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Dustin L. Nelson: Translating the Polls into Electoral Votes

November 2, 2008

Dustin Luke Nelson

November has arrived, and you can literally count down the hours until the polls open for the 2008 presidential election. This is the time where the pollster really earns their keep, polling incessantly, in every variation they can think of, day and night. But most of these polls reflect the popular vote. So what does this really mean? You’d have to take all of the national and state polls and place them into context within each state, tallying that states electoral votes against the chances of a candidate winning and figure out who can hit the magic number. 270: the number of electoral votes that clinches the deal.

Now, without delving into the problems inherit in the Electoral College system, I think this would be a good time–as I said you can count the hours–to take a look at the breakdown of how either candidate could potentially win this election. There are a lot of states that any pollster, New York Times reader, or political junkie could tell you are all but shored up for the candidates, except for that voting bit, but who wants to wait for that. There are also a handful of states that, at this point, are certainly too close to call. These swing states would include Colorado (9), Florida (27), Indiana (11), Missouri (11), Montana (3), Nevada (5), North Carolina (15), North Dakota (3), Ohio (20), Pennsylvania (21), and Virginia (13). (The number in parenthesis are the number of electoral votes each state has, this will be important later.)

Though this is no guarantee of anything it appears that McCain needs to get out the vote in the swing states, in a big way, if he is going to win this election.

Here is the breakdown of the states that polls* seem to have conclusively (as conclusively as is possible, while being entire prone to errors) determined a winner in, the non-swing states. McCain is the likely winner in: Alabama (9), Alaska (3), Arizona (10), Arkansas (6), Georgia (15), Idaho (4), Kansas (6), Kentucky (8), Louisiana (9), Mississippi (6), Nebraska (5), Oklahoma (7), South Carolina (8), South Dakota (3), Tennessee (11), Texas (34), Utah (5), West Virginia (5), and Wyoming (3). Obama is the likely winner in: California (55), Connecticut (7), Delaware (3), District of Columbia (3), Hawaii (4), Illinois (21), Iowa (7), Maine (4), Maryland (10), Massachusetts (12), Michigan (17), Minnesota (10), New Hampshire (4), New Jersey (15), New Mexico (5), New York (31), Oregon (7), Rhode Island (4), Vermont (3), Washington (11), and Wisconsin (10). These are certainly not guarantees for either candidate, but the polls and historical precedents seem to indicate that these states are in little danger of swinging. If these projections are correct than that leaves John McCain with 157 electoral votes and Barack Obama with 243 electoral votes before factoring in any swing states.

Though this is no guarantee of anything it appears that McCain needs to get out the vote in the swing states, in a big way, if he is going to win this election. There are many X factors involved, but even in the expanded number of swing states this year Obama has the upper hand. In a combination of recent polling McCain only has the edge in North Dakota, Montana and Indiana. While Obama is polling stronger than McCain in Nevada, Colorado, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia, North Carolina and Florida. (Side note: Missouri currently has the longest record of voting for whoever wins the presidency*, and is the only swing state that has absolutely inconclusive polls at the moment. The polls vary from Obama by 2 points to McCain by 2 points*.) With both parties making calls and knocking on doors frantically in all these states with only minutes remaining it seems that anything could happen. But if the predicted states remain the same Obama only needs to pull out two of the bigger swing states to cross the 270 threshold. This should be of some consolation to Obama supporters who fear repeats of 2000 in Florida, where one swing state determined the fate of the nation. While this is still a possibility, it would take a serious turn around in almost all of the swing states for McCain and Palin to make a serious run. Polls across the nation still seem to be close, and McCain has gained some ground over the past week, but the electoral votes are still falling heavily in favor of Obama. In fact, if you tabulate the conglomerate of the polls in every state as though the polls represented actual votes (and give McCain Missouri, because this is a hypothetical and why not) Obama wins with 353 electoral votes to McCain’s 185. This, more likely than not, will not be the case on election day, but it’s interesting to extract exactly what these polls, which litter the papers daily, mean in terms of the electoral college, which are all that really matter in the end. *

* The polls used here are Reuters/Zogby, CNN/Time, LA Times/Bloomberg, AP/GfK Battleground, Civitas, Marist, American Research, Public Policy, Strategic Vision, Survey USA, Rasmussen, Quinnipiac, Selzer & co., Research 2000, and Mason Dixon Research.

* Information taken from 270towin.com

* CNN/Time poll on 10/29 has McCain up by 2 points, American Research poll released on 10/31 have them even, and a Reuters/Zogby poll on 10/27 has Obama up by 2.

* The author wishes to note, that even if there is any truth in this article (which there may not be) that is no reason not to get out and vote for your candidate.

Dustin Luke Nelson is a founding editor of InDigest Magazine. His writing and interviews have appeared in that magazine as well as at The Favorite 10 blog, Tiny Mix Tapes, Rift Magazine, TC Daily Planet, and in other places.

Copyright 2008 Dustin Luke Nelson

To read more blog entries from Dustin Nelson and others at GUERNICA click HERE .

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