In the Weekly's running Electoral College tally, Democrat Barack Obama has increased his lead over Republican John McCain since our last snapshot of the race two weeks ago, adding three electoral votes to his total and expanding his margin from 96 to 102 votes. Even so, our poll averages show race that is increasingly dynamic on a state-by-state basis, with gains and losses by each candidate that may not be reflected in the overall electoral vote count from one analysis period to the next. A close look at these numbers reveals some trends suggesting that the November election, while breaking decidedly in favor of Obama at this stage, still could turn out to be highly competitive.
Given such evidence - and knowing that poll numbers in several key states are likely to become even more unsettled when the campaign kicks into full gear after the respective party conventions - it would be foolhardy to make a definitive prediction of a winner at this point. I will, however, venture far enough onto a limb to bet against one eventual outcome: There will be no McCain landslide; either the actual electoral map will look very much as it does at this moment (i.e., an Obama mini-landslide), or the race will tighten and one candidate or the other will win a relative squeaker.
Faced with an uphill battle, the McCain campaign already has begun the inevitable descent into relentless negativity. McCain and various surrogates will spend the next three-and-half months deriding Obama's "inexperience" (although the two have spent exactly the same amount of time as the Leader of the Free World, a job for which prior experience is well nigh impossible to come by) and trying to convince anyone who'll half pay heed that the Democratic nominee is a closet socialist and double-secret Muslim extremist who wants to force us all to learn Spanish and plans to quadruple the income tax on all white people who earn more than minimum wage. And here's the thing: It might work.
With that, on to the numbers:
- Overall, Obama has "strong" leads in seven states and the District of Columbia, accounting for 119 electoral votes. He is the "probable" winner in eight states with a total of 76 votes; and has six states "leaning" his way, for an additional 69 votes. All told, that's 264 of the 270 electoral votes needed to win, meaning Obama would need to carry at most two of the 10 "tossup" states to win the election. Meanwhile, McCain has seven states in the strong category (50 electoral votes), six states classified as probable (60 votes), and six leaning toward him (47 votes), for a total of 157 electoral votes.
Compared to two weeks ago, Obama's electoral vote total from strong and probable states has slipped from 207 to 195, while McCain's total from those categories also dropped, from 125 to 110. This may suggest that many voters are only now beginning to compare the candidates side-by-side, with the intensity of support for both undergoing a cooling-off that could last until the campaign enters the home stretch in September.
- In terms of key electoral battlegrounds, the same 10 states that were categorized as tossups two weeks ago remain too close to call. In keeping with our ground rule of awarding each tossup state to the current leader there, this column finds Obama and McCain each carrying five states: Obama leads in Colorado, Indiana, Montana, Ohio and Virginia, earning a total of 56 electoral votes, while McCain gets 61 votes by leading in Florida, Missouri, Nevada, North Carolina and North Dakota.
The key change from two weeks ago is that the lead in Montana has shifted to Obama, with its three electoral votes accounting for the six-point swing in our current overall count. It's worth noting that only two Democrats have carried Montana in the past 14 Presidential elections, dating to 1952 - Lyndon Johnson in his landslide victory over Barry Goldwater in 1964, and Bill Clinton in a three-way race with George H.W. Bush and Ross Perot in 1992. In addition to gaining the lead in Montana, Obama maintains the advantage he took two weeks ago in another longtime Republican stronghold, Indiana, which has voted Republican in every Presidential election since 1940, with the exception of going for Johnson in '9164.
- Whether or not Obama ultimately carries Montana and Indiana, his strong showings in those states indicate his success to date in casting himself as a non-traditional Democratic candidate and the harbinger of a new, post-racial generation of American politics. This message has resonance with some conservatives - particularly those who consider themselves independents - who want a decisive break from the policies of the Bush Administration and don't see McCain as an agent of such change.
This situation poses a serious challenge for McCain, who is being forced to shore up support in several states that have been "gimmes" for Republicans at least since Reagan redrew the electoral map in 1980. In addition to Montana and Indiana, these include the current tossup states of North Dakota and Virginia, McCain "leaners" Mississippi and South Dakota, and Georgia, which has tightened almost - but not quite - to the point of moving from leaning McCain to tossup status.
- In contrast to two weeks ago, there is some good news for McCain. In addition to increasing his slight lead in the tossup state of North Carolina, McCain has seen Louisiana and Nebraska move from probable to strongly for him, and Alaska from leaning two weeks ago back to probable; what's more, Maine and Washington have moved from strong Obama to probable, while New Hampshire and New Jersey have dropped from probable to leaning for the Democrat.
McCain's gains are tempered, however, by trends toward Obama in other states. Massachusetts, New York and Rhode Island have moved from probable to strongly for Obama, while Iowa has moved from leaning to probable in his favor. In addition, South Carolina has slipped from probable to leaning for McCain, and Arkansas has gone from strong McCain to probable.
- While it's all but certain that each candidate will carry his home state - more so for Obama than for McCain at this point - the current numbers from Illinois and Arizona are interesting. In Illinois, the first extensive polling in more than four months shows Obama up by 13 points (it was 29 points in early March, before either party's nomination was sewn up) - enough to downgrade the state from strong to probable Obama. Arizona, on the other hand, has been somewhat more competitive all along, and now has moved - just barely - from probable for McCain to only leaning.