It's time once again for our weekly look at the state polls in the electoral race between John McCain and Barack Obama. Now, a lot has happened since last week's column, including the first debate, the "suspension" of McCain's campaign, Wall Street continuing to crash and burn, and Sarah Palin finally sitting down with Katie Couric (Katie must be beside herself with joy by this point, because she seems to be the only reporter Palin will now talk to). Palin interviews have headlined on CBS' evening news show for four weeknights in a row now. And that's not even mentioning the parody on Saturday Night Live ("I'd like to use my lifeline!").
So a quick overview of what has changed in the polls since last week is in order. Fifteen states changed categories in all. Eleven of these were good news for Obama, one changed towards Obama and then slipped back to where it was, and three improved for McCain. That's a pretty comforting trend for the Obama campaign.
For Obama, his support firmed up in five states that were already in his column. Maine, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Michigan, and Oregon all showed stronger support for Obama. Colorado got better, then slipped back a bit, but is still looking good for Obama. New Hampshire flipped from McCain to Obama, and -- the best news -- Florida, North Carolina and Ohio all flipped from McCain to being tied. Missouri and Georgia remained in the McCain column, but his support weakened in both states. The only good news for McCain was in Montana, West Virginia and Louisiana, all of which firmed up for McCain.
The data are pretty solid as well, since the oldest polls out there for any state are from September 18th.
Let's take a look at the charts, starting with the overall Electoral College picture.
Obama's percentage starts from the bottom (blue) and McCain's starts from the top (red), and winning means getting your line over (or under, for McCain) the 50% mark. Tied states are in white.
McCain started this week with 256 electoral votes (EV), or 47.6% of the total Electoral College. He lost four votes the next day (New Hampshire) to Obama. But the big loss for him was the three states that used to be his, but are now tied -- Ohio, North Carolina, and Florida. These are all fairly big states, meaning the "tie" category now has a total of 62 EV. This puts McCain currently at 190 EV, for a total of only 35.3% -- his lowest point since June. This is an astonishingly fast dropoff for McCain, as less than two weeks ago he was at 274 -- a winning number. He could make back some of this ground by grabbing back any of the tied states, but all three of them seem to be trending Obama's way, which is bad news for McCain.
Obama's line didn't move much. He began the week with 282 EV, or 52.4%. He improved slightly to 286 EV, or 53.2%. But if he picks up any of the three tied states, he could easily improve this to a commanding electoral victory of over 300.
But it's in the breakdown of each candidate that you can truly see McCain faltering and Obama dominating.
Definition of terms: Strong means 10% or better in the polls, Weak means 5% or better, and Barely is under five percent.
John McCain made slight gains in his Strong numbers early in the week, corralling Montana and Louisiana from Weak, but then wound up losing all this ground by Georgia slipping back to Weak. In fact, McCain's numbers are down in all three categories this week. He slipped back three votes in Strong, 18 votes in Weak, and a whopping 45 votes in Barely. This leaves his total down 66 electoral votes from last week -- which is reflected in the steep decline in his chart. Now, those three "tied" states could easily move back into his column, and so he could make most of this lost ground back up by regaining all three of them, so it's not as dire as it may look for McCain at this point.
But still, isn't that a wonderful chart to look at? McCain's numbers seem to be falling off a cliff this week.
[We interrupt this column for an important advertisement from your local dictionary.]
schadenfreude -- (noun) -- feeling joy at another's misery.
As always, the trendline I consider most important in these breakdown charts is the "Strong plus Weak" numbers. Two weeks ago, McCain stood at 216 electoral votes in this category. Last week, he stood at 184. This week, he is down to 163. This is 107 votes away from victory, it should be pointed out.
Now that we've got McCain out of the way, let's take a look at Obama's chart.
Now, that's what a happy chart is supposed to look like! There's even a big smile in it, if you look closely enough at the last few weeks (although, admittedly, it's more of a Jack-o-lantern grin, even complete with a snaggle tooth on the bottom).
Barack Obama has made some gains since last week, to put it mildly. While he hasn't wildly increased his Strong numbers, at least the trend is in the right direction. He moved Oregon's seven electoral votes into Strong. He does have a lot of room for improvement in the Strong category, though, with many states within reach (NM, WA, IA, WI, MI, PA, ME) in the next week or so, if the trend in his direction continues.
But the real good news for Obama is how he's shored up his Weak numbers, by moving states into this column from the Barely list. In the past week, four states have moved from Barely to Weak Obama, three of them absolutely critical for Obama's chances (WI, MI, and PA... with ME a nice pickup too, but not as important overall). He has successfully regained his previous level of support among the Rust Belt states, which is critical for his chances of success. This surge of support upped his Weak numbers by an enormous 45 electoral votes. As you can easily see by the graph, Obama also won back virtually all the ground he lost as a result of the Republican convention bounce.
Obama has also expanded his overall lead by picking up New Hampshire from McCain this week. His Barely numbers dropped this week, as states were absorbed into Weak and Strong Obama, but he still has room for improvement, by strengthening his support in Colorado, Minnesota, and New Hampshire.
But you've got to admit, that's the happiest chart we've seen since before the conventions started. And the good news is that as we get closer to the election, people tend to firm up in their support of a particular candidate as a general rule.
The final task for Obama is to start poaching states from McCain's Barely list into his own Barely list. This has already begun (VA, NH) and may be continuing (MO) even as I type. And, of course, there are those three tied states (OH, NC, FL), any one of which could just about guarantee the Oval Office for Barack Obama. So watch for movement at the margins next week to spot the real trends.
Overall, Barack Obama's numbers got an enormous bounce last week in the "Strong plus Weak" benchmark. Last week, Obama stood at a worrisome 198 electoral votes. This week, he stands at a much more comforting 250 electoral votes -- a scant 20 away from victory. Remember, John McCain's number in this category is now 163. So Obama needs 20 votes from the battleground states to win, and McCain needs 107. Pretty good odds, I'd say.
As always, I could be talking complete moose poop, though, so for an independent check we turn to the incomparable Sam Minter of abulsme.com. His chart averages the last five state polls, while I just take the data from electoral-vote.com, so his data is generally more stable than mine. And as a blatant plug, Minter's maps and charts are available on my webpage on a daily basis, as well.
His chart combines my three charts above into one. Obama starts from the top, McCain starts from the bottom, and wherever the double pink/baby blue line currently is determines who is ahead.
From Minter's most recent comments on the week:
[T]oday in my last five poll averages... Florida (27 electoral votes) and Ohio (20 electoral votes) both flip over the line and move from "Leaning McCain" to "Leaning Obama". This makes a HUGE difference in the "everybody gets their leans" metric.
McCain Best Case - McCain 298, Obama 240
Obama Best Case - Obama 375, McCain 163
If everybody gets their leans - 348 Obama, 190 McCain
This means that even though just a few weeks ago we were showing a slight McCain win, right now we are looking at Obama winning with a 158 electoral vote margin. That might not quite be a landslide yet, but it is the largest Obama lead so far... by quite a bit. The trends in the last few weeks have not been kind to John McCain.
In terms of where Obama stands WITHOUT swing states, he is still not quite as strong as he was in July. But he now has eight states leaning in his direction that he can work on trying to pull further in his direction. If he can pull 30 more electoral votes from "Lean" to "Weak" then he won't even need ANY swing states to win. Based on the current sizes of the leads in the states, and the number of electoral votes at stake, it looks like the quickest path to this would be pushing hard in Wisconsin and Florida.
So, it seems Obama's doing well no matter which data are used!
Which brings us to the freewheeling part of the program. My picks below rely somewhat on the polls, but also on my gut feelings about the state of each state, as it were. As always, the categories used are: Likely Obama (broken down to Safe Obama and Probable Obama); Likely McCain (Safe/Probable); and Tossup (broken down to Lean Obama, Lean McCain, and Too Close To Call). And at the very end is a section with full data for those interested.
Likely States -- Obama
The Safe Obama category has grown by two states since last week, and lost none. I'm chalking up both New Mexico and Wisconsin as Safe Obama once again, since they've both shown strong and continued support. Both states briefly went soft after the conventions, but I think they're both a lock for Obama again. So, for this week, we have Safe Obama (17 states, 208 EV) -- CA, CT, DC, DE, HI, IA, IL, MA, MD, NJ, NM, NY, OR, RI, VT, WA, WI.
Probable Obama shrunk by one state, due to states moving up to Safe, mostly. Probable lost New Mexico and Wisconsin upwards, and gained Pennsylvania up from Lean Obama last week. Two weeks ago, the Keystone State was tied, but Pennsylvania has bounced back to where Obama now has a comfortable six point lead. It could stand to get stronger here, but for now I'm calling it Probable. So, total Probable Obama (4 states, 52 EV) -- ME, MI, MN, PA.
This brings Obama up to a total of 21 Likely states, for an impressive 260 electoral votes. Pennsylvania's addition brought Obama's number up 21 electoral votes this week. Which is only ten away from winning, folks.
Likely States -- McCain
John McCain added two states to his Safe category -- Montana and North Dakota -- while losing none. It was fun, earlier in the race, to flirt with the idea that Obama could pick these two northern states up, but it is looking like they are reverting to form -- red state form. Georgia weakened, but McCain is still up by eight points, so for now it stays Safe for him. McCain ends up with the following totals: Safe McCain (20 states, 158 EV) -- AK, AL, AR, AZ, ID, GA, KS, KY, LA, MT, MS, ND, NE, OK, SC, SD, TN, TX, UT, WY.
But McCain is losing some serious ground in his Probable category, which lost two states upward to Safe (MT, ND), but -- much more alarmingly for McCain -- also lost one state down to Lean McCain (Missouri), and one state all the way down to Too Close To Call (North Carolina). This leaves a single state as Probable McCain this week (1 state, 5 EV) -- West Virginia.
All-around, McCain is losing ground in the Likely category, down two states from last week, for a total of 25 electoral votes lost. His new total is 21 states, and only 163 electoral votes.
This means Obama is roughly 100 electoral votes ahead in Likely votes. That is good news indeed, and may prove to be an insurmountable obstacle for McCain. While Obama needs only 10 votes from all the Tossup states, McCain now needs over 100.
We have a total of nine states listed as Tossups this week, with 115 electoral votes between them. Let's break them down.
Lean Obama (2 states, 22 EV) -- CO, VA. Obama loses Pennsylvania upwards to Probable Obama, and gains Virginia from Too Close To Call. This might raise a few eyebrows, but Obama is looking quite strong in the Old Dominion as of now. He's been up in more than one poll, and by more than just a point or two. Perhaps we're seeing a sea change for Virginia, right before our eyes (one would like to think...). Colorado flirted with going stronger for Obama in one poll last week, but then slipped back, so I can't honestly move this state up to Probable Obama. Yet. And I have to at least mention (just to scare everyone) the possibility of Obama winning all his Likely states, and just Colorado from the entire Tossup category. I mention this because it would lead to a 269-269 tie in the electoral college. Boo! Consider it an early Hallowe'en scare (hey, it is October).
Lean McCain (2 states, 22 EV) -- IN, MO. Last week, McCain had no states in this category at all. This week he has two, but one of them is bad news for him. Missouri has dangerously weakened for McCain. This state should now be in Obama's sights. Indiana, however, I have to move up from Too Close To Call, since McCain has a small lead there, and has held it for quite a while. Every poll in the past month or so shows McCain up a few points, so I have to move it to Lean McCain for now.
Too Close To Call (5 states, 71 EV) -- FL, NC, NH, NV, OH. This category lost two states this week, Indiana up to Lean McCain, and Virginia up to Lean Obama. It also gained North Carolina, since it is currently tied. Florida is looking more and more possible for an Obama pickup, which would decide the race right there (there are multiple ways for Obama to win the whole thing if he's got Florida in his corner). New Hampshire I think will go Obama, but I have nothing more than a gut feeling to offer as a reason. Nevada and Ohio are still way too close to call, although McCain has been (just barely) leading in both states for a while. Up until today, that is, when Ohio and North Carolina moved to a tie.
So for this week at least, almost everything seems to be moving comfortably in Obama's direction.
See you next week!
[Electoral Vote Data:]
Previous electoral math columns:
Barack Obama Likely Easy Wins -- 21 States -- 260 Electoral Votes:
Safe States -- 17 States -- 208 Electoral Votes
California (55), Connecticut (7), Delaware (3), Hawaii (4), Illinois (21), Iowa (7), Maryland (10), Massachusetts (12), New Jersey (15), New Mexico (5), New York (31), Oregon (7), Rhode Island (4), Vermont (3), Washington DC (3), Washington (11), Wisconsin (10)
Probable States -- 4 States -- 52 Electoral Votes
Maine (4), Michigan (17), Minnesota (10), Pennsylvania (21)
John McCain Likely Easy Wins -- 21 States -- 163 Electoral Votes:
Safe States -- 20 States -- 158 Electoral Votes
Alabama (9), Alaska (3), Arizona (10), Arkansas (6), Idaho (4), Georgia (15), Kansas (6), Kentucky (8), Louisiana (9), Mississippi (6), Montana (3), Nebraska (5), North Dakota (3), Oklahoma (7), South Carolina (8), South Dakota (3), Tennessee (11), Texas (34), Utah (5), Wyoming (3)
Probable States -- 1 State -- 5 Electoral Votes
West Virginia (5)
Tossup States -- 9 States -- 115 Electoral Votes:
Tossup States Leaning Obama -- 2 States -- 22 Electoral Votes
Colorado (9), Virginia (13)
Tossup States Leaning McCain -- 2 States -- 22 Electoral Votes
Indiana (11), Missouri (11)
Too Close To Call -- 5 States -- 71 Electoral Votes
Florida (27), New Hampshire (4), Nevada (5), North Carolina (15), Ohio (20)
States Not Polled In Over A Month:
(none -- oldest polls, 9/18: DC, MS, TX, UT)
Chris Weigant blogs at: ChrisWeigant.com