Electoral College Watch

I’ve been doing some wargaming on the Electoral College based on the latest rounds of state polling. Right now Ohio is a complete crapshoot. Some polls have Bush ahead by 5 (Fox) and other have Kerry just slightly ahead. The CW is that Bush can’t win without Ohio – however, in this race the CW is wrong. For a detailed look at some Electoral College scenarios, click on the extended entry.

The Swing States

Let’s start with the basics. What are the swing states, and what are the safe states? Based on some recent polling, it appears as though the swing state map has tilted towards Bush. With the Detroit News polls showing Bush ahead in Michigan and Mason-Dixon showing Kerry barely ahead in Oregon and Pennsylvania, there are some very large blue states from 2000 that are now up for grabs. In fact, other than Illinois which is soldly blue, the entire Midwest is potentially in Bush’s reach – which is very good news for the President. Here’s the map of solid blue, solid red, and swing states:


This yields 187 EVs for the Kerry campaign, 218 for Bush, and 133 up for grabs. Realistically some of these states probably won’t go towards Bush, but given the gradual increase of Bush’s poll numbers, it’s within in the realm of possibility.

Mason-Dixon State Polling

Mason-Dixon was the closest in 2000, and their state polling tends to be more reliable than either Zogby or ARG. They’ve recently done a round of state polls in swing states that shows that Bush has gained strength in several key states. For instance, in the Mason-Dixon polls Bush has a commanding lead in both Iowa and New Mexico. At the same time, Kerry is within striking distance in Ohio, which Mason-Dixon has going to Bush by just a hair. Running under the assumption that their polling is accurate, here’s the electoral map we get.


Wisconsin is too close to call, so I’ve not included it here. Even if Kerry wins Wisconsin in this scenario, he still loses. The margin without Wisconsin is a healthy Bush 292 to Kerry’s 232, so Wisconsin’s 10 EVs don’t have any effect here.

Could Kerry Win?

The answer is yes, but it’s not terrifically likely. Let’s look at a plausible Kerry win scenario:


Under this scenario Kerry squeaks by with a slim 9 EV margin. However, that assumes that Kerry wins Iowa (current RCP average Bush +3.5%), Wisconsin (current RCP average Bush +1.2%), holds his lead in Minnesota, and his narrower than narrow lead in the RCP average for Ohio (where it’s Kerry +0.3) shakes out to a win on Election Day.

Is this a plausible scenario? You better believe it. If Kerry wins, he’ll win by something like this. If New Mexico, Colorado, or Nevada go to Kerry his margins could get better, although he’ll have won just based on Ohio and those states would be irrelevant. This is Bush’s nightmare scenario in which Ohio shifts the election to Kerry. Expect Bush to concentrate on peeling off some of those slim Kerry states to prevent this. That’s why Iowa, Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Michigan are key to this race along with Ohio and why the President is concentrating on those states along with the Buckeye State.

A Blowout In The Making?

Now that I’ve depressed all my fellow Republicans, let’s take a look at a rosier scenario: a blowout for Bush:


This scenario gives Bush a huge win, with a margin of 323 EVs for President Bush and 215 for Senator Kerry. If this scenario were to hold, Pennsylvania could conceivably swing towards Bush which would only add insult to injury. Realistically, however, Pennsylvania is probably solidly blue and is only a swing state by the barest of margins.

However, as much as I’d love that scenario to play out, I don’t think it’s all that likely – although I have the feeling it’s just as likely as the Kerry winning scenario. Let’s pare off some closer states to get a more realistic scenario:

Bush Loses Ohio and Michigan


Let’s say Kerry picks up Ohio (RCP average of Kerry +0.3% – as slim as it gets) and Michigan (RCP average of Kerry +1.3% – a blue state rapidly turning purple), both states which are leaning his direction by a nose. That dilutes Bush’s lead by a wide margin, but he still wins with an EV margin of 286 to 252. That is close, but a win is a win.

What this also proves is that Bush can win the election without winning Ohio. If the polls in New Mexico (RCP average Bush +1.5%) and Nevada (a whopping RCP average of Bush +8.5%) continue to show strength for Bush, this election will be decided east of the Missouri River. This is one of the more likely scenarios based on the recent polling.

Minnesota Stays Blue

Let’s also say that Minnesota continues its tradition of being a solidly blue state and stays with Kerry. Does that end Bush’s chances? Well, surprisingly not:


Under this scenario it’s Bush 276 to Kerry’s 262 – a razor-thin margin but a lead is a lead. This scenario is also very likely. Again without Ohio, Bush can still win. Kerry has to capture Ohio and keep his leads in Michigan and Minnesota plus one other Midwestern or Western swing state in order to win. In essense, the electoral battlefield is tilted slightly towards Bush at this point. Because of Bush’s strong numbers in Iowa and Wisconsin, as well as the potential for Michigan to become a swing state, Kerry is still on the defensive.

Ohio was looking solidly red, but it’s becoming clear that the economy is severely pushing Bush’s numbers down. However, even without Ohio, Bush can still win, and I’m not convinced that Kerry will be able to sustain a true lead there. Especially if the Fox/Opinion Dynamics poll is right, Ohio could stay in the Bush camp this cycle, which would seriously harm the ability of John Kerry to win. Remember that if Bush just holds his ground from 2000, he wins the election. Kerry *has* to take New Hampshire from Bush (which he more than likely will), but he also has to poach another red state as well. With Bush making inroads in several blue states like Wisconsin, New Mexico, Iowa, and Michigan, Kerry is fighting a war on multiple fronts.

Will New Voters Swing The Race?

I don’t think so. The Democrats have flooded states with tens of thousands of fraudulent registrations. However, after 2000 states are also tightening their election procedures. John Zogby thinks that a turnout of 107 million means that Bush is sunk – but he’s wrong on that. The Republicans also have a very effective GOTV drive this year that helped sweep the GOP in the 2002 elections. The assumption is that new voters = Democrat voters. This is largely true, but I don’t necessarily think that it will be quite a strongly correlated as one would think. Once one gets past the fraudulent registrations, turnout in this election may not be so much dramatically higher than the predictions have stated. With the GOP finally getting its act together on the national and state level, I would expect that the battle for new voters may be less heavily weighted to the Democrats that conventional wisdom suggests.

Who’s Ahead?

In this analysis, I believe President Bush has a strong chance at reelection. If we start getting further swings in states like Ohio and in the Midwest, Kerry is toast. If some of the narrowly Kerry states like Oregon and Pennsylvania go red, Kerry’s completely toast. That doesn’t mean Bush has it in the bag – don’t say that until Iowa, Wisconsin, and Ohio are redder than Ted Kennedy’s face after a trip through a distillery. However, that does mean that Kerry has to do much better than Bush to win. Given that the polls nationally show that Bush is rising slightly while Kerry’s numbers are stagnant or barely rising, that bodes well for the President.

I will likely do one more analysis before making a prediction – if the trends hold in the states as they have nationally, Bush’s chances will only get better.

8 thoughts on “Electoral College Watch

  1. Anything is certainly possible, and I wouldn’t doubt if the candidate with momentum on Election Day squeaks by in most of the swing votes and the Electoral College margin is significantly wider than the popular vote margin, which I can’t see going more than two points for either candidate.

    I question your allegiance to Mason-Dixon polling. Every poll they’ve released this week is well to the right of the poll averages. Did they piggyback with the St. Paul Pioneer Press back in 2002 as they are now? If so, their pre-election poll showed Coleman beating Mondale by five points. They were closer to right than the Minneapolis Star Tribune poll which showed Mondale winning by five, but still three points to the right of the final outcome. I actually find ARG polls to be quite reasonable. They may skewer a little bit Democrat-friendly, but not all the time (New Hampshire, Iowa).

    All of your Electoral College scenarios suggest that Florida and New Mexico are out of play for Kerry. This does not jive with recent polls, showing Florida neck-and-neck and showing conflicting results for New Mexico (keep in mind, Gore’s support was underreported there four years ago…nobody predicted him to win it).

    This thing could go either way, but conventional wisdom suggests that an incumbent below 50% re-elect numbers who is facing record turnout is likely to be hoodwinked. Much will depend on whether the press continues to insist this is a close election or whether they follow MSNBC’s “Bush has it in the bag” mantra. If it’s declared close on Election eve, Kerry wins. If the media spins it as a rout for Bush based on two-point poll advantages, Bush likely wins.

  2. Re: Florida, yes, that could concievably go for Kerry, but given the results in 2002 I’m not so sure. New Mexico could also go to Kerry, but by the time the polls close there the race will have been likely to have already been decided. Unless it’s very close coming out of the Midwest, I’m guesing the election will be decided east of the Missouri.

  3. Jay, unless Bush gets the kind of momentum Reagan did in the last couple weeks of the 1980 election, the election will not be decided by the time the polls close in New Mexico. First of all, the state’s polls close at 8:00 central time, the same time they close in Minnesota and Wisconsin. Even if Bush scores upsets in both of those states, it’s unlikely the margins will be large enough to call a winner at poll closing time. Secondly, the networks are gonna be extra cautious in calling states this time after the Florida fiasco. I don’t expect a call in Ohio or Florida until hours after the polls close. I expect it will the 9:00 hour (central time) when the outcome of this race will start to become clearer, which could only influence the outcomes in the five states with poll closings after that, four of which are uncontested. On the other hand, if the 6:00 poll closings yield an immediate call for Bush in Virginia or an immediate call for Kerry in New Hampshire, it will be telling of how the night may go.

    Barring a late and massive surge for Bush or Kerry, I don’t expect this election to be called until after midnight. I also expect that whoever wins, there will be not only legal challenges, but public riots at home and abroad.

  4. “I also expect that whoever wins, there will be not only legal challenges, but public riots at home and abroad.”

    Oh, if that isn’t the silliest thing. Yes, if Bush wins, there will be riots. But iof Kerry wins, “abroad” will rejoice and Republicans will grumble. Yeah, Republicans rioting in the streets. That’ll happen

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  6. James Ph, four years ago, Republican activists came streaming out of their gated communities, country clubs and oil company offices to forcefully obstruct a legally mandatory recount of votes in Miami-Dade County. A couple years later, the redneck wing of the GOP staged bulldozings of Dixie Chick CDs and poured out bottles of French wine into Atlanta streets. We haven’t seen the wrath of the GOP as intensively as anti-trade protestors in recent years, mainly because Republicans have always managed to get their way in public policy, either through shrewd politicking or by banging their spoons against their high chairs. At this point in time, however, the Republican party knows it’s right on the cusp of achieving a devastating long-term disempowerment of the opposition party’s constituency, and if that opportunity is taken away from them by voters supporting John Kerry, there’s little doubt in my mind that there will be hell to pay.

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