It's time once again to check in with the horse race, and examine the math in the Electoral College, since it is (after all) the way we actually elect our presidents.
Since the last time we took such a snapshot, roughly three weeks ago, both candidates have shown some firming up of their positions, but the good news for both candidates is mixed with some softening as well.
First, let's take a look at the overall chart, which shows no nuance but rather how the election would go today if every single state poll out there was 100% correct (which would indeed be newsworthy, in and of itself). This graph charts percentage of the Electoral College for both candidates (blue for Obama, red for Romney):
While an initial glance might lead you to believe Obama has jumped out far in front of Romney, I do caution everyone that this includes Florida in Obama's column, which I fully expect to flip back and forth throughout the campaign (and, at 29 Electoral votes, is hugely significant).
Obama, at this point, has opened up the biggest lead yet, winning 61.7 percent of the total Electoral College vote (referred to in these columns as simply "EV"). Mitt Romney has fallen from 43.7 percent of the EV to a paltry 38.3 percent. Below 40 percent is dangerous territory for any candidate, it goes without saying, because it may leave too big a gap to close before Election Day.
But, as I said, Florida is the 800-pound gorilla here. The only difference between Obama's previous 56.3 percent and where he is today is the 29 EV to be found in Florida. While the overall picture has remained fairly stable, there has indeed been movement in the more micro examination of each candidate's strength in the states. As previously mentioned, this movement has been positive (in a way) for both candidates, and slightly negative (in another way) for both, as well.
To see this, we must delve deeper into the stats. Let's begin with the outlook for Mitt Romney:
[Definition of terms: Strong means 10% or better in the polls, Weak means 5% or better, and Barely is under five percent.]
Just to remind readers who may have missed the previous column in this series, the vertical lines in these charts represent the dates these columns have previously appeared upon. This provides an easy reference point for my analysis of the intervening period from the last Electoral Math column.
Let's take a look at Mitt Romney's position. Romney went overseas during this period, and was ridiculed by the American media for dissing the London Olympics -- as well as a few other gaffes from the rest of his trip to Israel and Poland. Harry Reid tossed one heck of a gauntlet down in front of Romney, daring Mitt to release further tax returns. Romney has so far resisted doing so, in an effort to turn the whole thing around on Harry Reid. It remains to be seen how this will play out with the undecided American voter, it bears pointing out.
As for the actual state-by-state numbers, Mitt Romney has stayed remarkably stable -- much more stable than John McCain in 2008. In fact, Romney's support is reminiscent of nothing more than Barack Obama's job approval numbers, which haven't appreciably changed in the last four or five months. Perhaps the American public has simply made up its mind on the entire election, and any further speculation on the part of pundits is completely and utterly unnecessary?
Well, of course, this column must reject this logic, because if accepted it would argue strongly for just wrapping the whole column series up altogether and going into the back yard to take a nap or something. Ahem.
Back to solid data, Mitt Romney lost Florida early on in this particular cycle (although, as I said, this should be considered as a large number of EV which could flip back at the drop of a hat). This brought his total EV numbers down. Later on, Romney firmed up two states in significant ways. Mitt got good news in a poll out of North Carolina at the beginning of August, which moved the state from Barely Romney to Weak Romney. Then a few days ago, a poll came out of Indiana which moved it from Weak Romney to Strong Romney. Unfortunately for Mitt, while this did increase his base vote in the states he can probably count on in November, this totally erased the Barely category for him. To put it another way, Romney is firming up his support in certain states, but he has yet to convince any of the swing states to swing in his direction. At the very end, there was further movement which all but cancelled out this bump for Romney, as North Carolina moved back to Barely, and, somewhat surprisingly, Georgia moved from Strong to Weak for Romney.
So, even with this good news for Romney's camp, there is a fairly ugly lining to that silver cloud. Romney started this period with an overall total of 235 EV, but ended up (due to the Florida flip), with only 206 EV. Romney's key "Strong plus Weak" numbers moved upwards from 191 EV to 206 EV, but then fell back again at the end to 191 EV. Romney's Strong numbers jumped from 144 to 155 EV -- a level John McCain would struggle to achieve throughout his entire campaign -- but then fell back even further to end at 139 EV.
Let's take a look at the similarly-mixed picture for Barack Obama:
Like Mitt Romney's chart, the overall "if the election were held today" picture for President Obama has only changed with the Florida flop. But within these numbers, Obama showed much more movement than his opponent, some of which was good news for Obama fans and some of which was not.
Obama got bad news in five states this time around, as New Mexico, Minnesota, and Connecticut all moved from the Strong Obama column to Weak Obama. Wisconsin and Virginia weakened even further, moving from Weak to Barely Obama. Three states showed weakness, but then recovered, as Washington and New Jersey both moved from Strong to Weak, but then moved back to Strong. Pennsylvania moved from Weak to Barely, but then right back to Weak.
This was partially offset by two states which firmed up, as both Michigan and Ohio moved from Barely Obama to Weak Obama. But the biggest piece of good news for Obama's chart was the movement of Florida from Barely Romney to Weak Obama, although it fell back into Barely Obama to finish up.
On the chart, this all translated into a falling off of Obama's Strong numbers, with a limited recovery after the dip. At the same time, however, his Weak numbers improved and his Barely numbers filled in to leave the top line steady, after the addition of Florida. Obama's overall total went up from 303 to 332 EV, as a result of the Florida move. Obama's Strong numbers fell from 194 down to 146 EV, but then made gains to finish at 172 EV. The crucial "Strong Plus Weak" number moved upward for Obama from 256 until -- for the second time this cycle -- they topped the magic 270 EV needed to win, hitting a high of 288 EV before falling back to finish up at 267 EV. Which is still pretty close to 270 EV.
If every poll is accurate and the election were held today, Obama would gain 267 EV in states where he's running five points or better ahead of Romney. This would mean he would only need to win a single state from his Barely column -- even New Hampshire would do -- to gain a second term in the White House. So while the drop off in Strong states is a little concerning, Obama's overall Electoral Math picture is still quite rosy.
Since this column uses data only from Electoral-Vote.com, we always like to provide a check on the numbers from another poll-watching site run by Samuel Minter. Also, because his charts are cooler than mine. Here is his current chart, which combines all three of my above charts into one:
The purple line shows where the total stands, if it is above the green midpoint then the advantage is Obama's and if below, then the advantage is with Romney. Clicking on the chart above will take you to a page with a bigger image, or you can read Minter's most recent comments for a much more in-depth analysis than I manage to do. As I mentioned, Minter gathers data from multiple sources, and takes a much closer look at the numbers, state-by-state.
To finish up, here is how I divide the states up at the moment. These picks take into account other factors than just raw poll numbers, which is a fancy way of saying sometimes my gut just overrules the numbers. Full lists of the states in each category and their EV totals are at the bottom, and we've added to the data section this time around a list of states which have not been polled at all this election cycle, as well as the states which have not been polled since the first of June. Most of these are extremely safe states for one side or the other, but the older the polling data the less it can be relied upon.
The three categories here are "Likely" for each candidate (broken down into "Safe" and "Probable") as well as a "Tossup" category (with "Leaning" for each candidate and a "Too Close To Call"). Got all that? Then let's get on with it, shall we?
Likely States -- Obama
Safe Obama (13 states, 172 EV)
Obama loses three states downwards here, as Minnesota, New Mexico, and Connecticut all drop back a notch. This reduces Obama's total Safe number by 22, leaving him with 172 EV here for now (see below for full list).
Probable Obama (7 states, 71 EV)
This category gains the three states which moved down from Safe, for a total of seven states. All of these seem to be holding firm for Obama, though, meaning none have moved any further down the list.
Likely States -- Romney
Safe Romney (18 states, 148 EV)
Arizona is now looking so strong for Romney that it has to be considered one of his Safe states. Offsetting this good news for Romney fans, however, we've got to move both South Dakota and Georgia down a notch, for now. These three moves mean Romney winds up losing one state and 8 EV in this category.
Probable Romney (5 states, 43 EV)
Like Obama, however, all this movement merely reshuffles the deck between these two categories. Romney now has five probable states, for a total of 43 EV.
Lean Obama (5 states, 47 EV)
Relying mostly on gut feeling for the final groups, there now seem to be five states leaning towards Obama, but not comfortably in his column quite yet. Colorado, New Hampshire, Ohio, and Wisconsin all didn't move this time around. Virginia seems weaker than before, so it has moved into the Too Close to Call group. At the same time, Iowa seems to be consistently leaning Obama, so it moves up to take Virginia's place. Because Virginia is bigger, this results in a net loss for Obama here of 7 EV.
Lean Romney (1 state, 15 EV)
No change here. North Carolina firmed up for Romney, but then right at the end fell back. Rather than moving it up to Probable, it has to still be seen as just a "leaner" for Romney.
Too Close To Call (2 states, 42 EV)
Which brings us to the true dart-at-the-wall category. Iowa, as mentioned, seems to be holding in the Obama column, so it moves up to Lean Obama for now (this could change with further polling, of course). Virginia, however, seems like it could be very close indeed, so it has moved into the "anybody's guess" group. Florida remains here as well, and will likely do so right up to Election Day.
In general, as state-level polling gets more frequent, we're going to see more movement between all the categories. Much of the movement we see this time around is likely due to polls being taken in states which have been mostly ignored up until this point, in fact. Call it setting a true baseline, before the national conventions kick off and election season really kicks off.
Mitt Romney is doing a remarkable job -- when compared to John McCain in 2008, at least -- of firming up his early support. Almost every state in his column is virtually a lock for him in November, now (shown by the disappearance of the light pink section of his chart). In 2008, McCain didn't even have 100 EV in his Strong column at this point, whereas Mitt Romney has already (briefly) broken through the 150 EV barrier.
The problem for Romney, however, is that other than swapping Florida's 29 EV back and forth with President Obama, he has yet to make any appreciable inroads among any of the other battleground states. He's doing well in North Carolina, but he's going to need more than that to have any chance of winning.
Barack Obama, conversely, is looking stronger and stronger in some very crucial states for Romney -- states like Ohio, Michigan, and Pennsylvania. If Obama easily picks up these three, it could deny Romney any plausible chance of putting together the winning 270. Especially if Obama takes Virginia, as well.
Counting up my personal picks right now, with no leaning or tossup states, both Romney and Obama have exactly the same number of easy wins as they previously did -- 243 EV for Obama, 191 EV for Romney. Obama maintains his 52 EV edge for the period. From all of the leaning and tossup states, Obama only needs 27 more electoral votes to cross the finish line, whereas Mitt Romney needs a whopping 79 electoral votes to deny Obama a second term.
[Electoral Vote Data:]
(State electoral votes are in parenthesis following each state's name. Washington D.C. is counted as a state)
Barack Obama Likely Easy Wins -- 20 States -- 243 Electoral Votes:
Safe States -- 13 States -- 172 Electoral Votes
California (55), Delaware (3), Hawaii (4), Illinois (20), Maine (4), Maryland (10), Massachusetts (11), New Jersey (14), New York (29), Rhode Island (4), Vermont (3), Washington D.C. (3), Washington (12)
Probable States -- 7 States -- 71 Electoral Votes
Connecticut (7), Michigan (16), Minnesota (10), Nevada (6), New Mexico (5), Oregon (7), Pennsylvania (20)
Mitt Romney Likely Easy Wins -- 23 States -- 191 Electoral Votes:
Safe States -- 18 States -- 148 Electoral Votes
Alabama (9), Alaska (3), Arizona (11), Arkansas (6), Idaho (4), Kansas (6), Kentucky (8), Louisiana (8), Mississippi (6), Nebraska (5), North Dakota (3), Oklahoma (7), South Carolina (9), Tennessee (11), Texas (38), Utah (6), West Virginia (5), Wyoming (3)
Probable States -- 5 States -- 43 Electoral Votes
Georgia (16), Indiana (11), Missouri (10), Montana (3), South Dakota (3)
Tossup States -- 8 States -- 104 Electoral Votes:
Tossup States Leaning Obama -- 5 States -- 47 Electoral Votes
Colorado (9), Iowa (6), New Hampshire (4), Ohio (18), Wisconsin (10)
Tossup States Leaning Romney -- 1 State -- 15 Electoral Votes
North Carolina (15)
Too Close To Call -- 2 States -- 42 Electoral Votes
Florida (29), Virginia (13)
Polled, but no polling data since the primaries:
(States which have not been polled since the beginning of June, with the dates of their last poll)
Georgia (5/22), Maryland (5/21), Nebraska (5/13), Oklahoma (5/10), Rhode Island (2/22), South Carolina (1/13), Tennessee (5/9), Texas (5/13), Vermont (2/22), and West Virginia (4/28).
No polling data at all, yet:
(States which have not been polled so far this year):
Alaska, Arkansas, Delaware, Hawaii, Idaho, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Washington D.C., Wyoming
Electoral Math Column Series Archive:
-- Chris Weigant
Follow Chris on Twitter: @ChrisWeigant