Return the Map

I noticed something funny about Karl Rove’s map that Ross Douthat and others are linking to. Rove defines “toss-up” as within 3 pts. What if you define “toss-up” as within 5 or 6 points? What happens to the map?

States that move from “McCain” to “Toss-up”:

Alaska (!)
Missouri (barely)
North Carolina
South Carolina (!)
South Dakota

Total Electoral Votes: 58

States that move from “Obama” to “Toss-up”:

New York (31 Electoral Votes)

I think we can all agree that Barack Obama is going to win New York in November. The reason he’s polling as poorly as he is now is that he’s still battling New York’s junior Senator for the nomination. McCain will only win New York if there’s a massive Democratic meltdown.

Now, by the same token, some of the McCain states would be tough for Obama to poach in the absence of a total GOP meltdown, particularly Missouri and South Carolina. But other states on this list – Montana, Nevada, certainly Wisconsin – seem like extremely favorable territory for Obama to gain ground. And the fact remains: according to Rove’s own map, there’s a whole lot of terrain that is within reach for Obama, and his base is more secure than McCain’s. McCain’s going to need that distributed campaign organization he’s planning, because he’ll be defending his territory all over the map.

Now compare Rove’s map with Paul Maslin’s. Notice anything about the swing states he identifies?

According to Maslin, swing states include New Jersey, Oregon, Washington, all states where Obama should win by large margins unless it is a GOP landslide.

But swing states do not include Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas or Indiana, all states where McCain is favored but where the Obama camp believes they could make a stronger showing than a typical Democrat and, assuming they are not completely smoking crack, could well become competitive if there’s a significant pro-Obama tilt in the national numbers.

Now compare with the map at The headline number is “McCain wins: 285 to 242.” But look at his victory:

Strong Dem States: 142 EV
Strong GOP States: 102 EV
Dem Margin: +40 EV

Weak Dem States: 79 EV
Weak GOP States: 73 EV
Cumulative Dem Margin: +46 EV

Barely Dem States: 21 EV
Barely GOP States: 110 EV
Cumulative GOP Margin: + 43 EV

Basically, McCain is “winning” on this map because he is squeaking out victories by tiny margins all over the place: Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Florida – and Indiana, normally a safe GOP state, is tied.

I don’t want to play up this kind of poll aggregation too much; polling doesn’t mean much this far out. But it’s another data point showing that McCain’s electoral map requires him to defend much more territory than does Obama’s. Obama has a stronger (because larger) electoral base. McCain may be currently leading by small margins in more places, but his base is smaller.

If it’s a close race in the national polls, it’ll come down to a handful of states where the two candidates are relatively evenly matched. These states might be different from what they were in 2000 or 2004 – Virginia looks like a better place to me for Obama to contest than Missouri, and Iowa looks like it’ll be tougher climb for McCain than it was for Bush, while New Hampshire will be tougher for Obama than it was for Kerry – but there won’t be dozens of them. But until such time as it’s clear that the race is going to be a 1 or 2 point spread, Obama will have the resources to make McCain play defense anywhere he’s plausibly competitive. Which is why it matters that Obama’s geographic base is stronger than McCain’s. Obama has probably got 200 Electoral Votes that he can call safe, and that doesn’t include favorable ground like Iowa, Wisconsin, Michigan or Pennsylvania. Moreover, his safe base includes the country’s most expensive media markets. McCain’s probably got 150 safe Electoral Votes; to get to 200 you’ve got to take the entire High Plains territory off the table, and New Hampshire, and Florida, and McCain’s currently ahead in Florida by about as much as Obama’s ahead in Pennsylvania. And throwing those states McCain’s way only brings him to parity with Obama.

None of this means that Obama is going to win, or that McCain can’t. But a favorable electoral college map is not one of McCain’s strengths going into this.