This week's word is going to be "insurmountable." Look for it coming from the lips and pens of pundits everywhere in the next week. Because while mainstream media journalists are obviously trying to portray this race as a lot closer than it really is (better ratings that way), if Obama can just hold on to the leads he has right now -- not improve them in any way, just hold them -- then Election Day viewing parties nationwide may be over before anyone's even finished their first beer.
Remember, the East Coast returns come in first. And it's going to be all but impossible to continue the "we're in a dead heat" nonsense if Barack Obama decisively wins Florida and Virginia.
Because, at that point, Senator Barack Obama will become "President-Elect" Barack Obama.
And, at this point, Obama winning Florida and Virginia looks like a definite possibility. Actually, you could add in Ohio and say "if Obama wins any two of these, he'll win." Or even, if you really trust all the other poll numbers, "if Obama wins any one of these, he's got it in the bag."
Which (as I pointed out) will lead to a very short Election Night.
Now, of course, the map is not the territory, and the polls are not the election. Plus, the polls have been volatile and many questions remain as to their credibility. So we've got three weeks to go, and anything can happen.
But the closer we get, if Obama continues his absolute domination of the previously identified "battleground states" and maintains his lead elsewhere, then the word "insurmountable" is going to be heard more and more often in the days ahead.
We begin with a quick look at the charts, starting with the overall Electoral College status. [Click on any of these charts to see a larger image.]
[Obama's percentage starts from the bottom (blue) and McCain's starts from the top (red), and winning means getting your line over (or under, for McCain) the 50% mark. Tied states are in white.]
All of this week's charts are remarkably stable since last week's overview. Overall, two states moved stronger for McCain this week (NC, TX). North Carolina went from being tied to a very slight McCain edge, and Texas firmed up considerably. Two states weakened slightly for Obama (MN, VA). But Obama improved in four states (MO, MI, CO, WI) he had previously held, and flipped two from McCain (WV, ND). West Virginia was supposed to be a stronghold for McCain, although North Dakota has flipped previously. These two may flip right back again, though. They bear close watching in the next few days.
The chart shows a little movement, but not a whole lot, as both candidates for the most part held their ground in overall Electoral Votes ("EV"). Because of minor movement (and no states currently being tied), both candidates actually improved their numbers slightly over last week.
John McCain started off the week with 174 EV, or 32.3% of the total 538. He lost North Dakota and West Virginia, but picked up North Carolina, for a total gain of seven over last week -- 181 EV, or 33.6% of the total.
Barack Obama also improved slightly, after starting the week with 349 EV, or 64.8%. Obama added North Dakota and West Virginia (Missouri was tied for a period during the week, but wound up returning to Obama's column) for a net gain of eight electoral votes. He ends the week with 357 EV -- a new highpoint for him -- or 66.4%.
As with last week, this leaves an almost perfect split -- McCain wins one-third of the total votes, and Obama wins two-thirds.
Can you say "insurmountable"? I knew you could!
Ahem. We will now proceed, in an orderly fashion, to the breakdown charts for each candidate, starting with McCain.
[Definition of terms: Strong means 10% or better in the polls, Weak means 5% or better, and Barely is under five percent.]
Unlike last week, when the news was all bad for John McCain, the news this week is a bit more mixed. Starting with his Strong numbers, McCain gained a whopping 34 EV here by firming up his support in Texas. This slid back three when North Dakota bolted, leaving McCain up for the week here 31 EV, for a total of 131 EV.
Unfortunately for McCain, the big jump in Strong came at the expense of his Weak numbers (since Texas was Weak last week). Further adding to this was the loss of West Virginia from Weak McCain, meaning his total Weak dropped 39 EV to only 24 EV total.
McCain gained in his Barely numbers though, by turning North Carolina from being tied last week to Barely McCain this week. This, and the fact that he held his only other state in this category (Indiana) means he ended the week at 26 EV in the Barely column.
But, ominously for McCain, while last week he didn't lose anything in the metric I consider most important (Strong plus Weak), this week he actually fell eight votes here, for a total of only 155 EV. This shows the weakening of his base support in states he had considered "in the bag" and will force him to play some defense in those states.
Moving on to happier news, let's take a look at Barack Obama's chart for the week.
Obama's Strong numbers continued to improve this week, although not quite as dramatically as last week. And since he lost minimal ground in the Weak and Barely categories -- essentially holding his own -- he winds up looking pretty good at the end of the week. Obama started out the week losing Minnesota from Strong, but he then gained Wisconsin, which balanced it out (they both have 10 EV). And with the addition of Michigan (due, no doubt, to McCain pulling out of the state), he gains a total 17 EV in Strong this week, up to his best showing yet -- 245 EV. Whew! That means he only needs 25 electoral votes in this category alone to win the race outright. Obama continues to maintain a 100-plus EV lead in this category over McCain, for the second week in a row.
Obama did lose some ground in Weak, but held it to a minimum -- only five votes down from last week for a total of 44 EV. In Barely, he was down four votes to 68 EV. The significant moves between categories were Virginia moving from Weak to Barely, and Colorado and Missouri moving up to Weak.
But in the all-important Strong plus Weak, Obama has improved his numbers 12 EV over last week to a skyscraping 289 EV. For the second week in a row, if Obama just wins every state now polling at five percent or better for him, he wins the race. He is now nineteen electoral votes over what he needs, just from his Strong and Weak states alone.
Because I've been accused in the past of irrational exuberance, we turn once again to the more sober poll-watching of Sam Minter, from his site abulsme.com. His chart averages the last five state polls, while I just take the data from electoral-vote.com, so his data is less volatile than mine.
His chart combines my three charts above into one. Obama starts from the top, McCain starts from the bottom, and wherever the double baby-blue/pink line currently is determines who is ahead, measured from the centerline.
Minter's most recent comments sum up his view of the race:
McCain Best Case -- Obama 313, McCain 225
Obama Best Case -- Obama 380, McCain 158
If everybody gets their leans -- 364 Obama, 174 McCain
Looking at the various trends line, and visually averaging out the effects of Florida bouncing back and forth, it appears that the movement toward Obama is *still* going on. We have not yet seen a peak and a start of a reversion back to McCain as we approach the election. I keep thinking that Obama *must* be close to his maximum possible support levels, but so far, we just haven't seen the movement actually stop.
And we now have McCain's best case scenario, where he sweeps all the remaining swing states (as per today's update, NOT including Florida), being that he loses by 88 electoral votes. This is his worst position yet.
So, once again, it looks like I haven't exactly cornered the market on exuberance!
Which brings us to my personal picks, where I allow the stars, the moon, the sun, and the current status of David Letterman (ahem) to influence my reading of the status of the race.
I was pretty conservative about things last week, because I wasn't sure whether it was all a temporary spike in the numbers. But Obama has generally held his ground this week, so I'm ready to be a bit more optimistic.
As always, the categories used are: Likely Obama (broken down to Safe Obama and Probable Obama); Likely McCain (Safe/Probable); and Tossup (broken down to Lean Obama, Lean McCain, and Too Close To Call). And at the very end is a section with the full data in all its wonktastic splendor.
Likely States -- Obama
Safe Obama (21 states, 260 EV) -- CA, CT, DC, DE, HI, IA, IL, MA, MD, MI, MN, NH, NJ, NM, NY, OR, PA, RI, VT, WA, WI.
Not a whole lot of movement here this week. Obama added New Hampshire, whose polls have bounced back from being very weak three weeks ago to double-digit leads for Obama again. At a total 260 electoral votes, Obama is only ten away from victory in this category alone.
Probable Obama (2 states, 17 EV) -- ME, VA.
Maine should probably be moved up to Safe Obama as well, but there hasn't been a poll out of the Pine Tree State for over a week, so it's impossible to tell what is going on up there. For now, it stays as Probable Obama. But the big news this week is the addition of Virginia to Probable Obama. This could determine the outcome of the entire race. Polls are a little scattered in Virginia, but there have been two recent ones showing Obama up by over ten points, and when averaged, it seems he has better than a six point lead. So while it could easily slip back to just Lean Obama, for this week at least, I'm putting it into Probable.
Which means that for the first time, adding Likely States for Obama gives a winning number, with a total of 23 states and 277 electoral votes. If this holds, it means that Obama will win on election day no matter which way the swing states vote. And that's a milestone worth noting.
Likely States -- McCain
Safe McCain (16 states, 131 EV) -- AK, AL, AR, AZ, ID, KS, KY, LA, NE, OK, SC, SD, TN, TX, UT, WY.
Mixed news here for McCain, as he loses one stay way down the list, and gains back another. The bad news for McCain is that North Dakota moves all the way down to Too Close To Call (a dramatic movement indeed), but it may not be such bad news for McCain after all. Because polling from North Dakota isn't very frequent, and is often unreliable. There just aren't that many people up there, after all. Obama is actually up by two points in the most recent poll, but many (especially those of the Republican persuasion) argue that it can't be believed. So while it is now Too Close To Call, it could easily move back into McCain's column with one or two more polls.
McCain's really good news here, though, is firming up Texas once again. This is due to the state's monstrous 34 electoral votes, which has a disproportionate effect on McCain's numbers. Hey, he could use some good news in this column, and the probability all along has been that Texas will wind up in McCain's column on Election Day.
But with this movement, McCain improves his numbers 31 EV over last week, for a total of 131 EV. Of course, this is still only about half what Obama has in this column, but good news of any kind is pretty scarce for McCain these days, so he'll have to take what he can get.
Probable McCain (3 states, 24 EV) -- GA, MS, MT.
Unfortunately for McCain, the good news of Texas moving up means bad news in this column. McCain loses Texas upwards to Safe from Probable, but (more alarmingly) he also loses West Virginia down to Too Close To Call. Now, this may (as with North Dakota) be based on nothing more than one bad poll for McCain here, but it wasn't just bad, it was devastating -- it showed Obama up by eight points. West Virginia, due to lots of (union) coal miners, has a strong and historic Democratic streak to it, and this may be reasserting itself. We really won't know until a few more polls come out of the state, and we may not even know until Election Day what is truly going on here.
When you add it all up, it means that John McCain, after holding his ground in Likely States last week, is actually down this week by eight electoral votes -- from 163 EV to 155 EV. And that's the wrong direction to be heading, with less than three weeks to go.
Lean Obama (3 states, 56 EV) -- FL, CO, OH.
Once again, the movement of states is most pronounced where the polls are closest. For Obama, the news was all positive in his Lean category this week. Virginia, as noted, moved up to Probable Obama. But Obama also gained two states in Lean this week, Colorado and Ohio, both up from Too Close To Call.
Some might argue for moving Florida up to Probable at this point, since the polls in Florida and Virginia have both been trending Obama all week. But the trend has been longer and more pronounced in the Old Dominion State than in the Sunshine State, so while there is a definite possibility Florida could move up next week, for the time being I'm going to remain skeptical and leave it here.
Colorado also is showing a strong trend towards Obama, and is another good candidate for moving upwards next week. Colorado has been showing a definite preference for Obama throughout the entire race, and one or two more solid polls for Obama could put it away for him there. But for now, while it moves up to Lean Obama, I can't justify moving it further upwards yet.
Obama has also held a fairly steady lead in Ohio for the past two weeks, but it's been a small lead, and he hasn't managed to increase it much in that time. So while Ohio may even fall back to Too Close To Call, for this week I'm pegging it at Lean Obama.
For the week, Obama picks up one state here and 16 electoral votes, for a total of 56 EV.
Lean McCain (1 state, 11 EV) -- IN.
No movement here, but if McCain holds his slim lead here much longer, I may consider moving Indiana up to Probable McCain. We'll see.
Too Close To Call (5 states, 39 EV) -- MO, NC, ND, NV, WV.
As usual, Too Close To Call was the most volatile category this week. And the news here was all good for Obama. Two states fell into Too Close To Call from McCain this week, and both of them came from Likely -- West Virginia (from Probable McCain) and North Dakota (all the way down from Safe McCain). This is going to force McCain into playing defense in two states he thought he had locked up, which is important.
And two states left this category this week, Colorado and Ohio, both up to Lean Obama. Missouri almost moved to Lean Obama, but I'm still skeptical and want to see a few more polls before I move it.
But what is astounding to me is the list of states in this category. With the exception of Nevada (and possibly Missouri), this list is made up of states that weren't even considered as battleground states, even a few weeks ago. And all the battleground states the mainstream media has been endlessly hyping (Ohio, Florida, New Hampshire, Virginia, Colorado, New Mexico, Michigan) have all moved over to Obama, to one degree or another. Now, I'm not saying some of them won't move back in the next few weeks, but still, which states are (and which are not) on that list is pretty good news for Obama at this point.
[Program Note: We've only got three more of these columns to go, kiddies! Next Wednesday, the Wednesday after that, and then a special "My Election Picks" column, which will appear on Election Day before the polls close.]
[Electoral Vote Data:]
Previous electoral math columns:
Barack Obama Likely Easy Wins -- 23 States -- 277 Electoral Votes:
Safe States -- 21 States -- 260 Electoral Votes
California (55), Connecticut (7), Delaware (3), Hawaii (4), Illinois (21), Iowa (7), Maryland (10), Massachusetts (12), Michigan (17), Minnesota (10), New Hampshire (4), New Jersey (15), New Mexico (5), New York (31), Oregon (7), Pennsylvania (21), Rhode Island (4), Vermont (3), Washington, D.C. (3), Washington (11), Wisconsin (10)
Probable States -- 2 States -- 17 Electoral Votes
Maine (4), Virginia (13)
John McCain Likely Easy Wins -- 19 States -- 155 Electoral Votes:
Safe States -- 16 States -- 131 Electoral Votes
Alabama (9), Alaska (3), Arizona (10), Arkansas (6), Idaho (4), Kansas (6), Kentucky (8), Louisiana (9), Nebraska (5), Oklahoma (7), South Carolina (8), South Dakota (3), Tennessee (11), Texas (34), Utah (5), Wyoming (3)
Probable States -- 3 States -- 24 Electoral Votes
Georgia (15), Mississippi (6), Montana (3)
Tossup States -- 9 States -- 106 Electoral Votes:
Tossup States Leaning Obama -- 3 States -- 56 Electoral Votes
Florida (27), Colorado (9), Ohio (20)
Tossup States Leaning McCain -- 1 State -- 11 Electoral Votes
Too Close To Call -- 5 States -- 39 Electoral Votes
Missouri (11), Nevada (5), North Carolina (15), North Dakota (3), West Virginia (5)
9/18: Washington DC, Utah
Cross-posted at The Huffington Post
-- Chris Weigant