Hillary Clinton, the Electoral College Map & the Democrat’s Dilemma
Polls last week confirmed the weak showing of Barak Obama in a couple of key states that will be crucial in winning November’s general election. They also showed that Hillary Clinton has maintained an Electoral College advantage over John McCain, while other polls show Clinton dominating McCain in overall voter preference.
With the flawed Democratic primary likely resulting in Obama leading Clinton in the primary race for pledged delegates but not by enough to win outright, the nomination decision will fall to a small group of leaders; Howard Dean, Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid. What should they do?
The Quinnipiac polls did bring some clearly good news for Democrats. Both candidates lead McCain in Pennsylvania; Clinton has a commanding advantage, 50% – 37%, while Obama’s margin is smaller but still slightly positive at 46% – 40%. In two other big states, however, the news is more sobering for Obama and his supporters. He trails McCain in Florida by four points, 45% – 41%, and is behind in Ohio by the same margin at 44% – 40%. These standings continue a McCain dominance that has existed for some time.
In sharp contrast, it is Clinton who leads McCain by substantially larger margins in both Florida and Ohio, up seven points at 48% – 41% in both states. Her strength in these three major Electoral College states would seem to bode well for an eventual victory in the fall. But if Obama is made the Democratic candidate, can he overcome these early deficits or will he be forced to try and cobble together an Electoral College majority in some unprecedented way?
The three dominant Party leaders, Dean, Pelosi and Reid, face a difficult choice. Should they throw their weight behind Obama, whose numerous primary victories in Republican states gave him his delegate lead but are unlikely to translate into Electoral College votes? Or should they give the nomination to Clinton, who will win the primary popular vote and may have an Electoral College advantage in the presidential election? What is the purpose of a primary, anyway, and on what information should the Democratic power brokers base their decision?
I have no interest in moral victories. Sometimes I have to settle for that, but it isn’t what I want. Since I see almost no difference in policy or competence between the two Democratic candidates, with Clinton having slight but non-crucial advantages, my only basis for advocacy is the answer to one question: Who has the best chance of winning in November? That, too, should be the only question on the minds of the Dean, Pelosi and Reid Triumvirate. There is no value to second place in presidential politics; winning is everything, and the loser be damned.
What indicators should the Triumvirate be looking at? Does a lead in pledged delegates built upon manipulated caucuses in states that will never support the nominee in a general election constitute enough of a justification? Surely not. The whole point of having a nominee, and contesting in the general election, is to win. A nominee who cannot win enough Electoral votes will lose, and basing the selection of that nominee on his popularity among voters in states he cannot carry is foolishness. The only characteristic that matters is the ability to carry enough states to win a total of at least 270 electoral votes; states that provide no Electoral votes are of no value for winning the White House.
One argument advanced by Obama’s supporters, and surely an issue that will weigh on the Triumvirate’s minds, is the general perception of the candidates; who has the ineffable quality of “voter approval” and who carries the burden of “disapproval”? Throughout this campaign, the MSM have consistently hammered on Clinton as being “controversial” and “divisive”, constantly referring to old, disproven, false allegations from her husband’s presidency as though the voters could not either tell the difference between Hillary and Bill or recognize that no matter how often a lie is repeated it is still a lie. Obama’s supporters have gleefully repeated the refrain, damning Hillary as unelectable because she is supposedly the one with the highest disapproval ratings.
But this claim is untrue (and repeating it now is plainly a lie). Early in the campaign, before voters got to know Obama, he was given generally higher approval marks than Clinton. But for many weeks now, upon full and careful reflection, the voters have decided that there really isn’t much difference in the acceptability of either Democrat. Here are Rasmussen snapshot numbers from a couple of days ago; the standings have been unchanged for a month:
The approve/disapprove numbers are identical; half the voters approve of each candidate, and half disapprove. Neither Obama nor Clinton can claim an advantage based on voter approval ratings. (Good news for Democrats, voters are equally divided about McCain.) This measure is of no use whatsoever in projecting results in November; the Triumverate will have to ignore the falsehoods being spewed by the MSM and look elsewhere for guidance.
What about the national polls? Are the voters more decisive when they are asked to compare one candidate at a time directly against John McCain? With the caveat that national polls in May might not be wholly reliable predictors of the national mood in November, and remembering that the Presidential election is determined by Electoral College votes and not by the total popular vote, this measure could still be something that the Triumvirate would consider.
The most recent Gallup head-to-head polling does show a definite, statistically significant difference in voter preference. As shown below, Hillary Clinton has again opened a substantive although narrow lead over John McCain. While her margin of preference has ebbed and flowed, she has maintained a numerical lead over McCain since very early in the month and for much of that time Clinton’s advantage has been statistically meaningful.
(Survey Methods: The latest general election results are based on combined data from May 20-24, 2008. For results based on this sample of 4,423 registered voters, the maximum margin of sampling error is ±2 percentage points.)
In contrast, Obama has been in a statistical dead heat with McCain for the entire month on May. While the numbers have swung slightly one way or another, the margins are too small for any meaning to be imputed. Obama’s supporters cannot claim any advantage for their candidate from these data.
Will the Triumvirate give these polls any weight? If they do, the advantage is clearly to Clinton. But these are national polls, and while they might be considered an indicator of how the general election popular vote could go, they do not help any with an assessment of the only metric that matters: The Electoral College. For that Pelosi, Dean and Reid will have to trek through each state, poll by poll and with a view to both historical trends and their own political sense of where things stand today, and make a best-guess estimation of how voters will feel in the fall and how those feelings will determine their state’s outcome.
This is a glorious, wonderful, complex and astounding nation we live in. Let’s take that stroll with them and see where it leads, shall we?
[Of the 50 states and DC, there are many where the outcome is almost certainly predictable. Barring a catastrophe, states like Massachusetts and California will again go for the Democrat while Utah and Alabama will belong to the Republican. I have listed those “solid” states in an Appendix below, along with some discussion where my assignments may vary from the opinions of others or the early polling. Forecasting is an art, not a science, and I am certainly open to discussion around my decisions; challenges resting on sound numbers or a plausible rationale will be warmly received; those with any lesser basis, not so much.]
There are 15 states where the contest is close enough that they can be fairly considered to be in play for either party. It is in these states that the election will be decided, and the electability data here is what the Democratic Party should use in choosing their candidate. Whoever loses the Electoral majority in these states will become a footnote to history. Whoever dominates this group of states will be the next President of the United States.
[Color coding is conventional; blues for the Democrats, reds for McCain, and gray for Too Close To Call.]
The Far West
Washington State went Democratic in the last five consecutive cycles, and Kerry won by seven points. While Obama has the larger lead, with both Democrats leading Washington should go Democratic again for either candidate.
Oregon also has voted Democratic for five presidents in a row, and Kerry took the state by 5%. With Both Democrats leading, Oregon should be a win for either of them and join with Washington and California for a solid Democratic swath.
The Mountain West
Nevada was solidly Republican until 1992, when it swung to Clinton and stayed there for 1996. It swung back again to the Republicans for the last two elections, although Bush won in 2004 by only 3%. Although there was some early talk from the Obama camp that they could take Nevada, McCain is winning the polls; this has to be put down as a loss if Obama is the nominee. Clinton, however, did very well in the last poll, leading McCain, but was solidly behind in the previous assessment. The best that can be done for her is to call it a tie.
New Mexico is another Mountain State that had been steadfastly Republican for some while, but went to Clinton in 1992 and stayed Democratic through 2000. Bush won in 2004 by just 1%, and both Clinton and Obama have strong current margins even when the surveys are averaged. New Mexico could be won by either Democrat.
Even though Colorado has voted Republican in 9 out of the last 10 cycles, and went to Bush in 2004 by 5%, this is one state where the Obama “transformative” politics appear to be taking hold. McCain has been behind Obama consistently, and currently trails by 6 points. Clinton, in contrast, has trailed McCain and is currently 3 points behind. Put Colorado in the win column for Obama, but mark it as a loss for Clinton.
Missouri is definitely a “swing” state, having gone back and forth between the parties and voted with the eventual winner in each of the last 10 presidential elections. While Bush won by a solid 7% in 2004, the sagging Republican Party reputation definitely opens the state for a Democrat – If that Democrat’s name is Clinton. While she is holding her won against McCain, keeping Missouri as a tossup, Obama has consistently trailed. The slight positive shift for both Democrats seen here may be real, or not; regardless, Obama still trails.
Iowa is an absolute tossup. Republican through 1984, Iowa went Democratic four presidential elections in a row until going to Bush in 2004 by 50% – 49%. Current polls show 13% - 14% undecided, with differences between the candidates less than the margin of error. No one can claim Iowa today.
The nightmare for Democrats that is Florida could well continue in 2008. If McCain chooses Charlie Crist as VP, that could tip the state unalterably for the Republicans. But that’s a big if; McCain is doing well against Obama as it is, and may decide to look elsewhere for a running mate. Clinton leads McCain solidly, and for now the state belongs to her.
Virginia is supposed by some to be in play this year because Mark Warner’s popularity will energize the Democrats and depress Republican turnout, but the polls don’t reflect any diminishment of voter enthusiasm for Republican presidential candidates. Bush won in 2004 by 8 points, and McCain is leading both Democrats by solid margins; that latest Survey USA result is just a fluke. Building a presidential victory strategy around Virginia – or any Old South state – would be a big miscalculation for either Democratic candidate.
The Upper Midwest
Minnesota has gone Democratic eight consecutive times, and both candidates are leading McCain by increasingly larger margins. Some believe that the Republican convention will have a positive effect and bring the state into play, but Minnesotans are a practical people and Republicans are lousy tippers; exposure to the Convention delegates will alienate more people than are converted.
Wisconsin has gone Democratic eight consecutive times, but by progressively smaller margins; Kerry won in 2004 by only 0.4%. Polls, however, show McCain ahead against both Obama and Clinton. Uff Da.
Michigan was solidly Republican through the 70’s and 80’s, then went Democratic for Clinton and has stayed that way but not by much; a 3% win in 2004 for Kerry. Tough economic times should make this a Democratic pick-up, but the polls at this time are even; call it a tossup.
That might be an inappropriate term for these two states, but it is the regional influence that dominates much of their national political character. Clinton won the primary convincingly and dominated in other Appalachian states; she carries PA easily in the general. Obama’s struggles with the “clinging bitter” demographic may limit him here, but he still leads McCain. Either Democrat should take the state.
Obama is struggling in Ohio, a state he probably needs to carry in the general. One survey has him up by an astounding 9 points, and that’s the only thing that forces the state to be called a tossup; he loses the other three recent polls. Clinton, in contrast, leads McCain consistently and Ohio should be a pickup for her. This is a state that Democratic leaders should look at carefully as an indicator for how the candidates might do nationwide; Ohio has sided with the winner of ten presidential elections in a row.
Each of the three candidates can find a poll in New Hampshire to encourage them; the numbers are all over the place. Early on, this was considered a strong possibility for McCain in an otherwise solidly Democratic area, but lately the polls have favored both Democrats. At this time, there is no clear favorite – a tossup.
Winning the “Battleground”
The relative strengths and weaknesses of Obama and Clinton become apparent very quickly through this analysis. Clinton is able to hold the Democratic coalition of the Far West, the Rust Belt and New England that won for Bill in 1992 and 1996 and nearly worked for Gore and Kerry. Combined with the 172 solidly Democratic Electoral votes from Appendix I, Hillary’s “battleground” state victories bring her to 273 – enough to win. If she splits the Tied votes by picking up New Hampshire and Michigan, a distinct possibility, her Electoral College total jumps to 294 – a decisive victory.
For Obama, the picture is far less certain. Adding the 63 votes from these “battleground” states to the 172 from securely Democratic states leaves him at 235, while McCain adds 66 votes to his 189 secure Republican votes for a total of 255. For McCain, either Michigan or Ohio will put him over the top and both are plausible, Ohio especially. For Obama, down by 20, it is a much greater challenge; he has to win the big ones. The combination of Ohio and Michigan is crucial; if Obama does not take both, he loses the election.
It’s The Electoral College Map
This is not to say that Obama is incapable of winning the general election. He does, however, face a difficult time against McCain. For the Republicans, this matchup is as good as it was going to get for this cycle; some Party strategists are insisting that McCain can not only beat Obama, he can win big. This may be false bravado, but the Electoral map leaves enough uncertainty that the possibility cannot be entirely discounted.
Present circumstances are not what early predictors of a Democratic blowout envisioned. Many analysts continue to generalize that the troubles associated with Bush will drag down McCain, but are hard-pressed to lay out a specific combination of states that ensures an Obama victory.
McCain will be a formidable candidate regardless of which Democrat he faces. His fabricated persona is an obvious fraud but so were those of Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush. McCain combines a façade of self-deprecating casual charm reminiscent of Reagan with a public service resume vastly more robust than either the feeble-minded “Great Communicator” or marble-mouthed GeeDubbya. Those assets combined with a supportive, often fawning MSM match up with Obama in ways that the Democrat will find difficult to counter, especially while he is scrambling to build up his own support.
Other Electoral College analyses come to conclusions similar to that above. Writing at TalkLeft, William Arnone exhaustively reviews 17 states he considers up for grabs, from a variety of angles, and concludes that compared to Obama:
Sen. Clinton stands the better chance of winning the general election in November as the Democratic Presidential nominee.
Darryl Holman at Hominid Views whips up some statistical magic from his own analysis of the polls and runs a 10,000 iteration Monte Carlo analysis suggesting that Obama has about one chance in three (32.7%) of winning against McCain. Holman puts the most likely outcome at 262 Electoral votes for Obama and 276 for McCain, and offers this weighted cartographic demonstration:
For Clinton, Holman’s analysis is decidedly brighter. He projects 313 electoral votes for her with just 225 for McCain, and places the probability of her winning at 99.9%. He is, I think, overly optimistic with some states, particularly Arkansas, but even with that adjustment she still cleans McCain’s clock.
Shystee has enthusiastically endorsed the work done at Electoral-Vote.com where the current (in my view somewhat rosy) hear-to-head analysis also shows Clinton with the dominant position.
The General Election Strategy
Obama’s campaign built their primary delegate advantage of an aggressive ground game and a 50-state strategy that ran up substantial gains from state he cannot win in the general election. As Jerome Anderson at MyDD asked early last February,
Obama's General Election Strategy Is... ?
I really don't know, do you?
Apparently, the answer is still emerging - three months later. Let us all hope that if he is the nominee he will have figured it out before November 4.
With Hillary Clinton, the plan has been clear all along. David Sparks, of the McCormack School of Policy Studies at U Mass, says this:
In Clinton, the superdelegates have a candidate who fits their recent mold and the last two elections have been very close. This year is a bad year for Republicans. Just a slight shift from the Gore?Kerry level would give her the victory.
Sounds like a reasonable plan, eminently workable, and the current status of polls and Electoral College projections bears that out. Hillary Clinton’s coalition of voters appears able to give her at least 273 Electoral votes, and plausibly as many as 294
The Obama approach, however, is radically different in some as-yet undefined way:
In Obama, they have a new model candidate and the potential for a coalition of voter groups and states which break from the Gore?Kerry model.
The key word there is “potential”. Also glossed over in this characterization is that the model being broken away from is also that of Bill Clinton, who quite recently won two terms with it. It is the model of FDR and Truman, who won five consecutive terms with it. To give full historical credit, it is the model of Andrew Jackson who used it to transform American political philosophy from one of privileged inheritance to one of equalitarian populism. Seems a lot to “break” from, just for some undefined “potential” alternative.
What is missing from the claims for a new coalition being made by the likes of Donna Brazille is anything concrete and discussable. If they are so certain that this coalition exists, where are the voter registration lists that support the claims? Where are the polls showing Obama pulling together a new assemblage of states? Colorado is a dandy pickup, but where are the others? What coalition of new states will make up for the loss of Ohio or Michigan or Florida – or all three?
It is true that the American electorate 2008 is not exactly the same as it was in FDR’s time, or even a decade ago. The shifting from an economy driven primarily by industry to one driven by intellectual property and financial services will require a different approach to political coalition building, as will the increasing proportion of non-European minorities. If the Democratic Party wants do be relevant, it will have to sort out how to talk to and organize this new set of interests.
What isn’t so clear is just how to go about doing that. As Sean Wilentz discusses here, the current Obama plan seems to be an initial undoing of the older majority which will in some as yet indescribable way lead to the formation of the new coalition. Wilentz finds that approach problematic, and it does violate the First Rule of Rock Climbing:
”Never let go of what you have hold of, until you get a hold on something new.”
Paul Lukasiak has exhaustively documented the shortcomings in Obama’s strategy, the long list of “old model” constituencies who prefer Clinton and may have a difficult time voting for him instead. How many of these disaffected Democratic voters will come over to Obama in the general election, and what is the strategy to gain their confidence? Hopefully the superdelegates who are backing Obama have a good idea about how to do that. Many people would feel more confident in Obama’s chances if that plan were shared.
Hillary Clinton will finish the primary season with the most popular votes, and is the choice of Democratic primary voters in almost all of the key states needed to win in November. According to current polls, Clinton is leading by a considerable margin in the “battleground” states over McCain and is projected by multiple analysts to win the Electoral College vote. Additionally, she has held a statistically significant lead over McCain in head-to-head national polling.
Barak Obama will finish the primary season with a lead in pledged delegates, a lead amassed largely on the strength of his performance in states he cannot carry in November. According to current polls, Obama is slightly trailing McCain in the “battleground” states and is projected by multiple analysts to either narrowly win or narrowly lose the Electoral College vote. In head-to-head-national polling, Obama has no apparent preference advantage over McCain.
The Democratic Party has a difficult dilemma. Should they choose the more experienced, more popular, more electable candidate or the less experienced but charismatic candidate with a decidedly uncertain path to Electoral College victory? Sounds like a really tough decision, doesn’t it? What to do, what to do?
In a few weeks, maybe less, we’ll know what the Leaders have decided they want to do. Come the end of August we’ll know if the presumptive nominee has been successful in healing the Party. (Watch the polls in the “battleground” states; if Obama is the “presumptive” he will need to pass McCain in both Michigan and Ohio or the delegates may have to reconsider the odds.) Come November we’ll know if the actual nominee was the right choice for the general election. After that, the consequences of their decision will fall directly on the shoulders – and the careers – of Howard Dean, Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid. Now would be a good time to remind them of that, and what you plan to do about it if they make the wrong decision.
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Appendix I: Probable solid states, and their (Electoral votes).
Democratic: HI (4), CA (55), IL (21), NY (31), MD (10), DE (3), NJ (15), DC (3), CT (7), RI (4), MA (12), VT (3), Me (4); Total = 172.
Republican: AK (3), AZ (10), UT (5), ID (4), Mt (3), WY (3), ND (3), SD (3), NE (5), KS (6), OK (7), TX (34), AR (6), LA (9), MS (6), AL (9), GA (15), SC (8), NC (15), TN (11), KY (8), IN (11), WV (5); Total = 189.
My not-always-conventional decisions:
New Jersey has been assigned as a possible pickup for McCain based on the results of one poll back in IIRC February; NJ will vote Democratic, period.
The Obama camp, along with some analysts parroting them, have raised a lot of noise about making inroads in the Mountain West and the Great Plains; some have even suggested that McCain is vulnerable to Obama in his home state. This is what happens when you mainline KoolAid – you see pretty colors everywhere. Obama does have a slight lead in the Colorado polls, but he is far behind elsewhere and will remain so; if he holds on to CO, that will be miracle enough.
West Virginia voted for Bill Clinton twice, but Hillary is not Bill. While she leads McCain in polls, I am not convinced that “Clinton magic” will in the end overcome rampant sexism and macho war-hero worship. In my estimation WV goes to the Republicans; if Clinton is the nominee and pulls off a win here, it will only add to her margin of victory; the good news for her, and for Democrats, is that she doesn’t need to. Obama loses this state in a landslide.
Arkansas was won handily by Clinton in the primary, and she leads against McCain in the polls. However, she will lose the state in November as would Obama. Mike Huckabee lives there; he will pound away, day in and day out, building up his credibility as a combination Political Player and religious authority for his own purposes and tearing down the Democratic candidate as a part of it. When someone mentioned a while back to Pat Buchanan that Clinton had a chance in AR he burst out laughing, and stared slapping his desk; he’s correct. I’m putting it in the Republican bin; if I’m wrong and Clinton picks it up, so much the better. Obama win in Arkansas? Not happening, not in a month of Sundays.
The Obama camp has also floated claims about winning in the Old South, in the states of the former Confederacy. As a means of boosting voter registration and donations, that sort of talk is fine; as an electoral strategy it is a fairy tale fantasy. With the possible exception of Missouri for Clinton, neither a black nor a woman will win any of the Old South this cycle and that’s just a cold, hard fact. Voter registration drives are a wonderful long-term strategy that will pay definite short-term benefits in shifting the political tenor at the local, state and US House levels, but they will not affect Presidential Electoral calculations for at least another decade, perhaps not for a generation. This election is being held in five months.