Electoral math and campaign strategy: What needs to happen for Obama or McCain to win

by JS O’Brien

Political polls give us joy or despair.  Rabid sports fans understand this.  They often subject themselves to emotional roller coaster rides, watching games where the score is too close even for desperate toilet breaks.  For those of us following this year’s presidential election closely, each morning can bring good or bad news as the latest national polls are posted.

In the fever sweats over which candidate has posted a 2% lead across the nation today, it’s all too easy to forget that presidential elections are won in the Electoral College.  Candidates must win states.  They can win most states by a single vote (theoretically) and take all its electoral votes.  They can lose the popular election count and win the White House, as George W. Bush did in 2000.  What really counts is how the polls add up to enough electoral votes to win.

So, today, I take a close look at what Obama and McCain must do to win sufficient electoral votes (270) to take the White House, some of the scenarios that can get them there, the odds, likely campaign strategies going forward, and who is really in the lead.

Take a look at the electoral map from FiveThirtyEight, above.  It’s a pretty fair representation of how the races in various states look today.  Using data from Real Clear Politics, which is a bit more conservative in assigning leans, we convert Virginia, Pennsylvania, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Indiana, and North Carolina to “toss-up,” which gives us 228 electoral votes solid or leaning towards Obama, and 174 solid or leaning towards McCain.  I’m going to use these electoral numbers as starting points, recognizing that some of the remaining leans may flip to the other side, but one needs to start somewhere or the possibilities become endless.  I’m also going to make the assumption that, of the “toss up” states in gray on Real Clear Politics’ map, there’s no way on God’s green earth that Indiana is going to vote for a Democratic candidate, no matter what the polls say.  (According to news reports, McCain is so concerned about Indiana that he has no campaign staff there and is buying no advertising.)  This puts Indiana’s 11 votes in McCain’s column, raising his current number from 174 to 185.  I’m also going to assume that North Carolina, home of favorite son Jesse Helms, will vote for McCain, bringing McCain’s number to 200.

With the map in mind, and adding North Carolina and Indiana to McCain, let’s look at several election-night scenarios and what they mean for both campaigns.

For Obama

The solid South goes for McCain: This scenario assumes that Florida, North Carolina, and Virginia all vote for McCain, which is not at all far fetched, since these states have voted for the Republican candidate in the last two elections.  If this happens, then Obama must win Pennsylvania or Ohio, plus Minnesota and Wisconsin, and either New Hampshire or Nevada, to win.  If he wins Pennsylvania with its 21 votes, but not Ohio with its 20, then Obama can force a tie (which would most likely make him president) at 269 votes by winning Wisconsin and Minnesota.  If Obama loses BOTH Pennsylvania and Ohio, stick a fork in him.  About the best he can hope for is matching Al Gore’s 267 votes by winning both Nevada and New Hampshire.  In other words, if he loses both large states, he has to win Indiana (start the hysterical laughter here) to have a chance.

So, on election night, if it’s a solid South for McCain, it’s all about Pennsylvania and Ohio. Obama has to win one of those states, and preferably Pennsylvania.

The solid South goes for McCain except for Florida: If this happens, Obama’s chances of winning the election bump up close to 90%.  Florida’s 27 votes would leave Obama only 15 votes short of the 270 he needs, and there are so many scenarios that give him these 15 votes that it’s hard to imagine a way in which he doesn’t get them.  If Obama takes Florida, it’s pretty much over.

The solid South goes for McCain except for Virginia: This scenario leaves Obama 29 votes short of the 270 he needs, which means it becomes possible to tie the election while losing both Pennsylvania and Ohio.  He can do this by winning Wisconsin, Minnesota, Nevada, and New Hampshire, which is difficult but not impossible.  This means that it’s a good idea to keep an eye on New Hampshire early on election night, since a McCain win there and in Florida means that Obama must still win either Pennsylvania or Ohio, even IF he takes Virginia.  Of course, taking Virginia would mean that a win in either Pennsylvania or Ohio, coupled with a win in either Wisconsin or Minnesota, allows him to take the election outright.


The solid South goes for McCain except for Florida and Virginia: This scenario puts Obama only one toss-up state from victory.  Any state.  He’ll get that.  If Obama wins both of these Southern states, look for an electoral landslide.

For McCain

The solid South goes for McCain: McCain’s campaign staff will be breathing a sigh of relief if this happens.  If McCain’s chance of winning in Florida is 70%, and in Virginia is 70%, then the probability of winning both is only around 50%.  Even if McCain does win the solid South, though, he still has his work cut out for him to get the additional 30 votes that he needs.  Of course, one way to do this is to take BOTH Pennsylvania and Ohio.  That would be more than enough.  But if he loses, say, Pennsylvania, then he needs to find 10 more votes from Minnesota, Wisconsin, Nevada, and New Hampshire.  That means he needs either Minnesota or Wisconsin, neither of which have voted for a Republican presidential candidate since 1988.  If he loses those two states and wins New Hampshire and Nevada, he would tie at 269, but probably lose the presidency in the House.

Put another way, the electoral map doesn’t look good for John McCain unless he wins the entire South plus Pennsylvania and Ohio, or one of two states that almost never votes for the GOP candidate.  That’s a tough row to hoe.

The solid South goes for McCain except for Florida: That would mean that McCain has to find 57 votes from the remaining toss-up states, and that means winning Pennsylvania and Ohio, either Minnesota or Wisconsin, plus Nevada and New Hampshire.  Of course, he could win Pennsylvania, Ohio, Minnesota and Wisconsin, which would mean he wouldn’t need Nevada or New Hampshire, but that seems a remote possibility. In other words, McCain simply must have Florida.  If the numbers hold up as they are now, Obama can win without Florida, but McCain almost certainly can’t.

The solid South goes for McCain except for Virginia: McCain would need 43 additional votes to win in this case.  He would have to win both Pennsylvania and Ohio plus one other state, or either Pennsylvania and Ohio, both Minnesota and Wisconsin, andeither Nevada or New Hampshire.  That’s a tall order.  McCain can win without Virginia, but the odds begin to work heavily against him.

The solid South goes for McCain except for Florida and Virginia: In this case, McCain is cooked.  He would have to win every other toss-up state, which is a miserably small probability.

What to expect from campaign strategies going forward

McCain must win Florida and either Pennsylvania or Ohio to have any kind of shot at victory.  To have a good shot, he needs to take all three. Of the three states, Florida is the most important.  It’s hard to imagine, in even the most treasured GOP daydreams, that McCain can win without Florida.  He has an outside shot at winning if he loses either Pennsylvania or Ohio, but not Florida.

Obama, on the other hand, must win only one of those three.  That’s the reality both campaigns understand, and it will drive spending and appearances for the rest of the election.  Obama will attempt to make Florida so competitive that McCain will have too little time for Pennsylvania and Ohio, and almost no time for Minnesota and Wisconsin.  He will try to force McCain to spend so much time and treasure in Florida that he is bound to lose either Pennsylvania or Ohio, and maybe both.

McCain will hope for enough of an opening to try to make Michigan more competitive to force Obama to spend time there, but it seems unlikely that he’ll be able to spare the time and resources.  In essence, he’s on the defensive, and Obama knows that.

Since Obama doesn’t have to win Florida, he probably won’t.  If he can force McCain to overspend in Florida, he’ll concede a close race.  He can then spend more resources than McCain solidifying Pennsylvania, Minnesota, and Wisconsin, go hard after New Hampshire and Nevada, and have a decent shot at taking Ohio.

Of course, this can all change.  If Michigan tilts back towards McCain, if North Carolina starts showing a legitimate opportunity for Obama, if Wisconsin and Minnesota begin to appear as though they won’t stay in the Democratic camp, then the probabilities and strategies change.  But for now, given the current polls and electoral map, it appears that Obama is in the catbird seat.

6 replies »

  1. Do these figures factor in the Repugs’ advanced voting fraud systems? In certain state races, they’ve flipped figures to their advantage as much as 13%.

  2. “They can lose the popular election count and win the White House, as George W. Bush did in 2000. ”


    Bush sued to stop the vote count in Florida. He was installed in a Supreme Court travesty that ignored the Florida law, and used ridiculous reasoning to put their golden boy on the throne.

    Bush was never elected to the white house in either of the elections. The 2000 presidency was stolen in Florida. The 2004 presidency was stolen in Ohio.

    Crimes were committed. The American sheeple tolerate rule by thugs.

  3. John, the New York Times did an analysis that showed, even if the Supreme Court had permitted the most liberal interpretation of the chad problem, Gore still would have lost by between 1000 and 5000 votes.

  4. johndoraemi,
    Exactly right, up to “Crimes were committed.” Indeed they were; but I must disagree with your very last sentence:
    “The American sheeple tolerate rule by thugs.”
    We don’t, actually. The present situation is beyond intolerable to most of us. Unfortunately, it’s also beyond our power to remedy, also intolerable. The American people (minus the inflated-by-media number of sheeple among us) do NOT tolerate rule by these lawless thugs, who managed to accomplish a long, slow coup d’etat. It’s the three branches–the executive, most of the legislative, and a majority in the judicial–plus an apparently bribed, threatened or complicit majority in major media–who tolerate it. Such it seems to me, but what do I know.
    With an obviously compromised voting system (“bedrock of democracy” my ass), I fear it will take a miracle for Obama–who’ll win by a huge landslide but only in reality–to actually attain the White House. If he makes it & I’m proven wrong, I’ll eat my words with pleasure & party like nobody’s business.