I've been writing, repeatedly, that the voting alignments in this general election could look quite different from those that prevailed in 2004 and 2000 (and, for that matter, 1996). And that the voting alignments could be quite different depending on whether Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton is the Democratic nominee. The Clinton campaign is now arguing, in a lengthy memo, that its candidate would run stronger against John McCain than Obama would, and Gallup shows Clinton running stronger than Obama in primary/caucus states won by Clinton and running about the same as Obama in primary/caucus states won by Obama.
National elections are decided not by popular vote but by electoral votes. So I decided to take a look at all the statewide polls, conveniently gathered by Pollster.com, that have been conducted starting in February. That seemed to be the best time to start, since McCain effectively clinched the Republican nomination on Super Tuesday, February 5 (though Mike Huckabee continued campaigning until March 4) and Obama became considerably better known after his victories in January and on Super Tuesday. There are some problems with this procedure. Polls are plentiful in some states (Ohio, Pennsylvania) and sparse in others. There is just one poll, conducted in February, in South Carolina, which shows McCain with improbably low leads over the two Democrats; in Nebraska and North Dakota, the results are heavily influenced by February SurveyUSA polls, part of its 50-state polling, that showed Obama statistically tied with McCain. These look like outliers to me, but they could be indications that voting alignments are changing even more than I think possible.
I calculated the average percentage margin for McCain over (or under) Obama and Clinton in each state and compared it with George W. Bush's percentage margin over (or under) John Kerry in the 2004 general election. I used whole integers: no value in the spurious precision of tenths of a percentage in analyzing the results of polls with a considerable margin of error. I have used pluses to indicate McCain leads and to indicate an increase in the McCain margin over the Bush margin and minuses to indicate Democratic leads and to indicate decreases in the McCain margin over the Bush margin. If you find that offensive, please just mentally reverse the pluses or minuses.
Here are the results for the McCain-Obama and the McCain-Clinton races, with the Bush percentage margin first, the McCain percentage margin second and the increase or the decrease of the Republican margin third.
|EAST||Bush Margin %||McCain Margin %||Republican Margin %||EAST||Bush Margin %||McCain Margin %||Republican Margin %|
|DC||-80||no data||no data||DC||no data||no data||no data|
|MIDWEST||Bush Margin %||McCain Margin %||Republican Margin %||MIDWEST||Bush Margin %||McCain Margin %||Republican Margin %|
|WEST||Bush Margin %||McCain Margin %||Republican Margin %||WEST||Bush Margin %||McCain Margin %||Republican Margin %|
|SOUTH||Bush Margin %||McCain Margin %||Republican Margin %||SOUTH||Bush Margin %||McCain Margin %||Republican Margin %|
I am going to assume that states where the margin is 6 percent or less will be in play; this may be unrealistic in some cases, but at least it's a common standard. I'll put the number of electoral votes in parentheses.
East. Pennsylvania (21) clearly remains in play whichever Democrat is nominated, but Clinton appears a little stronger there. In New Hampshire (4), it's the other way around: Obama is a bit stronger. New Jersey (15) shows a 6 percent margin for both Democrats; this could be in play (but will the Republicans have the money for New York City TV?). Massachusetts (12) looks to be in play if Obama is nominated, and as counterintuitive as that may seem, we might remember that Ronald Reagan carried it twice. Connecticut (7) and Delaware (3) look to be in play against Clinton.
Industrial Midwest. Some of the results are easier to believe than others. Ohio (20) is in play either way, but Clinton looks stronger than Obama. Indiana (11), astonishingly, looks to be close if Obama is nominated, less close if Clinton is (Evan Bayh for vice president, anyone?). Missouri (11) looks fairly solid for McCain against Obama (who won the primary there by 1 percent, carrying only five of 115 counties) but very much up for grabs against Clinton. Michigan (17), the nation's No. 1 unemployment state, doesn't behave as one might expect. George W. Bush lost it twice, but McCain runs even against Obama and leads by 2 percentage points against Clinton. The unpopularity of Democratic Gov. Jennifer Granholm's tax increase may have something to do with this.
Great Plains and Rocky Mountains. In this region, as well as in Alaska (3) and Hawaii (4), Obama is clearly a much stronger candidate than Clinton. The question is how many electoral votes can be put into play. The numbers in Minnesota (10) suggest that it will be a lock for Obama but up for grabs for Clinton. Wisconsin (10) is close for both candidates, but McCain leads Clinton and trails Obama. The numbers in Iowa (7) suggest that this state, exceedingly close in 2000 and 2004, may be out of reach for McCain against either Democrat. The Great Plains states look out of reach for the Democrats, unless you believe the two February and March polls in North Dakota (3), which show a close race.
The Rockies are a different story. Obama is clearly well positioned to win Colorado (9), which doesn't look like a target state if Clinton is nominated. Montana (3) and Alaska (3) may be within reach for Obama. Oregon (7) and Washington (11) look within reach for McCain against Clinton, but against Obama he runs farther behind than George W. Bush did when these two slipped off his target list. Hawaii (4) looks like a target state against Clinton but not against Hawaii native Obama.
The South. Obama trails in every southern state but by tantalizingly narrow margins in the South Atlantic states of Virginia (13), North Carolina (15), and, if you believe one February poll, South Carolina (8). Clinton is notably less competitive in each. However, Clinton currently is tied with McCain in Florida (27), while Obama runs 8 percentage points behind; Florida may end up not being a target state, as it was in 1988 when George H. W. Bush won 61 percent of the vote there. Obama is clearly a hard sell for the elderly Jewish voters who piled up big margins for the Gore-Lieberman ticket and slightly smaller ones for Kerry-Edwards. Against Obama, McCain runs better than Bush in states that might be called Greater Appalachia: West Virginia (5), Kentucky (8), Tennessee (11), Alabama (9), Arkansas (6), and Oklahoma (7). In contrast, Clinton carries Arkansas and West Virginia. The biggest question mark here is Texas. Bush carried his home state by 23 percent, but McCain leads Obama by only 7 percent and Clinton by only 9 percent. The Democrats could use their money advantage here to buy TV time in the second-largest state and give the McCain campaign the hard choice of risking 34 electoral votes or playing defense in what everyone earlier thought was a safe Republican state.
The overall picture. I will leave it to the Clinton and Obama campaigns (and to commenters) to make the case that one Democrat or the other is stronger overall against McCain. Overall, these poll results show McCain leading Obama by 281 to 257 electoral votes and McCain leading Clinton by 277 to 261 electoral votes. But many states are exceedingly close, including some that were not target states in 2000 or 2004. So let's separate the states according to whether the margin is 6 percent or less or 7 percent or more.
And let's conclude by listing the states likely to be target states (defined, again, as states where the margin is 6 percent or less) that were not on the final target lists in 2004.
In the McCain-Obama race: Alaska (3), Colorado (9), Indiana (11), Massachusetts (12), Missouri (11), Montana (3), New Jersey (15), North Carolina (15), North Dakota (3), South Carolina (8), and Virginia (13). That's 103 electoral votes.
In the McCain-Clinton race: Connecticut (7), Delaware (3), Hawaii (4), Kentucky (8), Missouri (11), New Jersey (15), Oregon (7), South Carolina (8), Virginia (13), Washington (11), and West Virginia (5). That's 92 electoral votes.
And only a few states are on both lists: Missouri, New Jersey, South Carolina (improbably), and Virginia. That old map of red states and blue states looks pretty obsolete now.