The Obama-McCain electoral map, and Obama’s running mate choices

Today the McCain v. Obama race is officially underway. Conventional wisdom throughout the media is saying this is Obama’s race to lose. Let’s see, from a polling perspective, how true or false that wisdom is today. And yes, this is basically just an update on my post from a few weeks ago looking at the electoral map.

John McCain is not as weak a candidate as some are portraying him — his age and less-than-enthralling speeches belie his popularity among huge numbers of moderate conservatives and independents, and I don’t see this changing in any really dramatic way no matter how good a campaign Obama runs. McCain will therefore win the following states, regardless of running mate choices: Arizona, Utah, Idaho, Wyoming, Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, Nebraska, South Dakota, North Dakota, Alabama, Georgia, Tennessee, Kentucky, West Virgina. These are states that the Democrats, in spite of Howard Dean’s quite successful “50 State Strategy,” should really not even bother competing in. They should have a solid presence for local elections and the like, but that is all. At the end of the day, no combination of a limitless number of Barack Obamas teamed with Hillary Clintons plus Franklin Roosevelt resurrected will prevent John McCain from taking these 128 electoral votes in November.

Obama has some gimmes as well: California, Illinois, D.C., Maryland, New Jersey, New York, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, Vermont, Maine, Hawaii. There’s just no realistic way McCain can compete strongly in these states unless it turns out Barack Obama flew one of the planes into the World Trade Center himself. Of course, that’s a shorter list of states than McCain’s, but it represents more voters thanks to the populous CA-NY-IL trio. That’s 162 electoral votes in the bag.

There are 538 electoral votes to be won overall. With the non-competitive states out of the way, McCain and Obama are left to compete for the remaining 248 votes.

Not all of the remaining states are equally undecided, of course. If we narrow down the list of undecided states to those in which one candidate is currently besting the other by 5% or less in polls, McCain should win Montana, Nevada, Louisiana, Mississippi, Arkansas, Florida, North Carolina, and Alaska; Obama should win Oregon, Washington, Colorado, Iowa, Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Delaware. With these added, Obama now leads McCain 219-202. So, even with this more restricted view on who is likely to win where, Obama still seems to go in with a lead.

But — that’s still a full 117 electoral votes that are in contention. To win a 270 vote majority, Obama would need 51 of those and McCain would need 68. Here is a list of those states in which polls currently show a five point margin of difference or less (# of electoral votes in parentheses):

New Mexico (5)
Missouri (11)
Indiana (11)
Michigan (17)
Ohio (20)
South Carolina (8)
Virginia (13)
Pennsylvania (21)
Connecticut (7)
New Hampshire (4)

In 2004, New Mexico, Missouri, Indiana, Ohio, South Carolina, and Virginia went Republican; Michigan, Pennsylvania, Connecticut, and New Hampshire went Democratic. So let’s say the polls hold true through November for the states in which a candidate leads by greater than 5%, and the remaining swing states vote the way they did in the last election. The result?

McCain wins exactly 270 electoral votes to Obama’s 268, and therefore becomes the next President of the United States.

Yes, it’s much too early to take these polls too seriously, and yes, Obama has the benefit of going up against a party whose current president is as unpopular as any in the nation’s history. You might remember the same things being said about John Kerry, however. So let’s be careful — Obama has some things going for him, but this is going to be another close, hard fought race. There is no predetermined winner going in, and Obama must win at least one of the closest states lost by John Kerry four years ago.

Interestingly, Obama’s best chance at doing just that looks like McCain’s neighbor state New Mexico, where May 18 polling shows a +4% Obama lead. When getting into the running mate discussion, who can deliver New Mexico has to be part of the deal. Hillary Clinton technically won the primary back on February 5, but barely, and it’s far from a sure thing that her presence on the ticket would be additive in New Mexico rather than subtractive. Governor Bill Richardson, on the other hand…

Honestly, can anyone else truly help deliver one of these red-in-’04 states to Obama (not counting Colorado or Iowa, which it looks like he ought to be able to carry by himself)? Sen. Claire McCaskill might help in Missouri, but she won her seat there by an incredibly slim margin and continues to have approval ratings around 50% in her sharply divided state. The very popular Sen. Evan Bayh could deliver Indiana, but he is almost as tied to the Clintons as Hillary herself. Gov. Ted Strickland is somewhat popular in Ohio, but he was also a Clinton backer. I’m not aware of any major Democrats who could really help with South Carolina. Former Virginia Gov. Mark Warner would be superb, but he is committed to running for the Senate this year. The pro-life current VA Gov. Tim Kaine is a fervent Obama supporter, so don’t count him out. And finally, there’s VA Sen. Jim Webb, probably a strong choice but one whose borderline popularity does brings some risk.

Obama has a committee looking at running mate choices right now, and you can bet the names Bill Richardson, Claire McCaskill, Evan Bayh, Ted Strickland, Tim Kaine, and Jim Webb are all on there — along with you-know-who. I’m still open to persuasion on the HRC idea, but honestly I would prefer to see Richardson, or failing that Kaine.

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