Did Obama Redraw the Electoral College Map (I like my single malts)?

As many of you know, Professor Kateri Carmola and I made a bet regarding the outcome of the popular vote and the Electoral College vote – Kateri said Obama would break the 55% popular vote barrier and the 350 Electoral College vote.  Although CNN is still holding at 349 Electoral College votes, I’m pretty confident that North Carolina will go to Obama, which will give him 364 Electoral College votes  As our forecast models and polling suggested, Obama didn’t come close to 55% (CNN has him at 52%, but he might get bumped up to 53% with rounding).  So, the bet turns out to be a push.  Maybe I’ll buy Kateri dinner in return for her buying me a (good) bottle of scotch.

The somewhat different results once again illustrate a peculiarity of the Electoral College – it can appear to turn relatively close popular votes (and historically Obama’s victory margin is in the mid-range – decisive but not a blowout) into the perception of an electoral landslide.  Whether this is a redeeming feature of the Electoral College or not often depends on your perspective. But it reminds us that candidates’ strategies are designed to maximize Electoral College votes – not popular votes.  That’s why I’ve never had any sympathy for those who claim Gore “won” the 2000 election by virtue of the popular vote.

I’m going to talk at length about the relative effectiveness of the two candidates’ campaigns, but I hope it goes without saying that I’m skeptical of the post-election day media frame that Obama’s campaign strategy was flawless while McCain’s was not.  To give you food for thought, here’s an interesting intellectual exercise: how much do you think the fundamentals (the economy and change) were worth at the start of this campaign?  Using the forecast models, let’s assume conservatively that they are worth a net gain of 3% for the Democratic candidate.  Go back to the 2004 map, and add a net shift of 3% to each state’s 2004 outcome.  Which states flip?  Colorado, Ohio, Iowa, Florida New Mexico, and Nevada, totaling 73 Electoral College votes. Without any additional states, the Democrat wins with an additional across-the-board 3% by a very comfortable Electoral Vote margin of 325-213.

This leaves Virginia, Indiana and possibly Missouri and North Carolina as states that one would not predict would necessarily go Democratic in a Democratic year – for electoral votes ranging from 24 to a maximum of 50 if we give them all to Obama.  (Missouri with +3% is essentially a tossup from 2004 and North Carolina hasn’t been called yet).

In short, the race was Obama’s to lose from Day 1.  To his credit, he didn’t lose it, and we might argue that he marginally expanded the Electoral Map by taking Indiana, Virginia, and North Carolina (although there are idiosyncratic factors influencing the outcome of each of those states that I will discuss at length).

Bottom line: we didn’t see a dramatic reshaping of the Electoral Map. Not yet.  But we may be seeing the beginning of a gradual redrawing of some lines.  Much depends on whether the Democrats repeat the mistakes they made in 1992, when they overreached on health care and taxes and ended up losing the Congress within 2 years.  If Obama’s electoral gains are to translate into more enduring Democratic gains, he needs – along with congressional Democrats – to govern wisely.  In a later post I’ll suggest how to do so.

Why no dramatic reversal of the Electoral College map?  Because the Democrats were already very competitive in many “red” states, and the U.S. has never been as polarized into “pure” red states and blue states as the pundits would have us believe.

And Kateri – I like the single malts.


  1. Matt – if you’re logging “fundamentals,” don’t you also have to weigh the profile differences of a war hero with high name recognition and reputation for bipartisanship vs. an African-American novice senator with a name that resembles America’s two most high-profile “enemies”? +3% to the generic Dem needs to be offset by the unlikeliness of Obama’s candidacy.

  2. Which single malts?
    Your new IR colleague does too- at least when he is drinking mine.

    It is dangerous to read too much into this race redrawing electoral lines.

    A very attractive bi-racial candidate has won a compelling victory- that he very well may have lost but for the worst economic meltdown in the lives of most of us.

    What does it say about a center right country when Barack came close to losing to an aging war hero- from our most unpopular war- and only saved his candidacy by running away from his left leaning primary positions and with the help of a youth and African American turnout that was completely atypical?

    He needs to lead and lead well in very difficult times and the pressure on him to do that will be tremendous.

    And the Dems now control it all- they will get the credit or the blame for whatever happens- even if they are not responsible.

    Schummer says this is a tectonic plate shifting election- perhaps or perhaps hubris- Hillarycare comes to mind; Abramahoff as well.

    We political junkies will pay attention- the rest of the country will move on to worrying about jobs, gas prices, and soccer practice- as they always do until once again called upon to wake up the pols 2 years hence.

  3. Jason – Good points. I guess the political science response would be (or at least my response) that McCain’s war hero record carried less weight in an election that turned on the economy, not national security. And countering that was his baggage with conservatives, who have never liked him. I agree that Obama had to overcome the inexperience hurdle. But this was a “change” election, and McCain was not change to most voters. In the end that trumped these other issues.

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