Lean on who? McCain’s problem – RCP poll analysis 09/29

A couple of weeks ago, at the height of Palin-mania, I did a quick cross-check of RCP’s electoral college polls compared to how they’d been at the start of September. At that time, there was lots of bad news for Obama, in Pennsylvania, Michigan and Indiana, in particular. To compound that, McCain had turned lots of his ‘weak’ electoral votes (EV) into medium and strong votes, in places like Florida, Georgia and Virginia. On Sep 12, according to my analysis of the RCP figures, McCain was only one strong EV behind Obama (130-129, strong being 10 points or more ahead in the polls).

I wondered at the time, whether it represented a shift change in the race, i.e. was the Palin announcement setting a new average around which the numbers would shift, that average being closer to 50-50 than before, or was the announcement and its aftermath just one of the ups and downs around the existing average, i.e. that the average was going to stay something like 53-47 in Obama’s favour? It seems, if the evidence of the last two weeks or so is anything to go by, that it is more the latter than the former. Maybe it is the turmoil in the finanical markets, maybe it is the public tiring of Palin for a while as they did with Obama earlier in the year, or maybe it is something else again, but the last 15 days or so will have left the Obama-ites a lot happier than the McCain-ites.

A first glance at the polls could leave one to argue that it is not as cut and dry as one might think. McCain has actually gained ground, in a statistically significant sense (i.e. 3% or more) in more states than Obama (3-2). However, it’s the composition of those gains that is important – McCain’s gains have been non-battleground states, including New York and Maine, where his team probably doesn’t rate his chances, and Montana, which he was probably counting on anyway. Obama’s two gains have come in very interesting states: North Carolina, where he has overturned an 11% poll deficit to now have the slenderest of advantages 46.8-46.5, and New Mexico, which (by the simple rule of 5% or more means leaning) is now leaning to Obama 50.3-44.3. In addition, Michigan is now leaning to Obama (+6.6%), while Florida is back to being a toss-up state (46.0-47.6, in McCain’s favour). Ditto Missouri.

Further down the electoral vote pecking order, McCain did get some good news: Minnesota and Wisconsin have moved from leaning to Obama to being toss-ups – interesting to see how much the location of the RNC affected the former. The net of it all, in electoral vote terms, is the following (and bear in mind that the RCP analysis only covers about 480 of the 540 or so electoral votes):

  • Obama’s has managed to take 17 weak EVs and move them to strong (+14) and medium (+3). His strong EVs amount to 144, up from 130 on Sept 12 (but still below the 156 on Sep 1).
  • At the same time, he’s upped his weak EVs from 56 to 73, giving him a total of 274 – enough to win the Presidency even without the 15 smaller states missing from RCP’s analysis, were results to go exactly as the polls.
  • McCain, on the other hand, has seen a slight fall in his strong votes, from 129 to 117. It’s his medium level votes, though (that is, those states where he has a 5-10 point advantage) that have collapsed. Literally. While there are 11 solid pro-Bush 2000-04 states that McCain has ‘in the bag’ so to speak, Florida and Missouri’s conversion to toss-ups means that there is not a single state in the USA that leans to McCain, i.e. where he has a lead of between 5 and 10 points.

The upshot is that the simple sum of RCP polls gives Obama an 83-vote lead, up from just 27 votes on Sep 12. Better still for Obama, that lead is entirely made up of medium to strong poll showings, i.e. a lead of 5 points or more. Still, elections can swing on small margins and it is worthwhile noting that there are now almost 150 electoral votes in toss-up states (i.e. where neither candidate has a lead of 5 points). Were something small to happen to push the marginal voter back to the GOP, who knows what could happen? Vice-presidential debate anyone?

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