In a ‘Change’ Election, an Increasingly Familiar Electoral Map

One of the consequences of John McCain’s move into a tie, or even into a slight lead, in post-convention polling is the shrinking of the electoral battleground. Gone, probably for good, is the left’s haughty talk about a radical realignment of the electoral map that prevailed in the last two presidential elections. Instead, the same basic red-blue scheme and the same swing states (with perhaps one or two new additions) now seem destined to define a third consecutive election night.

For John McCain, this creates a seemingly simple formula for victory: Hold the Bush states and win. George W. Bush won 271 electoral votes in 2000, a combination of states that would now be worth 277 electoral votes thanks to the reapportionment that followed the 2000 election. In 2004, Bush added New Mexico (5 electoral votes) and Iowa (7) to this combination and lost New Hampshire (4), giving him a total of 286 electoral votes. So as long as McCain doesn’t lose more than 16 electoral votes from Bush’s ’04 combination, he’ll win.

Obviously, this is easier said than done. Bush’s awful approval rating and the ghastly standing of the Republican Party initially gave Barack Obama openings to compete in more than a dozen states that Bush carried last time around. Earlier this summer, Obama was competitive in, for instance, Montana, Indiana, North Dakota, North Carolina and Alaska, to name a few. With his deep war chest and aggressive ground efforts, it seemed inevitable that Obama would pick off a handful of Bush’s ’04 states, easily wiping out the 16-electoral vote cushion that McCain would enjoy based on the ’04 map.

The good news for McCain is that Obama’s targets aren’t nearly as widespread now. Two polls in the last week, for instance, have given McCain commanding leads in North Carolina, a state Obama had been vigorously contesting (and where he trailed by only several points over the summer). Indiana was a virtual dead heat in July and August; now McCain has begun to create some distance there, finally enjoying the built-in advantage he is supposed to enjoy in a state that last voted for a Democrat in 1964. The same trend is evident elsewhere, like Missouri and maybe even Florida. McCain is still certain to lose some states that Bush carried last time around (Iowa, for example, seems all but lost), but the damage potential for him was much worse over the summer.

Obama’s path to 270 electoral votes is to hold on to every state that John Kerry won in ’04 (good for 252 electoral votes) and pick off enough Bush states to claim an additional 18 electoral votes. The good news for Obama is that this is still plausible – while it’s almost certain that McCain will suffer some slippage from Bush’s ’04 mark, Obama can still win all of the Kerry states. In fact, there are only four Kerry states that Obama really needs to worry about: Michigan (17 electoral votes), Wisconsin (11), New Hampshire (4) and maybe Pennsylvania (21).

Even this might be a stretch. Polls in Pennsylvania have been close, but Obama has maintained his lead there, and the state hasn’t voted for a Republican since 1988. The Keystone State will probably seem competitive clear through Election Day, but there’s still no reason to believe it’s on the verge of actually voting for the G.O.P. The same, roughly, can be said of Wisconsin, where the most recent polls have tightened dramatically but where Obama led comfortably just a few weeks ago.

That leaves New Hampshire and Michigan. On the surface, New Hampshire, which barely voted for Kerry four years ago, seems like a ripe target for McCain, since he won the state’s primary in January, while Obama lost the Democratic contest. But keep the following in mind: Obama’s second-place finish was actually worth 16,000 votes more than McCain’s first-place showing, because of the higher overall interest in the Democratic race. And New Hampshire’s transition from red to blue, which has played out up and down the ballot this decade, is further along now than in ’04. Obama is actually well positioned there.

Michigan is a different matter. Like Pennsylvania, it last voted Republican in 1988, but the polls have been tighter, with McCain even leading by a point in the most recent survey. With 17 electoral votes, Michigan is a hugely inviting target for McCain; a win for the Republican would force Obama to pick off an extra two or three (or maybe even four) Bush states on top of what he already needs. With Obama’s pick-off opportunities shrinking by the day, this would probably be asking too much.

In that sense, Michigan becomes an especially pivotal state. If McCain pulls it out, then the election is probably over. Conversely, if Obama hangs on to it, it will likely mean that the Democrat has achieved his most basic task: securing the Kerry ’04 states. Also, given all of the data seen to date, it’s highly likely that Obama will win over Iowa’s 7 electoral votes – giving him a base of 259 electoral votes, assuming he retains the Kerry states.

If he does that, then the election will be decided in about a half-dozen Bush ’04 states. If he can post a net gain of 11 or more electoral votes in them, then Obama will win the election; if not, McCain will. They are:

* Florida (27 electoral votes): At this point, it may be a stretch to include Florida on this list. McCain has steadily led, and the state has been trending toward the G.O.P. for a few decades. Bush won it by five points in ’04. Florida may be to the Democrats what Pennsylvania is to the G.O.P.: A big state they can keep reasonably close, but won’t win unless it’s a national landslide.

* Ohio (20): Obama’s odds are much better here than in Florida. One poll last week actually put the Democrat up by five points, but four other recent surveys have put McCain ahead by between one and seven points. As in ’04, a Democratic win in Ohio would probably be decisive – but it doesn’t seem very likely right now.

* Virginia (13): Another red state that was even for most of the summer, but where McCain now seems to be edging ahead. The state is trending toward the Democrats demographically, but 2008 may be too soon.

* Colorado (9): A golden opportunity for Obama. He has led here consistently, even in the last week. With the Kerry states and Iowa, a Colorado win would put Obama one state away from the White House.

* Nevada (5): A winnable state for Obama, but one where McCain is now the slight favorite. Polling has been erratic, and Obama has been ahead at times, but McCain has enjoyed leads in the most recent surveys.

* New Mexico (5): Right now, this looks like the state that might put Obama over the top. It’s the ultimate swing state – one of only three to switch its partisan loyalties between the 2000 and ’04 elections – but a little more friendly to Obama than Nevada. One poll last month put Obama up by 13 points, but McCain led by two in the most recent survey.

Note that this list doesn’t include Missouri, which is widely considered to be a toss-up state. But Bush carried the state comfortably in ’04 and McCain has led in the high single digits in recent surveys. For now, it seems too Republican a state to count as a live pick-up opportunity for Obama.

In a ‘Change’ Election, an Increasingly Familiar Electoral Map