Friday, April 25, 2008

U.S. politics: Prospects for November

I have written before that I think Hillary Clinton is a far stronger candidate in the fall than Barack Obama. I have also written before that Obama has already wrapped up the nomination and Clinton's recent win in Pennsylvania doesn't change that.

But, in case I'm wrong, and if the "superdelegates" want to change things, here is the picture I see of how the race could unfold for either of the candidates. I expect that McCain would win in the fall against either Democrat. McCain's ability to appeal to moderate voters puts California and New England in play. I am not saying McCain will win in either (the former state or the latter region) but his ability to put them in play will distract the Democrats from expanding beyond their base from the 2000 and 2004 elections which means, to me, their likely best hope is status quo (a narrow Republican win). A lot of outside observers forget that moderates and conservatives make up the vast majority of the American electorate; unlike in Canada and Europe there is no large base of liberals. A Republican who can draw out large numbers of conservatives can win on that basis alone (see Bush, George W. and Rove, Karl), one that can appeal to moderates and still draw significant conservative support is unstoppable.

Now mind you 2008 is a far different animal than 2000 or 2004 and, certainly, in theory, the Democrats have lots of opportunities to expand. However, my view is that they'll have to leave those opportunities on the table because they'll be too busy defending their own turf from a McCain assault.

Thanks to the handy tool at, I have created six electoral college maps. For each of the two remaining Democratic candidates, I have created a worst-case, best-case and likely-case scenario based on my analysis of the race.

Barack Obama vs. John McCain

This is the race we are likely to see play out. The biggest problem Obama has is that the Democrats' two biggest states (California and New York) may be in play in an Obama vs. McCain race.

Obama has a problem with Hispanic voters. McCain was the principle sponsor of immigration reforms that are very popular with Hispanics. McCain comes from a state that has many Hispanics and he won among them by a 3-to-1 margin in his 2004 Senate race. Hispanics are a key voting bloc in California. Despite conventional wisdom, the Democrats are not unstopable in California. In 2000 and 2004, George W. Bush, perhaps the most unpopular Republican in the history of that state, lost by only 12% and 9% respectively. McCain, who can count on some fairly strong Hispanic support and the enthusiastic support of popular governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, would only need to swing 5% of the Democratic vote his way to win. It is not all that likely that McCain could pull this off, but to prevent it Obama will have to spend a lot of time and money in the largest, most expensive state.

In New York, the Democrats tend to win by larger margins, but a recent poll shows that McCain would narrowly defeat both Clinton and Obama. Clinton has a natural base there and could recover more easily from the brusing primary fight to defeat McCain in the fall. Obama, on the other hand, would have a lot of work to do to make up a deficit in the second largest and second most expensive blue state.

Keeping this in mind, I would envision the following as the likely scenario in a McCain vs. Obama fight:

In this scenario Obama actually picks up three states from 2004: Iowa (where he is very popular and McCain is not), Nevada (where McCain's long support of using Yucca Mountain for nuclear waste storage will hurt him) and Virginia (which is trending Democratic and would be pushed over the top by enthusiasm among Black voters).

However, he is heavily damaged by losing the following: Michigan (McCain is popular and well-known here from strong primary campaigns in 2000 and 2008; Obama has written off this state time and time again in the 2008 primary process), New Hampshire (New Hampshire hearts McCain), New Jersey (this is a Democratic state that always seems to be on the verge of going Republican in recent elections [Kerry by only 7% in '04], McCain's appeal to moderates should push it over the edge), Pennsylvania (Obama has just proved that despite out-campaigning and outspending an opponent he can't seem to win here).

All of the above sounds fairly reasonable, no? The electoral college result in such a scenario: McCain 318 over Obama 220 in a landslide.

Now for the best case scenario for Obama:

In this scenario, Obama holds everything from 2004 and expands into Colorado, Iowa, Missouri, Nevada, New Mexico, Ohio and Virginia. Three of these states I had him win in the likely scenario, under this best case scenario he also wins Colorado (trending Democratic and Obama polls well there), New Mexico (this is a real stretch, but it is a competitive state having gone for Gore in 2000 and Bush in 2004 and Obama could keep the teeter-totter going), Missouri (always a close race and has gone with the winner in every election since 1904, save one), Ohio (the economy is bad and Obama could manage to tie McCain to Bush). Under this scenario he would also hold Michigan and Pennsylvania (for the same reason he won Ohio), New Hamphire (the Democrats did so well in 2006 they have a strong institutional advantage) and New Jersey (McCain gets tied to Bush and deemed too conservative to attract moderates).

The result would be an Obama landslide similar to that I project for McCain in the likely scenario: 325-213. However, that is the very best case and I think no more likely than the worst case I'll lay out below which would be a total electoral blow out.

Under this scenario, an admittedly worst-case for Obama, the Democrat would win only his home state of Illonois, liberal Vermont and ultra-Democratic Washington, D.C. The electoral vote total would be 511 to 27. Ouch.

This may sound totally unrealistic to you but this is not a totally unheard of result for a Republican candidate. In 1972, the not-to-popular Richard Nixon crushed George McGovern 520 to 17. I've often compared Obama to McGovern as they both have the same base: enthusiastic anti-war youth. I drew out this map and began writing this post before I read this intelligent piece which draws the comparison as well. A similar result was seen in 1984, when Ronald Reagan was re-elected with 525 electoral votes to 13. Indeed, even in 1980, when Reagan (who is similar to McCain in his style and appeal to moderates) beat an incumbent president by an electoral college margin of 489 to 49.

So Obama's best-case scenario is to beat McCain by the same margin that McCain is likely to beat Obama by. His worst case scenario is to be crushed horribly. While I still think Clinton would likely lose to McCain, I'll lay out why I think it would be closer and how she could prevent the crushing defeat that Obama might face and indeed would have a better chance to win.

Hillary Clinton vs. John McCain

Running this race out is like playing fantasy baseball because it is so incredibly unlikely that Clinton can win the nomination. I would say that Barack Obama at this point has at least an 80% chance of winning the nomination and Clinton is probably in the neighbourhood of 10%. Right now, I think if for some reason Obama seemed unpalatable, a compromise candidate at the convention would be as likely as Clinton taking it. (See Thatcher vs. Heseltine for an example of the scorced-earth result Clinton could face by tearing down Obama).

Anyway, Clinton's unliklihood of winning the nomination is quite different from her strength as a general election candidate. Clinton's base in New York keeps that state out of play and she doesn't have a Hispanic problem thus preventing any realistic appeal from McCain to this group. This in and of itself means that, with Clinton as the nominee, the Democrats would not have to waste resources to hold their two biggest states totalling an astonishing 84 electoral votes (31% of the total needed to win the election) between them. Even if we assume that Clinton would trail Obama in fundraising prowess in the general election by as large a margin as she does in the primary (which is unlikely, though Obama could likely still raise more, it wouldn't be as stark a difference) this factor alone erases any monetary discrepency.

In the meantime, Clinton (and her husband, the campaign-surrogate-in-chief who would be much better suited to campaign against a Republican than a fellow Democrat) would be far stronger in the "rust belt" allowing her to hold Michigan and Pennsylvania and put Ohio in play for the Democrats. This strength would also put Florida into strong contention, a large state tha Obama has zero hope of winning. Also, Arkansas, which has become a reliable Republican state since the Clintons left office, would be strongly in the Democratic column.

This is the main difference. In an Obama vs. McCain race, McCain plays offense. In a Clinton vs. McCain race, McCain plays defence.

Despite this, I think McCain's overriding strengths would still allow him to win, though by a narrower margin.

The result I predict would be a nail-biter of 275 for McCain to 263 for Clinton (compare with 318 to 220 in McCain vs. Obama).

In this scenario, Clinton would pick up a lot of turf from the Republicans. Adding to the 2004 Democratic totals, she would win: Arkansas (Clinton home state), Missouri (swing state with fond memories of Clinton), Nevada (McCain has a Yucca Monutain problem), New Mexico (ultra-close state where Clinton doesn't have a Hispanic problem), Ohio (fond memories of Clinton) and West Virginia (Clinton appeal to rural white traditional Democratic voters).

McCain would make history, becoming only the second president since 1904 to lose Missouri and win the White House and, I believe, the only Republican to ever win the White House without carrying Ohio. He would do this largely due to his strength among voters who like "mavericks" and Clinton's weakness in that area. On top of 2004 states for the Republicans, McCain would carry: Michigan, Minnesota, New Hampshire and Wisconsin.

This race would be a tremendous one with close races in Florida (narrowly lost by Clinton), Missouri (narrowly lost by McCain) and Oregon (narrowly lost by McCain).

I can't underline enough how much better a scenario this is for Democrats than with Obama as the nominee. In an Obama-McCain race, I give McCain a 70+% chance of victory. In a Clinton-McCain race, McCain's odds are more like 55% or a bit less.

Now, here's how Clinton could win big:

This map may look familiar to you because it is a lot like the maps we saw in the 1990s under her husband. Indeed, by coincidence, though the map isn't exactly the same, the electoral college result precisely matches the 1996 race between Bill Clinton and Bob Dole.

In this race, vs. 2004, Clinton would hold all of the Democratic states but she would also pick up: Arkansas (see above [wins it even in the likely scenario]), Florida (even under the likely scenario, Clinton would come close here), Iowa (neither Clinton or McCain are popular here, but it would swing her way if she was winning big), Kentucky (the Clintons' experience in Arkansas has taught them how to campaign in a state like this), Louisiana (thanks to Katrina, this one would be pretty marginal but she could skid through if she was doing well overall), Missouri (see above), Nevada (see above), New Mexico (see above), Ohio (see above), Tennessee (see Kentucky), Virginia (this state is trending Democratic and though it doesn't favour Clinton as much as Obama, she could win it if she ran strong) and West Virginia (see above).

That sort of outcome should make Democrats' mouths water.

And even in the worst case scenario, it's not that bad...

Ok, it is pretty bad for the Democrats. But compared to Obama's worst case it is ok. She would lose by a large margin of 395 to 143.

Here Clinton would still manage to pick up Arkansas, but McCain would sweep through many of the remaing states. The only thing saving Clinton from the Obama wipeout scenario is her ability to hold California and New York under all scenarios.

The moral of the story? McCain is a very formidable candidate. While Obama has the potential to open new doors for Democrats in states where they've not recently been strong, this is not the election to try such a strategy. It would have been great against Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, George H. W. Bush, Bob Dole or George W. Bush. But Republicans like Reagan and McCain have such a strong appeal to so many people that the only way to beat them is to focus on your own strengths.