A lot has been going Senator Barack Obama’s way of late. The economic turmoil is sweeping independents his way. Second thoughts about the selection of Governor Sarah Palin is pushing Republicans his way. His campaign coffers are full. The Republicans look desperate. And he’s received the endorsement of perhaps the most admired individual in American politics, former Secretary of State Colin Powell. While I’ve made clear my belief that the polls this year are less reliable than usual, based on state-by-state polls, Obama is leading in states totaling more than the 270 electoral votes he needs to win on election day. All of which explains why Senator John McCain could win this election by an extremely narrow margin.
To see why, take a look at the CNN Electoral Map Calculator. The Calculator applies various polling data to award states’ electoral votes to a candidate ifthe election were held today. (Last I checked, however, the election is not being held today). This is important. Being ahead in politics is like paper profits — or losses — in the stock market. Until you sell the stock, the gain or loss is meaningless. And unless you maintain your lead through election, the early polls don’t matter.
Based on their interpretation of various polls, CNN’s calculator shows Senator Obama leading in states with enough electoral votes to exceed the 270 he needs to win. Specifically, they indicate the Democratic candidate is leading in states with 277 electoral votes, his Republican opponent Senator McCain is ahead in states with 174 and there are six states, totalling 87 electoral votes, which are too close to call.
Let’s look at those six states, moving west to east (all poll referenced below were taken on October 19th or earlier):
- Nevada, where Real Clear Politics’ poll of polls shows Senator Obama ahead by just 2.3 percent;
- Colorado, where the Real Clear Politics poll average has Senator Obama ahead by 5.4 percent;
- Missouri, where RCP poll average shows Senator Obama ahead by 2.7 percent;
- Ohio, where Senator Obama’s lead in the RCP poll of polls is 2.8 percent;
- North Carolina,where Senator Obama is ahead by only 1.5 percent in the RCP poll average; and
- Florida, where Senator Obama leads by 2.0 percent in the RCP poll of polls.
All six of these states went for President George W. Bush in 2004. If these polls are close to being right (a very big if) a shift of just one and one-half percent of voters from Senator Obama to Senator McCain would bring five of the states into the Republican column. A move by just three percent of those supporting the Democrat to Senator McCain would bring along the sixth state. This would be great news for the McCain-Palin ticket, but not great enough. Even with all 87 electoral votes from these toss-up states Senator Obama would still win on November 4th, 277 electoral votes to 261.
Running the board to take all six toss-up states won’t be easy, but it is certainly possible. These are traditionally red states and Senator McCain and the Republican Party have the resources to contest all of them. A gaffe or stumble by Senator Obama or his running mate, Senator Joe Biden, could result in the minor swings required. So could independent campaign committees hammering away on Reverend Jeremiah Wright, William Ayers or other hot button, Swift Boat worthy attacks.
If Senator McCain were to sweep the toss up states, the next president could be decided by Virginia. Currently, Real Clear Politics show Senator Obama ahead there by 8.0 percent (and the most recent poll used in the average shows the Democrat ahead by only six percent. If only four percent of those favoring Senator Obama switch to Senator McCain, the Republican nominee would win the White House with 274 electoral votes.
The last time Virginia went for the Democratic ticket was in 1964. While an influx of more liberal and independent voters in the suburbs of Washington, DC has helped elect Democrats to the Senate and the Governor’s office, down state is still conservative. There’s a large military presence in the state which should also help Senator McCain. Again, it won’t be easy. A gaffe by the Democrats combined with a strong get-out-the-vote effort by the GOP, however, could deliver the state’s electoral vote to Senator McCain.
There’s a lot of ifs in this scenario. But it does show that even two weeks before the election, there’s a chance we’ll be swearing in President McCain and Vice President Palin come January. Significantly, they could achieve their electoral college win while losing the popular vote, but it’s still a win — just ask President Bush.
Of course, it could go the other way. Senator Obama could win all the toss-up states and defeat Senator McCain 364-to-174 in the electoral college. That’s called a landslide. Even the more likely scenario of Senator McCain holding on to Missouri and North Carolina for the Republicans would result in a 338-to-200 win for the Democrats — arguably still a mandate.
Anything can happen in the next two weeks: an international incident; a botched interview; more bank failures; more brazen political attack (whether true or not); the list goes on and on. Being ahead on October 21st does win elections. It’s what happens on election day that matters. And this election day, November 4th, Senator McCain could win small or Senator Obama might win big.
Any way you look at it, it’s not over yet.