Was Obama Victory a Landslide?

Just as a rose is a rose is a rose, in presidential politics a win is a win is a win. Senator Barack Obama won. Senator John McCain lost. Ultimately, that’s all that matters. But in America, politics is as much sport as civic duty so there’s been a lot of talk about whether Senator Obama’s win was a landslide or not.

Previously I’ve written about electoral wins of the modern era by non-incumbents. Based on the nine elections since 1932, I expressed my belief that “a non-incumbent candidate receiving 54% or more of the popular vote and/or winning at least 350 electoral votes arrives in landslide country.” So, using that definition, how did Senator Obama do on November 4th?

The results haven’t been certified in all states yet. But as it stands today (updated on November 19, 2008) Senator Obama won the presidency with 365 electoral votes versus Senator McCain’s 173. Having crossed the 350 electoral vote threshold, the Obama camp can claim a landslide.

The accomplishment gets a little murky when the popular vote for president is taken into account:

  • Obama: 66,700,243 votes – 52.7%
  • McCain: 58,227,836 – 46.0%
  • Others: 1, 450,000 (give or take) – about 1.3%

Under the popular vote criteria, Senator Obama missed a landslide by just 1.3%. However, I had an “and/or” in my definition, so I’m giving the landslide medal to President-elect Obama based on his electoral vote total. If you want to add an asterisk to it, that’s fine. Your definitions, and results, may vary, but that’s my take on it.

Even if you don’t consider Senator Obama’s win a landslide, it was certainly impressive. With there now being 10 elections since 1932 without an incumbent on the presidential ballot, here’s how senator Obama’s victory stacks up:

Popular vote: 4th out of 10 regardless of winning party; 2nd out of 5 among Democratic wins (Franklin Roosevelt beat Herbert Hoover 57.6% to 39.6%)

Electoral vote: 6th out of 10 (if Senator Obama eventually wins Missouri (note: which he did not)  he’d move up to 5th place); 3rd out of 5 among Democratic non-incumbents (again, a Missouri win would move him past Bill Clinton’s 370 electoral college votes).

During the campaign Senator Obama was subjected to viscous attacks on his character, integrity and patriotism. Senator McCain offered starkly different approaches to addressing the nation’s myriad challenges. Yet Senator Obama prevailed by consistently hammering away at the need for change, fleshing out this battle cry with a call for middle cut tax cuts, a quicker end to the war in Iraq, moving quickly on a new energy policy and substantially reforming the nation’s health care system. Whether the pundits consider a victory a landslide or not, they certainly cannot deny it is a mandate for change.

Note: This post was modified slightly on November 19, 2008 to reflect updates to the popular vote, Senator McCain’s victory in Missouri and Senator Obama’s victory in a Nebraska Congressional District (and, consequently, winning of  that state’s electoral votes.

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A McCain Razor Thin Win or an Obama Landslide?

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):

  1. Nevada, where Real Clear Politics’ poll of polls shows Senator Obama ahead by just 2.3 percent;
  2. Colorado, where the Real Clear Politics poll average has Senator Obama ahead by 5.4 percent;
  3. Missouri, where RCP poll average shows Senator Obama ahead by 2.7 percent;
  4. Ohio, where Senator Obama’s lead in the RCP poll of polls is 2.8 percent;
  5. North Carolina,where Senator Obama is ahead by only 1.5 percent in the RCP poll average; and
  6. 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.