Experts Debunk Clinton's Electoral Vote Idea

Democratic campaigns are grasping at all measures that they are ahead.


With the Democratic presidential race stalemated and the superdelegates holding their collective breath, waiting for someone to pull decisively into the lead, many political analysts are casting their gazes to the general election, trying to determine who would do better against John McCain—Hillary Clinton, with her name recognition and experience, or Barack Obama, with his charisma and appeal to independents? Both sides have trotted out recent national polls that show their candidate nudging ahead in the popular vote, and last week, the Clinton campaign floated the idea of deciding the race based on the number of electoral votes Clinton and Obama have accumulated.

This trial balloon was quickly brought to ground, though, when several independent experts began running the numbers on likely electoral vote outcomes. One analyst, Joshua Putnam, a doctoral candidate in political science at the University of Georgia, went so far as to break down, state by state, how the candidates would do in head-to-head races against McCain all across the country. Putnam's method does have its limitations: Using data collected by RealClearPolitics, an independent political website, he has averaged the available polls conducted in all 50 states since Super Tuesday—which means, in some states, only polls taken in late February, before some of the candidates' latest trials and tribulations. (The 3 a.m. ad, the controversy surrounding the sermons of the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, "sniper fire" in Bosnia, etc.)

Still, Putnam's conclusions do seem to warrant some attention, since they offer one of the first looks beyond prospective tallies of the popular vote into the Electoral College breakdowns that might actually decide the races. Putnam's description of his methodology, complete with red state-blue state maps showing potential "outcomes" of the races, can be found here.

According to Putnam's analysis, based on current polling, a race between Clinton and McCain could break down very much like the 2000 and 2004 elections, with lots of very red states and very blue states—and big fights in battlegrounds like Pennsylvania, Florida, and Ohio. Before the slugfests in those states began, McCain, by Putnam's count, would have a 235-179 Electoral College advantage, with an additional 124 votes up for grabs in a close election.

The Obama-McCain race, as many political experts have said, would very likely offer something completely different. According to Putnam's analysis, Obama's cross-party appeal would seem to give him a leg up on McCain in some "red" states like Texas, Iowa, South Carolina, and Maryland. But he might not be as competitive as Clinton in states like Florida. Based on current polls, Obama would have a 199-174 lead over McCain in states they both dominated, while there would be 165 electoral votes available in states that would be, at this point, too close to call.

In this scenario, if electoral votes are awarded to the candidate currently leading in those "too close to call" states, Putnam says, Clinton would lose to McCain 314-224, while Obama would beat him, 273-265.

At least one study using similar data has recently come to a slightly different conclusion. Two political scientists at Columbia University, who have also run the numbers on the Electoral College breakdown—using one 50-state poll, instead of the dozens of state-by-state polls—believe either matchup would go to the Democrats. According to their simulation, which is posted here, a 50-state, SurveyUSA poll conducted in late February indicates Obama has an 88 percent chance of beating McCain (the poll shows him winning 306-233), while Clinton has a 74 percent chance (with the poll showing her winning 285-253). In either analysis, it's worth noting, Obama seems to perform better than Clinton in a race against McCain.

Like most experts, Putnam is careful not to make too much of current poll numbers, of course. February polls are hardly the best indicator of voters' preferences in November. If the Democratic primaries had been decided nine months ago, after all, Obama, then unknown to most voters, would have been long forgotten by now, and Clinton would very likely have sewn up the nomination. "I tried to pull the data a little earlier than normal to see what it looked like," says Putnam. "It's obviously raised some eyebrows—and it seems to drive home the point that maybe Clinton shouldn't be making these Electoral College arguments." Political junkies: Feel free to gorge yourselves.