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Watch the Polls - Race Will Be a Close One
by Todd Eberly, Assistant Professor of Political Science
In a recent issue of Time magazine, reporter Michael Grunwald dismissed most talk of a close presidential election in November as a media-generated effort to boost ratings and public interest, and referred to John McCain’s odds of winning as “a long shot.” Not to be outdone, Larry Sabato, respected political analyst and director of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics, stated “virtually all of the evidence… points to a comfortable Obama victory” in November. “Absent a dramatic change,” Sabato concludes, McCain is likely to suffer a “crushing defeat.” However, as the election gets closer, the race gets closer.
Certainly, there is reason to lend credence to conclusions reached by Grunwald, Sabato, and other political analysts who are predicting an Obama victory. Consider:
• With few exceptions, Obama has led McCain in national polls since effectively securing the party nomination in May. That national lead has ranged from 1 to 9 points, but it is a lead nonetheless. Both received the traditional bounce from their respective conventions, but only time will tell if that bounce is short-lived. Furthermore, will the “Palin effect” continue through the debates?
• Then, there is the Electoral College, where the contenders battle for a majority of the nation’s 538 Electoral College votes (the magic number being 270). Here, until recently, the situation had looked even better for Senator Obama. According to ongoing tallies of state polling data updated regularly by the Web publications Electoral-Vote.com and RealClearPolitics.Com (two sites that are must visits for political junkies), Obama had enjoyed a comfortable electoral lead as recently as mid-August.
So why, you may ask, do I remain unconvinced by the arguments offered by so many experts? Let’s start with those national polls showing an Obama lead. According to a tally of five national polls taken during the final week of July, Barack Obama led John McCain in four by margins ranging from 1 to 7 points. September polls showed McCain ahead in some cases. Without getting too technical, all polls have a margin for error and only represent a snapshot in time, but collectively the polls suggest that Obama enjoys a very slight lead over McCain. So what’s the downside? Consider history: Of the five national polls released during the final week of July in 2004, Senator John Kerry led President Bush in four of the five. Senator Kerry’s lead ranged from 2 to 7 points. Bush led in one poll by 5 points. The net suggested a slight advantage for Kerry.
Does Party Matter?
How does this comparison help us understand the dynamics of the 2008 race? An NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll conducted in mid-July asked respondents whether they would prefer that a Democrat or a Republican be elected president in 2008. Respondents preferred a Democrat by a 12-point margin. When asked which party they would prefer in control of Congress, Democrats enjoyed a similar 13-point margin. These polling results tell us that 2008 should be a very good year for Democrats. The American public has a clear preference for the party. Yet national polling data shows that Barack Obama performs well below that of the Democratic Party brand and John McCain is polling better than one would expect for a Republican. McCain’s competiveness in the national polls is all the more impressive, given that the current Republican president has an approval rating in the low 20s and roughly 80 percent of Americans believe the country is headed in the wrong direction. In July of 2004, roughly half of the country felt we were moving in the wrong direction and nearly half approved of the job that President Bush was doing. Yet Obama is polling no better against McCain than Kerry did against Bush. Given the public’s mood, Obama should be well ahead of McCain at this point – but he’s not. To me, that is sufficient proof that the 2008 election will be close.
Now, let’s consider the real race – the battle for the Electoral College. In early August, polling data indicated that Obama was leading in states with just over 300 electoral votes, more than enough to secure victory. In a troubling sign for McCain, Obama appeared to be competitive, or was in fact ahead, in several states that George Bush won comfortably in 2004, including Virginia and the GOP presidential stronghold of Indiana – a state that has only gone for a Democratic president once since 1940. McCain was not leading in any of the states won by John Kerry. Obama was also ahead in Ohio, Colorado, New Mexico, Nevada, and Iowa – all states won by Bush in 2004. If Obama were to win those states in November, they would total 70 electoral votes. Add those to the 252 electoral votes won by Kerry in 2004 and Obama cruises to a convincing 322 to 216 electoral vote victory over McCain – 52 more votes than needed to reach the magic 270. However, by late August the electoral map took on a more familiar look. Obama’s 322 to 216 advantage had disappeared and McCain enjoyed a razor-thin 274 to 264 advantage. What changed? McCain reclaimed leads in the Bush states of Colorado, Indiana, Ohio, and Virginia. It should be noted that in late August 2004, Kerry enjoyed a 301 to 213 lead over Bush in electoral vote polling.
How Close Will It Be?
Given the red/blue electoral map I just presented, how can I not argue that this will be a close race? Any prediction of an Obama landslide must be premised on him winning several traditionally Republican states and effectively remaking an electoral map that has been remarkably steady since the 2000 election. In 2000, George Bush won 271 electoral votes to Vice President Gore’s 267. In 2004, Bush won 286 votes to Kerry’s 252. Only three states shifted columns between 2000 and 2004 – New Hampshire went from narrowly for Bush in 2000 to narrowly for Kerry in 2004. Iowa and New Mexico flipped from narrow Gore victories to the Bush column. Three states shifted in two elections with very close national results. Although the electoral map of early August suggested that seven states could shift in 2008, I’m hesitant to accept that scenario in what polling data suggests will be close national results. I’m especially hesitant given some of the states seemingly in play. George Bush won Indiana by a 21-point margin in 2004; all polling data aside, I do not see Indiana shifting so dramatically in four years, and recent polling data showed McCain once again leading there. I am equally uneasy with predicting a swing in Virginia. Although the state has been trending Democratic (owing to population growth in Northern Virginia), George Bush carried Virginia by a remarkably stable 8 points in 2000 and 2004. Assuming McCain holds both states, then the battleground shrinks to Nevada, Colorado, New Mexico, Iowa, and Ohio, and the potential for a landslide dwindles.
Of course, this scenario has McCain playing defense as he tries to protect the states won by Bush in 2000 and 2004. This suggests a stronger position for Obama as he does not need to defend the states won by Kerry in 2004. Or does he? Recent polling in three battleground states suggests that Obama may need to play a little defense as well in Minnesota, New Hampshire, and most importantly, Michigan. All told, these states have 31 electoral votes. If Obama were to lose these states – as well as Indiana and Virginia – he would lose the presidency.
Possible Tie Vote
Simply stated, the battle for electoral supremacy is much closer than estimates in early August suggested. How close? Let me offer one frightening – but very real –possibility for you. Let’s start with that early August projection of 322 electoral votes for Obama and 216 for McCain. Assume that I am right about Indiana and Virginia’s 24 electoral votes going to McCain and our results become 298 to 240 advantage Obama. Now, with Nevada, Colorado, New Mexico (all bordering McCain’s home state) in play, as well as New Hampshire, Ohio, Iowa, Michigan, and Minnesota, we have over 80 electoral votes in the air. Assume that McCain wins the Bush states of Nevada, Ohio (a swing state with a long Republican tradition), and swings New Hampshire (the state that saved his 2008 nomination bid), together they would total 29 electoral votes – resulting in a 269 to 269 tie. Or, assume that McCain loses Nevada and New Hampshire but holds Colorado and Ohio. Again, we have a 269-to-269 tie. Or perhaps McCain loses Ohio, but swings Michigan and maintains Nevada and Iowa – again 269 to 269. The combinations that result in a 269-to-269 tie are as plentiful as they are plausible. At presstime, the Electoral College map showed a 274 to 264 McCain advantage. Shift New Hampshire’s 4 votes to McCain and Colorado’s 9 to Obama and the result would be… 269 to 269. In that event, the race would be decided by the House of Representatives where, according to the 12th Amendment, each state would get one vote. In the current Congress, Democrats enjoy a majority in 26 state delegations and the Republicans 21. Three states have Congressional delegations that are equally divided. This would virtually assure an Obama victory – and a thrilling post-Election Day season. Congress has not decided a presidential election in more than 100 years and I am not predicting an electoral tie in 2008. Rather, the very real possibility of such an outcome serves to highlight just how close this race may be.
The current electoral landscape favors an Obama victory and there is certainly the potential for a convincing victory. The Republican brand is unpopular, the economy is weak, unemployment is rising, and gas is $3.60 a gallon. One would expect the incumbent party to suffer under such conditions. That said, the national data suggests a race that is closer than one would expect. Much can happen between now and Election Day: the debates, or world events could each change the electoral landscape.
That said, although an Obama victory is very likely I remain convinced that the signs continue to suggest a very close race and a very long night.