Among Barack Obama supporters, panic seems to be setting in after his first debate performance was roundly panned. National polls have pulled back into a neck-and-neck contest. This is all fun for the pundits, who (pre-debate) were on the verge of declaring the race all but over (and, hence, boring), but we hasten to remind everyone that this is not how we elect presidents. The national popular vote is meaningless -- just ask Al Gore. Presidential elections are won and lost state by state, which is how this column series examines things.
Having climbed up on our high horse, however, we're going to immediately climb right back down and offer up a bunch of caveats before we begin. State-level polling has a higher chance of inaccuracy, to begin with. Also, state polling is done much less frequently than national polling, so it can take longer for the numbers to show movement. While the polling data has been streaming in on the state level pretty steadily for the past few weeks, it is never as up-to-date as the national polling, so trends take longer to show up. Also, one general caveat about all polling, national and state: it always takes longer for voters' reactions to show up than the casual poll reader might think. So while the debate was last Wednesday night, the effects are just beginning to show up in the polling now, and the effects of the unexpected downward movement of the unemployment number on Friday still largely has yet to show up at all. These things take time, folks. The true picture of where we are won't solidify much until next week, to put it another way.
One last note before we move on to the charts -- from now until the election dawns, we'll be putting out one of these Electoral Math columns once a week, every Monday, to keep closer track of how the race looks. OK, let's get on with it:
[Click on any of theses graphs to see larger-scale versions.]
The first chart shows the total percent of vote each candidate would get if all the polls are correct and the election were held today. Obama, in blue, starts from the bottom, and Romney, in red, starts from the top. While there was a minor move up for Obama to begin with, it was countered with a minor move back down, and then the numbers settled back to almost exactly where they began. Obama actually improved slightly, by adding New Hampshire's four electoral votes (henceforth "EV"). Percentage-wise, Obama climbed up to almost 65 percent of the total EV, then slipped back to finish at almost 62 percent. Romney has not managed to top 40 percent in this graph since mid-August.
But this is a general overview, and does not show all of the movement happening. Ten states moved around in our categories this time, and five of them were good news for Romney versus only two for Obama (the remaining three moved, but then moved back again). Mitt Romney is showing momentum coming out of the first debate, but still has quite a ways to go for it to truly be significant when counting noses in the Electoral College.
Romney strengthened his numbers in two states (Arizona and Indiana), while weakening in none of the states in his column. Obama got stronger in two states as well (New Mexico and New Hampshire), but weakened in three states in his column (Michigan, Ohio, and Virginia).
Three states wobbled and fell back. Obama briefly got stronger in Wisconsin, Romney briefly got stronger in Missouri, but both were back by the end of the period. North Carolina flipped between the two candidates, but wound up back (barely) in Romney's column at the end.
Let's take a closer look at all of this movement, starting with Mitt Romney's chart:
[Definition of terms: "Strong" means 10% or better in the polls,
"Weak" means 5% or better, and "Barely" is under five percent.]
The last time we took the pulse of the race was almost two weeks ago (the vertical lines in the graph represent each of these columns). At the start of this period, Mitt Romney firmed up several states and pulled out of the slump he had been experiencing among his base. This was before the debate, it bears mentioning.
Indiana and Arizona both moved into "Strong Romney" on the same day -- Arizona, notably, from as far down as "Barely Romney." At the start of the period, Missouri moved up to "Weak Romney" but would fall back to Barely a week later. During this period, Romney's Barely category disappeared altogether, because with all the good news for Romney, North Carolina moved briefly to Obama's column, before moving back to Barely Romney to finish up.
Romney did get some bad news as time wore on, however, when Arizona slipped back to Weak from Strong -- which was still higher than it started. Missouri moving back to Barely was also a step back for Romney, but the addition at the end of North Carolina brought Romney back to the same 206 EV overall total that he started with. Romney did strengthen his standings within these states, though, hitting an all-time high in his Strong category of 158 EV before slipping back to end up at 147 EV -- which was 11 EV higher than he started.
More importantly, Romney ended his downward slide among the crucial "Strong Plus Weak" category, which had fallen to an all-time low of 170 EV. This rose to 191 EV before slipping back to end at 181 EV -- the same net gain of 11 EV.
Let's take a look at Barack Obama's chart for comparison:
Once again, I caution everyone that this chart is not going to really show much reaction to either the debate or the unemployment numbers until next week, so don't draw too many conclusions from the fact that this period was rather mixed for Obama. He had some ups, he had some downs, but it won't be until next week that we can draw any sort of definite conclusions from the data, with the possible exception of movements in the past two days or so.
Obama started out with some good news from New Hampshire, which then immediately got better. Entering the period, New Hampshire was tied, but it then moved to Barely Obama and then advanced again to Weak Obama, where it stayed put. This, however, was the best news of the period for Obama, and New Hampshire only has 4 EV. New Mexico also strengthened for Obama during the period, back to Strong Obama. Wisconsin flirted with moving from Weak to Strong, but then fell back again at the end, in a post-debate poll. Obama briefly captured North Carolina into Barely, but Romney had snatched it back by the end.
The three truly sobering states this time around for Obama were Michigan, Ohio, and Virginia, all of which slid back. Michigan fell from Strong to Weak, Ohio from Weak to Barely, and Virginia was briefly in the "Tied" category before Obama got it back into Barely. Virginia and Ohio certainly bear watching in the next week, that's for sure, since any movement is likely to show up there (and in Florida) before other states.
Obama's overall numbers weren't all that bad, however, with the exception of one trend. In Strong, Obama fell from 215 EV back to 199 EV, recovered to 214 EV, and then fell back to 204 EV -- losing only 11 EV even with all that movement. Overall, as mentioned, Obama actually gained 4 EV to wind up with 332 EV total -- but that was down from the high of 347 EV he set during the period, and until today (with Virginia's move) had been down to 319 EV. The more ominous trend for Obama was in the Strong Plus Weak category, where he fell from 284 EV down to 257 EV -- a loss of 27 EV (which translates to the loss of Virginia and Ohio, offset by the gain of New Hampshire).
Obama is still looking pretty strong in this snapshot, but he's lost some ground -- and the fallout from the debate hasn't really registered completely yet. Team Obama better hope that the expected losses next week from his debate performance will be balanced with gains due to unemployment getting below eight percent. Even though weakened, Obama still holds a very healthy lead over Romney in the Electoral College at this point. Comparing Strong Plus Weak, Obama still holds a 76 EV edge over Romney, but that is down from a whopping 114 EV lead from last time around -- an almost 40 EV drop.
Going more on my gut than just hard polling numbers is tough this time around, because it's hard to know how the data will react in each state. One positive development is that states are being polled much more frequently now, and we have recent polls from over 35 states. This polling frenzy will only intensify as we approach the actual election, making gut predictions easier. As always, different categories are used in this section to avoid confusion. Full lists of the states in each category can be found at the bottom of the column.
Likely States -- Obama
Safe Obama (15 states, 186 EV)
No change in this category from last time around. A case could be made for moving a state or two up to "Safe Obama," but we're holding off to see what happens in the next week. One state (Hawaii) was polled for the first time this year, confirming that it's an easy lock for Obama.
Probable Obama (5 states, 61 EV)
As with Safe Obama, a case could be made that a few more states deserve to be listed as "Probable Obama," but we're going to wait and see. The significant news here is the loss of Virginia -- all the way down to "Too Close To Call."
Likely States -- Romney
Safe Romney (19 states, 156 EV)
As with Obama, Romney neither gains nor loses any states in his Safe category. Two states confirmed this status with their first polls of this election cycle (Arkansas and Louisiana).
Probable Romney (3 states, 25 EV)
Last time around, Arizona moved downwards to just "Lean Romney" due to a bad poll. This time around, it moves right back up to "Probable Romney" due to stronger polling.
Lean Obama (5 states, 43 EV)
As always, most of the action took place in all of the "Tossup States." Starting with the "Lean Obama" category, one state moved out and one state moved in. Florida, at this point, has to be seen as Too Close To Call. I'm feeling good about Colorado, for no concrete reason, so I'm moving it up from Too Close To Call to here for now. A case could be made for either Nevada or New Hampshire moving all the way up to Probable Obama, but I don't feel as strongly about either one quite yet, so they're staying put, as is Iowa. Ohio seems to be teetering on the brink of a move down to Too Close To Call, but for the time being I think Obama still has an edge.
Lean Romney (1 state, 10 EV)
Romney lost one state here, but it's good news for him, as Arizona moves up to Probable Romney. Which leaves Missouri as the only "Lean Romney" state this time around. Missouri's going to be interesting, because of the "reverse coattails" from the hotly-contested Senate race, but so far Mitt seems to be holding his edge.
Too Close To Call (3 states, 57 EV)
Colorado moves up to Lean Obama (which may be unjustified, we'll see), but two Obama states moved back down into Too Close To Call this time -- Florida and Virginia. These, to put it mildly, are going to be crucial states for both candidates in November -- the battlegroundiest of the battlegrounds, so to speak.
Barack Obama's convention bounce fades into the past. Mitt Romney's debate bounce hasn't quite shown its full colors yet. Meaning it's an unstable time in the polling, and things could break either direction in the next week (reminder: these columns will now appear weekly, so check back every Monday from now on).
Obama holds 20 states containing 247 EV by my reckoning, which stacks up favorably against Romney's 22 states with only 181 EV. Out of the 110 EV in the nine remaining battleground states, this means Obama needs 23 EV while Romney has a much bigger 89 EV hill to climb.
Obama can win with only one tossup state -- Florida's whopping 29 EV haul. Even if he loses Florida, he can win with any two of: Virginia, North Carolina, or Ohio. Romney, on the other hand, has to pretty much run the table of the battlegrounds. To put this another way, if Romney won the biggest five of these nine states (Florida, North Carolina, Ohio, Virginia, and Missouri), he'd still need one other state to push him over the finish line. Romney may have had a great debate, but he still has a long way to go before he makes the electoral race anywhere near as competitive as the national polling seems to suggest these days.
[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 -- 247 Electoral Votes:
Safe States -- 15 States -- 186 Electoral Votes
California (55), Connecticut (7), Delaware (3), Hawaii (4), Illinois (20), Maine (4), Maryland (10), Massachusetts (11), New Jersey (14), New York (29), Oregon (7), Rhode Island (4), Vermont (3), Washington D.C. (3), Washington (12)
Probable States -- 5 States -- 61 Electoral Votes
Michigan (16), Minnesota (10), New Mexico (5), Pennsylvania (20), Wisconsin (10)
Mitt Romney Likely Easy Wins -- 22 States -- 181 Electoral Votes:
Safe States -- 19 States -- 156 Electoral Votes
Alabama (9), Alaska (3), Arkansas (6), Georgia (16), Idaho (4), Kansas (6), Kentucky (8), Louisiana (8), Mississippi (6), Nebraska (5), North Dakota (3), Oklahoma (7), South Carolina (9), South Dakota (3), Tennessee (11), Texas (38), Utah (6), West Virginia (5), Wyoming (3)
Probable States -- 3 States -- 25 Electoral Votes
Arizona (11), Indiana (11), Montana (3)
Tossup States -- 9 States -- 110 Electoral Votes:
Tossup States Leaning Obama -- 5 States -- 43 Electoral Votes
Colorado (9), Iowa (6), Nevada (6), New Hampshire (4), Ohio (18)
Tossup States Leaning Romney -- 1 State -- 10 Electoral Votes
Too Close To Call -- 3 States -- 57 Electoral Votes
Florida (29), North Carolina (15), Virginia (13)
No polling data since July:
(States which have not been polled since the beginning of August, with the dates of their last poll)
North Dakota (7/11), South Carolina (1/13), Tennessee (5/9), Utah (6/21)
No polling data at all, yet:
(States which have not been polled so far this year)
Alaska, Delaware, Idaho, Kansas, Mississippi, Washington D.C., Wyoming
Electoral Math Column Series Archive:
-- Chris Weigant
Follow Chris on Twitter: @ChrisWeigant