General election: How much will the electoral map change?

An Obama-McCain general election match-up would ensure that the electoral map we are accustomed to changes; both candidates appeal to states traditionally abandoned by their respective parties, but they are also both dangerously weak among groups previous nominees have carried more easily. Clinton could also transform the map, as she would put in play states that Kerry had given up while having to counter McCain's atypical appeal to blue-leaning independents.

In fact, the conventional wisdom of how the two candidates' strategies differ seems set for the time being: Obama would rely less on states like Ohio and Florida in which he looks to have more difficulty than Clinton and choose a less conventional path to the White House that goes through states like Colorado, Virginia and... the Mountain West, places in which Clinton is much less competitive.

This is of course just a rough sketch that the coming months will allow us to refine; but there is already plenty of evidence of how different the two electoral coalitions that Obama and Clinton are amassing are. Against McCain, Obama is typically stronger among independents and African-Americans, just as in the primaries. Meanwhile, Clinton's general election strength are derived from an edge among blue-collar voters, here again a repeat of her match-up against Obama. Gallup came out with a fascinating study today showing how Clinton and Obama's general election coalitions are almost unbelievably the opposite of one another:

  • The aggregate of Gallup's tracking poll from March 31st and April 6th shows that McCain leads Obama among voters with no college education (46% to 40%). McCain's lead evaporates among voters with any college education, including a 52% to 42% lead for Obama among voters with a postgraduate education.
  • Clinton, meanwhile, performs in exactly the opposite way: Clinton leads among voters with no college education (48% to 43%) but trails among voters with any college education, including a 10% deficit among four-year college graduates and a 3% deficit among voters with a postgraduate education.
Given these dramatic differences, it is hardly surprising that Obama and Clinton are working on different electoral maps, and that the 2008 general election could throw the Bush-Rove map of the past 2 cycles right out the window. Today's wave of general election polls confirms that we will have to pay attention to states that are generally forgotten in general elections:

  • First, a Marist poll of New York shows John McCain not only competitive but actually edging out Obama 48% to 46%. Clinton leads 48% to 46%. In the poll's least interesting but most discussed follow-up, a McCain/Rice ticket would lead both a Clinton/Obama and an Obama/Clinton ticket.
It is hard to know what to make of this poll for the simple fact that it is a complete outlier relatively to all the New York polls we have seen this year. This is not to say that McCain will not make blue states competitive, as there is plenty of polls that suggest Connecticut and New Jersey will be very competitive with McCain on the ballot. But looking at the past few New York polls, there simply is no sign of much vulnerability on the part of either Democrat (Obama leads McCain by 13% and 21% in the past two polls), so we will have to wait for other polls to confirm Marist's finding.

We also got a wave of general election releases from Rasmussen:

  • In Ohio, McCain is leading both Democrats comfortably, 47% to 40% against Obama and 47% to 42% against Clinton.

  • In New Mexico, Obama leads McCain 45% to 42% while McCain is ahead of Clinton 46% to 43%. In late February, McCain tied Obama and led Clinton by 12%.

  • The first surprising results come from Alaska, where McCain only leads Obama 48% to 43% while trouncing Clinton 57% to 32%. Clinton's favorability rating is just 35% far behind McCain (63) and Obama (55).

  • Just as surprising are Montana's numbers: McCain here again only leads Obama 48% to 43%. He is further ahead of Clinton, 54% to 38%.
Both Alaska and Montana are staunchly Republican states where Obama is vastly overperforming the typical Democratic candidates. Note that these states are conservative in a very different manner than in the deep South and its history of racial conflict; the relative absense of racial polarization in the Mountain West makes this region the testing ground of Obama's attempt at changing the electoral map.

Note also that there is a precedent for such numbers in other polls: SUSA's 50-state poll project in early March tested McCain-Obama match-ups in both Alaksa and Montana and found McCain ahead by 5% and 9% respectively. Obama was competitive in many Western states -- and even led McCain in North Dakota! Most of these states are worth only 3 electoral votes, but the last thing McCain wants is to have to play defense in so many small states.

Relatively to the numbers from MT and AK, of course, Ohio's numbers have to be very disappointing for Democrats. This state was supposed to be a disaster zone for Republicans since 2004 and Democrats were confident that it would be much easier for them to pick it up this time. Democrats do not necessarily need Ohio to get to the White House, but the fact that McCain is consistently strong in the state has got to be a painful blow.

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  • I come from Ohio. Wait and see.
    In six months, a heck of a lot can change.

    The economy in OH is in the toilet.
    OH has the highest foreclosure rate in the country, I believe.

    Wait until the DEMS have selected their candidate and then see how the polls in OH move.

    By Blogger Mark, At 10 April, 2008 14:52  

  • Um... yeah. Why not North Dakota? ND has had a full slate of two Dem Senators and a Dem in the at-large house seat since the 1986. They border two provinces that have elected Socialist (NDP) governments. Home of the old Populists? If the Dems would show a little more understanding of gun rights worries, why not North Dakota?

    By Anonymous Anonymous, At 10 April, 2008 15:29  

  • If this is Obama's strategy, he will lose the general election in a landslide. It's as simple as that. He will never win GOP states. His strategy will only work if enough Republicans stay home on Election day, and I doubt that will happen. Even though many Republicans dislike McCain, they've decided that party unity is more important. Sadly, the same cannot be said for Democrats.

    By Anonymous Tom, At 10 April, 2008 15:31  

  • I think Ohio is a lost cause this November. The state is just a bit too conservative for Democrats.

    Instead, the party should focus on states that will gain electoral votes in 2012 (they will lose by 6-8% this year), and that includes Texas with a growing Latino population.

    By Anonymous mikeel, At 10 April, 2008 17:39  

  • I think the Dems should obviously play to win in 2008 but they should also look to expand the field. If they relie on the states in 2000 and 2004 they will forever lose because most of those states are losing EV's with each census.

    For example MI, OH and PA as a group will lose 2 EV's per decade if current population trends continue. Sates like NC, CO etc will gain these. Therefore the field needs expanding rather than relying on 19 states plus OH or FL.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, At 10 April, 2008 18:37  

  • Again, polls seven months out should be used just as a tentative starting point. People are focused on Reverend Wright and sniper fire in Bosnia because that's where the news is. When the nomination is settled, attention may (again, may) turn to tax cuts for the wealthy, Iraq, and health care. I won't dispute the numbers as they are now; I just am skeptical that they'll hold up. (Or perhaps as a New Yorker, I just can't imagine that this increasingly blue state would go for McCain over either Democrat).

    By Blogger dsimon, At 10 April, 2008 19:34  

  • AS a fellow New Yorker I can tell you that this state is highly skeptical of Barack's "devout christian" crap and given a choice between a bible thumper and a crazy old warmonger, McCain is the winner. Secularists are turned off big time by holy rollers. We know about the neurological disorder that causes faith and it's a big red flag. Sane people only need apply in this state.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, At 10 April, 2008 20:02  

  • This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, At 10 April, 2008 22:27  

  • Anonymous at 22:27
    Gay? first he was a muslim now he is gay, please whats next, a Nazi? no no wait he is a mutant with the ability to inspire people....
    And By the way I am gay and have and excellent gaydar and barack its not gay..

    By Anonymous Anonymous, At 10 April, 2008 22:34  

  • Ohio would be nice but its not necessary, the Kerry states plus CO, NV and NM would give Barrack a razor thin wining margin, Now is he cant carry Pennsylvania he will have to replace it with Iowa and Virginia or Missouri

    By Blogger Javier, At 10 April, 2008 22:37  

  • javier, you forgot to add that Michigan and New Jersey are no guarantee for Obama either.

    If he loses either, it'll wash out any gain from Virginia.

    And if he loses both, game set and match.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, At 11 April, 2008 02:12  

  • Anonymous at 02:12
    yes I totally forgot those states!, I think NJ isn't going red it may flirt with Mccain but in the end it will stay blue, MI on the other hand I think their is a real possibility of it going to the GOP, in that case Obama has to win Iowa ,Virginia and Missouri.And maybe just maybe I think Texas may be in play, it has large Hispanic population with the right VP (Richardson) maybe Obama can pull it off.

    By Blogger Javier, At 11 April, 2008 02:43  

  • If Obama got Texas then that easily covers MI or PA. TX and IA cover both MI and PA. 270EV's are out there in some unlikely places.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, At 11 April, 2008 08:09  

  • Sorry, these polls are taken in the midst of a bitter Democratic race.

    Of course, McCain will look stronger in these polls

    Wait until Obama has locked up the nomination
    Then give the Democratic coalition time to digest the candidate

    It's hard to imagine blue collar voters going to McCain
    It's hard to imagine union members voting for MCain
    Or Latinos

    This race will be a 'Cake Walk' !!

    Obama '08

    By Anonymous Anonymous, At 11 April, 2008 16:52  

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