Throw Out the Rove-era Election Map For November

An Obama-McCain general election match-up would ensure that the electoral map we are accustomed to changes; both candidates appeal to states traditionally abandoned by their respective parties, but they are also both dangerously weak among groups previous nominees have carried more easily. Clinton could also transform the map, as she would put in play states that Kerry had given up while having to counter McCain's atypical appeal to blue-leaning independents.

In fact, the conventional wisdom of how the two candidates' strategies differ seems set for the time being: Obama would rely less on states like Ohio and Florida in which he looks to have more difficulty than Clinton and choose a less conventional path to the White House that goes through states like Colorado, Virginia and... the Mountain West, places in which Clinton is much less competitive.

This is of course just a rough sketch that the coming months will allow us to refine; but there is already plenty of evidence of how different the two electoral coalitions that Obama and Clinton are amassing are. Against McCain, Obama is typically stronger among independents and African-Americans, just as in the primaries. Meanwhile, Clinton's general election strength are derived from an edge among blue-collar voters, here again a repeat of her match-up against Obama. Gallup came out with a fascinating study today showing how Clinton and Obama's general election coalitions are almost unbelievably the opposite of one another:

  • The aggregate of Gallup's tracking poll from March 31st and April 6th shows that McCain leads Obama among voters with no college education (46% to 40%). McCain's lead evaporates among voters with any college education, including a 52% to 42% lead for Obama among voters with a postgraduate education.
  • Clinton, meanwhile, performs in exactly the opposite way: Clinton leads among voters with no college education (48% to 43%) but trails among voters with any college education, including a 10% deficit among four-year college graduates and a 3% deficit among voters with a postgraduate education.

Given these dramatic differences, it is hardly surprising that Obama and Clinton are working on different electoral maps, and that the 2008 general election could throw the Bush-Rove map of the past 2 cycles right out the window. Today's wave of general election polls confirms that we will have to pay attention to states that are generally forgotten in general elections:

  • First, a Marist poll of New York shows John McCain not only competitive but actually edging out Obama 48% to 46%. Clinton leads 48% to 46%. In the poll's least interesting but most discussed follow-up, a McCain/Rice ticket would lead both a Clinton/Obama and an Obama/Clinton ticket.

It is hard to know what to make of this poll for the simple fact that it is a complete outlier relatively to all the New York polls we have seen this year. This is not to say that McCain will not make blue states competitive, as there is plenty of polls that suggest Connecticut and New Jersey will be very competitive with McCain on the ballot. But looking at the past few New York polls, there simply is no sign of much vulnerability on the part of either Democrat (Obama leads McCain by 13% and 21% in the past two polls), so we will have to wait for other polls to confirm Marist's finding.

We also got a wave of general election releases from Rasmussen:

  • In Ohio, McCain is leading both Democrats comfortably, 47% to 40% against Obama and 47% to 42% against Clinton.
  • In New Mexico, Obama leads McCain 45% to 42% while McCain is ahead of Clinton 46% to 43%. In late February, McCain tied Obama and led Clinton by 12%.
  • The first surprising results come from Alaska, where McCain only leads Obama 48% to 43% while trouncing Clinton 57% to 32%. Clinton's favorability rating is just 35% far behind McCain (63) and Obama (55).
  • Just as surprising are Montana's numbers: McCain here again only leads Obama 48% to 43%. He is further ahead of Clinton, 54% to 38%.

Both Alaska and Montana are staunchly Republican states where Obama is vastly overperforming the typical Democratic candidates. Note that these states are conservative in a very different manner than in the deep South and its history of racial conflict; the relative absense of racial polarization in the Mountain West makes this region the testing ground of Obama's attempt at changing the electoral map.

Note also that there is a precedent for such numbers in other polls: SUSA's 50-state poll project in early March tested McCain-Obama match-ups in both Alaksa and Montana and found McCain ahead by 5% and 9% respectively. Obama was competitive in many Western states -- and even led McCain in North Dakota! Most of these states are worth only 3 electoral votes, but the last thing McCain wants is to have to play defense in so many small states.

Relatively to the numbers from MT and AK, of course, Ohio's numbers have to be very disappointing for Democrats. This state was supposed to be a disaster zone for Republicans since 2004 and Democrats were confident that it would be much easier for them to pick it up this time. Democrats do not necessarily need Ohio to get to the White House, but the fact that McCain is consistently strong in the state has got to be a painful blow.

This article is cross-posted on the author's blog, Campaign Diaries.