Monday, September 22, 2008

Electoral Speculations Six Weeks From Election Day

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I confess that I do greatly enjoy this sort of prognostication and playing around a bit with polls and statistics. It's fun, and entirely apolitical, as far as it goes. And the best part is seeing how close one got, once the final result is in.

As my starting-point, I take the electoral college chart posted at the Real Clear Politics website (for my money, the place to be, online to follow the race and be "up" on all new developments). This is a helpful analysis, because RCP computes an average for each state based on recent scientific polling (several polls: not just one). It then determines if a state is "solid" in favor of one candidate or "leaning" in his favor.

At the moment (and it changes virtually every day), by adding the solid and "leaning" numbers for each candidate together, Obama is winning 219 to 189. 270 is the magic number for victory.

The chart currently lists ten states as "toss-ups." In alphabetical order, they are: Colorado, Florida, Indiana, Minnesota, Nevada, New Hampshire, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and Wisconsin. These are the so-called "battleground" states, to which both candidates are devoting considerable resources and time, knowing full well that it is the electoral college that determines elections and not the popular vote (as Al Gore understands well from personal experience).

I shall assume for the sake of argument, that both candidates take the states that are solid and leaning in their favor. My analysis will concentrate on the ten states above, comprising 130 electoral votes. These (and in another sense, the independent and swing voters) will decide the election. Because most states exhibit a fair degree of consistency in voting Democratic or Republican, perhaps that will provide a clue in these ten cases. Let's look at how these states voted in the 2000 and 2004 presidential elections:

Current RCP Average Polling and Past Election Results

Colorado (9) Obama +2.5
2004 R 4.7 2000 R 8.4
1968-1996 R7 / D1 (92)

Florida (27) McCain +2.8
2004 R 5.0 2000 R 0.1 1968-1996 R6 / D2 (76,96)


Indiana (11) McCain +2.3
2004 R 20.7 2000 R 15.7
1968-1996 R10

Minnesota (10) Obama +3.0
2004 D 3.5 2000 D 2.4
1968-1996 R1 (72) / D9

Nevada (5) McCain +1.7
2004 R 2.6 2000 R 3.5
1968-1996 R6 / D2 (92,96)

New Hampshire (4) Obama +1.7
2004 D 1.3
2000 R 1.3 1968-1996 R6 / D2 (92,96)

Ohio (20) McCain +1.7
2004 R 2.1 2000 R 3.5 1968-1996 R5 / D3 (76,92,96)

Pennsylvania (21) Obama +2.5
2004 D 2.5 2000 D 4.2
1968-1996 R4 / D4 (68,76,92,96)

Virginia
(13) McCain +1.3
2004 R 8.2 2000 R 8.1
1968-1996 R10

Wisconsin (10) Obama +2.0
2004 D 0.4 2000 D 0.2
1968-1996 R4 / D4 (76,88,92,96)

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Virginia and Indiana have voted Republican in every one of the last ten elections, dating from 1968. Ohio has (famously), voted for the winner the last ten times. Of these ten states, only New Hampshire switched parties in the prior election, and that, by the slightest of margins. Only Colorado differs in party according to present polls, compared to the two prior elections.

Party affiliation in presidential elections is very stable. Of the 24 states listed after these ten, below the electoral chart, it is seen that only two (Iowa and New Mexico) -- i.e., 8% -- switched parties in the 2000 and 2004 elections (both towards the Republicans, but by very tiny margins). Thus, of the 34 states listed, just three (or 9%) switched parties in the last two elections, while 31 voted the same party for President. In all of these 31 states, the current leader in the polls is from the same party that won the last two times in those states.

From this rather striking data, it follows fairly straightforwardly, I think, that we can count on very significant continuity in terms of states going Republican or Democrat. If the deviation follows course from the past, only one of these states, by average, will switch from previous votes. With this preliminary analysis in mind, let's play with the numbers and see what happens.

First, we'll simply give to each candidate the "toss-up" states where they lead in the polls. In nine out of ten cases, they lead in states where their party won last time, and in 8 out of ten, the last two times. If we do this, the numbers are as follows:

Obama 273
McCain 265

Colorado is arguably the first state we should look to, to deviate from current polls, because it has Obama up 2.5, but voted Republican by margins of 4.7% and 8.4% in 2000 and 2004. Polls differ. Fox News/Rasmussen had McCain up by two points, as of 14 September. If McCain takes the state, then the result of the race changes:

McCain 274
Obama 264

This is my own prediction for the race at this point in time (9-23-08).

New Hampshire
is another state to watch closely, as the margin of victory the last two times was just 1.3%, and Obama is only leading by 1.7%. If it switches to McCain, and Colorado stays with Obama, it is a tie:

McCain 269 Obama 269

The latest poll in that state (9-21) has McCain ahead by two points. If we assume, then, that this poll predicts the result, and Colorado also switches, then McCain wins:

McCain 278
Obama 260

Wisconsin is another state to watch. The margins were extremely close in 2000/2004, and Obama is only two points ahead. If it goes McCain, with all else staying the same as current polls, McCain wins:

McCain 275
Obama 263

No recent polls have McCain ahead, but they are all within the margin of error, and so events in the next six weeks could change things there and elsewhere.

If Pennsylvania flips, as it possibly could -- all else staying the same -- it's over for Obama:

McCain 286
Obama 252

The first debate is this Friday. Karl Rove said tonight on TV that the candidate who is perceived to win the first debate gets about a 4-point boost in the polls, and that the first debate is the most important one. This one's on foreign policy: McCain's strong suit and Obama's big weakness. Obama is not particularly good at debating in the first place. He's a "lecturer" or orator, not a one-on-one debater. It's time for McCain to hit a grand slam and turn the polls in a few of the states where Obama is leading. I fully expect Sarah Palin to whip "Mr. Empty Rhetoric" Joe Biden in their debate on October 2nd, too, which will help McCain even more. By then, the race could and should be essentially over, barring extraordinary events and unexpected poor debate performances from McCain and Palin.

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