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Campaign 2008: The Electoral College

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It's painful to recall, but in 2004 John Kerry could have won the Presidential election if he had carried Ohio. Ultimately, Kerry got 252 electoral-college votes and Bush 286, with Ohio providing the decisive 20 votes. In 2008 it's possible Barack Obama could win the popular vote but lose the electoral vote much as Al Gore (allegedly) did in 2000. That's because many of the same familiar swing states will again be in play.

Five months from the election, Obama is favored to take the west coast, the northeast, and the upper mid west. Republicans are ahead in the south and much of the central mid west. The big swing states continue to be Florida, Ohio, and Pennsylvania. Obama is competitive in several states that went for Bush: Colorado, Iowa, Missouri, Nevada, and New Mexico. McCain is competitive in several states carried by Kerry: Michigan, Minnesota, and New Hampshire.

According to the latest Rasmussen polls , if the election were held today: Obama would receive 260 electoral votes, McCain would get 240, and the remaining 38 are too close to call. (Once again, 20 of these votes belong to Ohio.)

Senator McCain does well with white men. Senator Obama prevails with young voters, the well educated, and African-Americans. Thus, the election is likely to depend upon the votes of women, blue-collar white voters, and Hispanics.

In 2004, 54 percent of voters were women and 55 percent of white women preferred Bush. Coming out of the intense competition between Senators Clinton and Obama, some female voters said they would "never" support Obama. Reflective of this attitude is the situation in Nevada, one of the four "toss up" states. While Clinton bests McCain in the Nevada polls, McCain is ahead of Obama, because the junior Senator from Illinois retains only 65 percent of the Nevada Democratic vote, as some female Clinton voters prefer McCain to Obama. A recent Gallup poll indicated that white women favor McCain over Obama by nine percentage points.

Winning over Clinton supporters will be Obama's biggest challenge. A recent survey found that 29 percent of Democratic voters take the position that if Senator Clinton does not win the Democratic nomination then she should run as an Independent candidate for President. (Similar polls revealed that 28 percent of Clinton backers plan to will support McCain rather than Obama.)

A recent Gallup poll indicated that Senator McCain had a 25 percent lead over Senator Obama among white non-Hispanic men with no college education, viz. blue-collar white guys. Some of this may be attributable to historic voting patterns: In 2004 Bush bested Kerry by 25 percent among white men. But part of this lead is probably due to race; an April CNN poll found that only 76 percent of white Americans feel the U.S. is ready for a black president.

Hispanic voters are a factor in several swing states, particularly Florida. Before Obama received the endorsement of New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson, a Hispanic, Obama trailed Hillary Clinton by 22 percent among Hispanic voters.

As we study the electoral vote, state-by-state, it's remarkable how close the margins are. For example, in Texas, McCain leads Obama by only five percentage points; and the Republican nominee leads the presumptive Democratic nominee by a scant three points in North Carolina and Virginia.

Five months out, Obama appears to have the advantage over McCain. Considering the length and intensity of the primary season, he has made very few mistakes – the "bitter" remarks and Reverend Wright come to mind – while his opponents have made many. If this trend continues, if Obama remains cool under fire, then persuadable voters may decide Obama has a better temperament than McCain and, therefore, is better presidential material. At the moment, McCain is better known than Obama, but that will change after the Democratic convention and the Presidential debates; as persuadable voters get to know Obama better, they will realize it's unfair to tar him with Reverend Wright's comments. And voting sentiments will change: Some die-hard Clinton voters will end up casting their votes for Obama rather than for McCain – they'll consider reproductive rights, among other factors. Some white men will realize that McCain doesn't have a plan for the economy, while Obama does. And, many Hispanics will recognize that Obama has a vision for America that includes them, while McCain doesn't.

The latest polls indicate 39 percent of Americans self-identify as Independents, 33 percent as Democrats, and only 28 percent as Republicans. If Obama were to retain most Democrats and carry a majority of Independents he would easily win the Electoral College. A ten-point shift in Obama's favor – which could easily happen if he retains the Democratic base – would see him winning states such as Nevada, Ohio, and even Virginia. This would bring his total electoral vote to more than 300.
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Bob Burnett is a Berkeley writer. In a previous life he was one of the executive founders of Cisco Systems.
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