their own states that are "battleground" states, and there are indeed many states which could go either way this year -- Colorado is a good example. But there are five states in the Eastern time zone (where the polls all close earlier than other states) which are going to determine the outcome of this election.

They are: Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and Florida.

I am betting, at this point, that Florida is going to go for McCain, and Pennsylvania for Obama. This leaves three states, and the mix of which way they go will likely determine the outcome of the entire election.

If Obama picks up either Ohio or Michigan, and Virginia, then the race is likely over and he will win. If Obama picks up both Ohio and Michigan (no matter which way Virginia goes), then the race is definitely over, and Obama should start measuring the Oval Office for drapes.

But due to the nature of the race this year, there are other states which cannot be counted on by either party. Some of these are shocking, since they've been considered "red" or "blue" states for years. But there's an real chance of a close contest in Alaska, Colorado, Georgia (due to Bob Barr being in the race), Indiana, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, Nevada, North Carolina, Oregon, and even Texas.

So it is this list that I am selecting from to put together the following scenarios:


Best case McCain

We'll start with the worst possible case for Democrats. Everything breaks McCain's direction. The momentum moves inextricably away from Barack Obama, and swells to lift John McCain on a wave right on in to the Oval Office.

I leave it for the reader to predict the likelihood of this actually happening, I'm more concerned with how it will happen, if it does.

There aren't many surprises in the list of states McCain would have to pick up in this scenario, due to my being overly generous in my estimation of which states are actually "in play" this year. I don't know anybody who would be shocked if the following states went for McCain -- Alaska, Georgia, Indiana, Louisiana, Mississippi, Montana, North Carolina, and Texas.

McCain would also have to pick up a few close races in this scenario, but none of them is out of the question -- Colorado, Florida, Michigan, Missouri, Nevada, and Virginia. Out of those, Michigan would probably be the hardest for McCain to pick up, but Obama hasn't been polling overwhelmingly well there, so it's a definite possibility for a McCain squeaker victory. Likewise the rest of them. Things would definitely have to break McCain's direction, but it would definitely be within the realm of possibility.

I leave as "tossup" states in this scenario Ohio, Oregon, and Pennsylvania. Also, I move from Obama's "safe" column Iowa and New Mexico, since if everything's breaking McCain's way, these two states might come into play.

But the tossups won't matter. Because if McCain wins the states listed above, he's got 271 Electoral College votes, and it doesn't even matter which way the tossup states go. Because John McCain will be our next president. And if you don't belive McCain can win Michigan, even if he swaps a Pennsylvania or an Ohio win for his Michigan win, the outcome would be the same.


Realistic outcome

This is the most clear-eyed analysis I can give of the most likely outcome on election night. Nobody is guaranteed victory, and only four states (three, really) will determine the outcome of the race. This, in my opinion, is the most likely outcome, looking into the crystal ball this far out.

Barack Obama picks up Oregon and Pennsylvania.

John McCain, however, picks up a whole slew of states: Alaska, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, Nevada, North Carolina, and Texas.

I think a sober consideration of all of those states, the polling from them, and their voting patterns will show that none of these guesses is outside most people's expectations. It might be outside some people's hopes, but not outside what you'd bet the farm on, to put it bluntly.

Barack Obama, in this eminently plausible scenario, would have 247 Electoral College votes to John McCain's 232. This leaves the following states to determine who our next president will be: Colorado, Michigan, Ohio, and Virginia.

The way this would play out is that John McCain would need three out of these four states to win. Barack would need either Michigan or Ohio, and one other state, to win. If Obama picked up Colorado and Virginia, but McCain got Michigan and Ohio, we would be faced with a 269/269 tie. So between these four states, it would be close, but we would likely know before waiting for Colorado's returns which way things were going to go.


Best case Obama

But it would be so easy for things to swing in Obama's direction, that we have to examine one of the many ways Obama could win in a big way. There are all kinds of scenarios for this to happen, depending on which way individual states go, so consider this just one of many possibilities.

While John McCain picks up nothing, Barack Obama picks up the following -- Colorado, Georgia (Bob Barr spoils McCain's victory here), Michigan, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, and Virginia. With the possible exception of Georgia (again, counting on a big Barr turnout), none of these would shock many people. Virginia's been slowly moving into the Democratic column for a while now, and the chances are about 90% or better that Virginians will wake up after election day with TWO Democratic Senators, so Obama winning here really isn't as radical as it sounds.

This would leave as tossup states the following -- Alaska, Florida, Indiana, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, Nevada, North Carolina and Texas.

But Obama wouldn't have to win a single one of them. Because while those tossups leave a total of 124 Electoral votes on the table, Barack would already be well over the finish line with 321 votes to McCain's 93.


Obama landslide

And just because I spent so much time playing with the numbers, for the Obamamaniacs, here is the truly "bestest" case scenario -- Obama wins in a landslide that rivals what Lyndon Baines Johnson did in 1964 (the "high water" mark for Democrats since World War II).

After all the sober analysis, in other words, it was just fun to fill in the map with an "if everything breaks Obama's way" snapshot of what total and utter victory could look like.

In this scenario, McCain not only doesn't pick up any states, he loses a single Electoral College vote in Nebraska, and also West Virginia. Barack wins all tossup states, and anywhere where the polls say he even had a shadow of a chance.

Obama wins the following glorious roll of states -- Alaska, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Louisiana, Michigan, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska (1), Nevada, North Carolina, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Texas, Virginia, and West Virginia.

Barack Obama -- 451 Electoral votes.

John McCain -- 87 Electoral votes.


And we all lived happily ever after....



Barack Obama Likely Easy Wins -- 19 States -- 219 Electoral Votes

Safe States -- 13 States -- 183 Electoral Votes
California (55), Hawaii (4), Illinois (21), Maine (4), Maryland (10), Massachusetts (12), New Jersey (15), New York (31), Rhode Island (4), Vermont (3), Washington (11), Washington DC (3), Wisconsin (10)

Probable States -- 6 States -- 36 Electoral Votes
Connecticut (7), Delaware (3), Iowa (7), Minnesota (10), New Hampshire (4), New Mexico (5)


John McCain Likely Easy Wins -- 15 States -- 93 Electoral Votes

Safe States -- 9 States -- 63 Electoral Votes
Alabama (9), Arizona (10), Idaho (4), Kansas (6), Kentucky (8), Oklahoma (7), Tennessee (11), Utah (5), Wyoming (3)

Probable States -- 6 States -- 30 Electoral Votes
Arkansas (6), North Dakota (3), South Carolina (8), South Dakota (3), Nebraska (5), West Virginia (5)


Tossup States -- 17 States -- 226 Electoral Votes

Tossup States leaning McCain -- 10 States -- 128 Electoral Votes
Alaska (3), Florida (27), Georgia (15), Louisiana (9), Mississippi (6), Missouri (11), Montana (3), Nevada (5), North Carolina (15), Texas (34)

Tossup States leaning Obama -- 2 States -- 28 Electoral Votes
Oregon (7), Pennsylvania (21)

Too Close to call -- 5 States -- 70 Electoral Votes
Colorado (9), Indiana (11), Michigan (17), Ohio (20), Virginia (13)


Cross-posted at The Huffington Post


-- Chris Weigant


5 Comments on “Electoral Math, From Knucklebiter To Landslide”

  1. [1] 
    fstanley wrote:

    This method of electing a President really needs to end. Getting rid of the electoral college is one change I would like to see when we have a new President. In the meantime I will have to close my eyes and throw darts at the board to come up with some picks.


  2. [2] 
    Michale wrote:

    Before we get to crystal ball gazing, though, we have to clean up some old business here. I ran a contest (right before the Pennsylvania primaries) to see who could predict the outcome of the Democratic nomination race most accurately. Since the race has been over for weeks, and since I have been remiss in announcing winners, I'd like to kick off the general election prognosticating by giving the winners and near-winners from the primary campaign their due.

    Geee CW....

    I would have thought that I would have at least merited an honorable mention for the worst case of prognostication, the most quatloos lost and the pic voted most likely to scare small children!! {pout} hehehehehe :D

    Since I am not adverse to embarrassing myself further, I predict a knuckle biter with an Obama win.. This is based on the fact that Hillary's PUMA crowd seems to be losing steam...

    Of course, there are at least 2 possible random events that could skew the results.. One would be massive riots at the Dem Convention in Denver. The other would be a devastating terror attack on US soil... Either of those events happen and all bets are off...


    {cross posted to Huffington Post}

  3. [3] 
    BLaws wrote:

    My prediction (barring any major event outside of the campaigns' control):

    AK, WA, OR, CA, CO, NM, NV, MN, IA, WI, IL, MI, IN, OH, VA, NC, GA, PA, NY, ME, VT, NH, MA, RI, CT, NJ, DE, MD, DC, HI, MO, NE(1)

    MT, ID, UT, AZ, WY, ND, SD, NE(4), KS, OK, TX, AR, LA, MS, KY, TN, AL, SC, FL, WV

    Obama: 367
    McCain: 171

  4. [4] 
    Allen wrote:

    Here's a website that computes the probability of each candidate winning the election based on recent poll data. It also ranks the states most likely to swing the outcome:

    The best feature though might be the interactive probability calculator:

    This lets you run your own numbers and see what the likely election outcome will be.

  5. [5] 
    Chris Weigant wrote:

    Allen -

    Thanks for posting this. This is an extremely cool site, and I recommend it to anyone not scared of statistics. I will be watching it for the next few months. Again, thanks for posting these links!


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