Why The 2008 Election Is Over (But Why Your Vote Is Still More Important Than Ever): A Primer

Ken AshfordElection 20082 Comments

The title of this post has the potential to make me look like a total ass, should McCain win.

And of course, it is theoretically possible that McCain can win.  Think of this election as a boxing match.  In boxing, there are two ways to win — on points, or by knockout.  I'm about to explain how, now that we are in Round 15, Obama is going to win on points.  McCain is "against the ropes" and continues to get the shit beaten out of him.

Now, it's possible that McCain might land a knockout blow, or that Obama might simply trip over his shoelaces and bang his head against the mat.  But that only works in my boxing metaphor — when translated to the real world of politics, I don't know what the knockout blow or embarassing gaffe would look like.  It would have to be the most dramatic thing in the history of politics, whatever it is.  Frankly, even the revelation that Obama had an extramarital affair (usually, a candidate killer) probably wouldn't be enough to reverse his victory, with only 12 days to go.

Maybe Obama would have to have gay sex on Ground Zero with bin Laden, after which the two of them perform a late-term abortion on an small-town soccer mom.

Okay, but this is supposed to be a primer on why you can say "It's over" to your friends.  So let's begin.

Forget the national polls that show Obama leading McCain by 10 or 11 percent (according to some).  As we all know (and were reminded in 2000), it's all about the electoral votes, not the popular vote.  Each state has a certain number of electoral votes.  If a candidate wins that state, even by one vote, the candidate wins ALL that state's EVs (Nebraska and Maine work differently — their EVs are proportional, but as a practical matter, the EVs in those states tend to go the same way anyway, as if the state was "winner take all")

So, if Obama wins North Carolina, he gets all of North Carolina's 15 electoral votes.

And to win the election, a candidate needs 270 EVs.  That's the magic number.

At this point in time, both candidates have what we can call "safe states".  For example, California and Massachusetts, two extremely liberal states, are OF COURSE going to go to Obama.  The polls in those states back this up (Obama leads by 24% in both CA and MA), but instinctively, we just KNOW Obama would have won those states anyway.  By the same token, we know Alaska, always a conservative state and home state of Palin, is a "safe state" for McCain (and indeed, polls there show McCain up by 19).

So let's lay the foundation and our starting point for the analysis….

Obama has 190 EVs in his "safe states".  McCain has 131 EVs in his "safe states".

I won't list what those states are, but you can go to Pollster.com or electoral-vote.com and see for yourself.

Again, the magic number is 270 EVs.  That means that for Obama to win, he needs only 80 more EVs from the remaining states (which I will call "battleground states").   McCain, on the other hand, needs 139 more EVs from the battleground states.

Here are the battleground states and the electoral votes for each of those states:

State EVs
Florida 27
Pennsylvania 21
Ohio 20
Michigan 17
North Carolina 15
Georgia 15
Virginia 13
Missouri 11
Indiana 11
Wisconsin 10
Minnesota 10
Colorado 9
Iowa 7
Mississippi 6
West Virginia 5
New Mexico 5
Nevada 5
New Hampshire 4
North Dakota 3
Montana 3

The total electoral votes of all these battleground states is 217.

To see why Obama has this virtually locked up, it helps to think in terms of "paths to victory". 

Specifically, one should ask, how many ways can Obama get his needed 80 EVs using only the states listed above?

Or, alternatively, one might ask, how many ways can McCain get his needed 139 EVs using only the states listed above?

Obviously, Obama has more paths to victory — the magical number of 270 – than McCain.  For example, Obama can lose key states of Florida AND Ohio AND Pennsylvania AND Michigan, and still rack up well over 80 EVs if he wins most of the other states.  That will put him way over the 270 EV mark.

Now, let's turn to the polls.  Keep in mind, polls are not 100% scientificly accurate.  They have margins of error from 3 to 5 points (most of them), and certainly no single poll should be given much weight. 

But when we look at the collection of polls, we do get a clearer picture of the way a certain state will vote.  For example, if ten polls show that Obama has a lead in, say, Michigan, and ALL those polls say that Obama's lead is in the neighborhood of fifteen percentage points, then we can safely conclude that (barring some devastating event), Obama will win Michigan (maybe not by 15 points, but certainly by at least one point).

So let's look at those battleground states again, this time showing what the latest polls in each state indicate:

State EVs Leader Percentage Lead
Michigan 17 Obama 22.4%
Minnesota 10 Obama 13.0%
New Hampshire 4 Obama 12.9%
Wisconsin 10 Obama 12.4%
Iowa 7 Obama 12.1%
Pennsylvania 21 Obama 10.8%
New Mexico 5 Obama 9.0%
Virginia 13 Obama 8.7%
Ohio 20 Obama 6.4%
Colorado 9 Obama 5.8%
Missouri 11 Obama 5.1%
Nevada 5 Obama 3.8%
North Dakota 3 Obama 2.9%
North Carolina 15 Obama 2.8%
Indiana 11 Obama 2.8%
Florida 27 Obama 2.6%
Montana 3 McCain 0.3%
Georgia 15 McCain 4.7%
West Virginia 5 McCain 6.6%
Mississippi 6 McCain


[You can click on any state above and see the polls at Pollster.com]

Now what can we conclude?  Well, Obama's lead in Michigan is so large now, it can almost be moved into the "safe state" category.  Which means Obama needs only 63 EVs from the remaining states in the chart above.

It's hard to see how McCain can pull so many states away from Obama, especially the ones where Obama leads by over 7 percentage points. 

A nice analysis of eight of these battleground states, including what is going on internally, can be found here at ABC News.  The bottom line there is this: Obama really has an advantage in most of those states, or it is too close to call.

Also, consider the following:

  • McCain is short on funds; Obama is outspending him by 3-to-1 in most of these states [UPDATE:  Take what McCain has spent the entire campaign and divide it by two.  That's how much Obama spent from October 1 – 15!]
  • In fact, McCain has given up on advertising and campaigning in some of these states, like Colorado.  He has no staff, no ads, nothing.
  • Obama has bought a half hour of time on all the national networks, in an unprecedented campaign "show"
  • Everyday, there seems to be another prominent conservative (or moderate) Republican coming out for Obama

What does McCain do to change this?  How can he possibly pull the 139 EVs that he needs?

He can't.  Numbers don't lie.  Granted, these poll numbers are current numbers, and the election is still 13 days away.  So they will change.  But not by that much.  It would take some HUGE event to make that many battleground states change course that drastically and go McCain's way.

And that's why this is over.



For several reasons.  First of all, it's not just important that Obama win — it's important that he win BIG.  You know, with a "mandate" as the media says.  The opposition will be left reeling, and he will be able to get much done in his first months in office if it is clear to him, his political opponents, and the world, that the vast majority America is soundly behind his presidency.

Secondly, and more importantly, the down-ticket races are almost as important as the presidential one.  To enact the changes Obama hopes for, he needs a majority in the Senate, 51 senators.  That will happen.

But ideally, he would want a filibuster-proof Senate, which would require 60 Democratic Senators (or, if not Democratic, then moderate or left-leaning Republicans).  Even as late as a month ago, 60 Dems in the Senate was just a fantasyland goal.  And it probably still is pretty unlikely.  But obviously, if Democrats can get CLOSE to 60, that makes passing Obama's legislation that much easier.

Obama seems to realize this, as he is doing ads not just for himself, but for down-ticket candidates.  So much for the early rightwing criticism that Obama would be a drag on the down-ticket candidates.

Here's the Senate scorecard from 538.com:


There are some pretty close races in many states.  Al Franken (of Saturday Night Live fame) is barely edging out Norm Coleman in Minnesota.  Here in North Carolina, it looks promising that Elizabeth Dole will finally be sent home.  But the polls on these are even more dicey, and nothing is "in the bag" as they say.  So it is vital that people vote in these races as well.  Three or four senators could make a difference between a locked-up Congress, or a Congress which gets things done (with a progressive agenda).

So vote, godammit.

O.K.  Lecture over.  There will be a quiz on Election Day.