the numbers guy

Obama campaign still enjoys choice of viable paths to 270 electoral votes

Posted on: July 8, 2012

There are now less than four months until the US presidential election in November. Presidential elections nowadays have such a lengthy lead-in (years not months) that it is almost startling to realise that election day itself is now just round the corner.

You just have to look at the final few months of the 2008 election to know that lots can change between now and election day. Nevertheless, it seems like a good time to check in and look at the state of the campaign.

At a media briefing last December, chief Obama strategists David Axelrod and Jim Messina outlined five viable paths to winning 270 electoral votes, assuming Mr Obama holds the states won by Mr Kerry in 2004 – states now worth 246 electoral votes. These paths are:

  • A ‘Western Path’ – Colorado (9 electoral votes), New Mexico (5), Nevada (6) and Iowa (6) = 272
  • A ‘Florida Path’ – Florida (29) = 275
  • A ‘South Path’ – North Carolina (15) and Virginia (13) = 274
  • A ‘Midwest Path’ – Ohio (18) and Iowa (6) = 270
  • An ‘expansion path’ – by winning Arizona (11), along with Colorado, New Mexico and Nevada (20 in total), Mr Obama could compensate for losses in Pennsylvania (20) and New Hampshire (4).

Seven months of campaigning later, how are each of these paths shaping up as viable routes to winning the electoral college?

Here are the current FiveThirtyEight polling averages for the four ‘Western Path’ states:

These numbers are not quite so promising for Mr Obama as they may seem at first sight. Recent polls in Iowa have the race as a dead heat – Mr Obama’s lead in the Iowa average reflects a two month old PPP poll that had him with a 10 point lead.

His lead in New Mexico is impressive although the state hasn’t been polled since late April. The Nevada figures are more recent, although the most recent poll in the Silver State is almost a month old. By contrast, we’re now getting polls out of Colorado most weeks, and the Obama campaign clearly enjoys a slight edge there.

Florida is another state now being polled most weeks, and here too Mr Obama has a slight advantage – though still too close for comfort:

Of the available routes to 270, it is the ‘South Path’ – winning both North Carolina and Virginia – that now looks most challenging for the Obama camp:

Just one of the five most recent North Carolina polls has Mr Obama ahead, and polls since mid-May have given Mr Romney consistent leads of anything from 1% to 8% .

The situation for Mr Obama in Virginia looks more promising and, indeed, he would lead by more in the average were it not for a recent We Ask America poll that had Mr Romney up by 48-43.3 – numbers which stand out quite strikingly from many months of polls favourable to Mr Obama in the state. This poll, along with the 6 May PPP poll in Iowa, looks like it may well be an outlier.

The ‘Midwest Path’ requires a win in the all-important state of Ohio and here Mr Obama appears to be doing pretty well:

It is difficult to understate the importance of Ohio in the electoral map arithmetic. Despite a string of disappointing monthly jobs figures in this high unemployment state, Mr Obama has consistently polled well here in recent months. That said, two of the four most recent polls had Mr Romney with his nose in front and four months is an awful long time in politics. We can expect a ferocious contest in this most crucial of battleground states between now and November.

Finally, there’s the ‘expansion path’, which would see the Obama campaign seek to win Arizona’s 11 electoral votes, along with those of neighbouring Colorado, New Mexico and Nevada. Mr Obama might need Arizona’s 11 electoral votes to compensate for losing a Kerry 2004 state such as Pennsylvania or New Hampshire.

Arizona now looks pretty much out of reach for the Obama campaign, who haven’t led in a poll there since mid-April. On the up side for Mr Obama, Pennsylvania and New Hampshire both look like terribly big asks for Mr Romney, even if they are not quite yet a done deal for the Obama camp.

Taken as a whole, these state-by-state polling figures show that the Obama campaign still enjoys a choice of viable paths to victory. Of the scenarios sketched out by Mr Axelrod and Mr Messina last December, only the expansion path (Arizona) now seems definitely out of reach, although recent polls out of North Carolina are making the southern path look increasingly challenging.

However, the paths are not, of course, mutually exclusive – an Obama win in Virginia for instance would more than compensate for, say, a stumble in Iowa along the ‘Western Path’.

At this stage, four months out, it’s difficult to do more than provide a snapshot of how things stand. Overall, it seems like Mr Obama retains a slight overall edge – a position he has enjoyed since the start of the year. However, with the conventions, debates and the rough-and-tumble final weeks of the campaign still to come, it’s simply impossible to predict what will happen in November.


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