Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Election day: nervous?

If John McCain wins today's election it will be nothing short of a miracle. Its a possibility only in the most technical of senses.

Its not just that Obama leads by an average of 7 percentage points across the opinion polls. That can seem close enough for some slight discomfort given, say, individual polls like the latest from CNN which gives Obama a lead of 7 per cent with a margin of error of 3.5. McCain could potentially turn around what is effectively a 3.5 percent lead in the last few hours, if complacent Obama voters stay at home or for whatever other reason. Perhaps. But then, that's not how this works.

The national polls are misleading because the President isn't elected by a simple majority of the total population. The US has a state-based electoral college system under which - put simply - the candidate who wins the most votes in an individual state wins a certain number of points (calculated on the basis of the state's population) and the candidate with the most of those points at the end of the night wins the presidency.
So win the vote in California and you get its 55 points (called electoral college votes), win Texas and you get 34, Indiana and you get 11, and so on. There are a total of 538 electoral college votes up for grabs. Win 270 and you're the President.

What's relevant therefore is not the national poll but the state polls. And if the outcome of the election is as it is currently predicted at state level then Obama wins enough states to take the Presidency by 338 electoral college votes to McCain's 200.

Of course, the polls in some states are closer than in others. California is solid Democrat, with Obama 24 per cent ahead. McCain can count on Texas where he has a 13 per cent lead. But ten states are too close to call, including Florida with its 27 electorial college votes to play for, and North Carolina with 15. In Florida, Obama is a mere 1.8 per cent ahead. In North Carolina, McCain is 0.4 per cent ahead.

But here's the thing. Even if you assume that McCain wins all those toss up states - a big assumption since Obama is narrowly ahead in most of them - Obama would still win enough states to gain 278 electoral college votes and the White House. There aren't enough close-run states to play for. To turn this around, McCain would have to win all the toss-up states and at least one fairly solid Obama state.
In the event, McCain has chosen to bet everything on Pennsylvania, and pour his campaigning resources in there. The rest of the Obama states are either not worth enough electoral college votes or just considered a lost cause by the McCain camp. But Obama has an average 7.3 per cent lead in Pennsylvania. Is McCain really going to turn that around in the next few hours, as well as his smaller deficits in 9 or so other states?

Put it this way. Throughout the last five months of this election race, state opinion polls have translated into a McCain win in the electoral college for a total of 4 days, between the 19th and the 23rd of August. For the other 4 months 3 and a half weeks, Obama has been in the lead. Under what circumstates does that change now?

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Anonymous JamieSW said...

Well, being as pessimistic as possible here, you've got:

1) Electoral fraud. It will happen to some extent, as it always has done - the question is whether it will be so prevalent as to have a decisive influence.

2) Election-day turnout. The polls are great, but if for some reason - complacency, laziness, inability to afford the 2-10 hour waiting lines, whatever - the new voters mobilised by the Obama campaign fail to turn up and cast their ballots, they won't count for much.

Both of these are long-shots, of course. Barring a miracle (if that's the right word for it), it's Obama for the win, and very possibly a landslide.

I'll still be watching through my fingers, though.

Tuesday, November 04, 2008 4:40:00 PM  
Anonymous JamieSW said...

To add to the good news, there are reports that Obama will not be giving Dennis Ross a senior position in his administration. (I guess it's too much to hope for that Prof. Khalidi will be his replacement).

Tuesday, November 04, 2008 4:48:00 PM  
Blogger David Wearing said...

From what I hear, turnout is at ridiculous levels. And remember that Obama's supporters are far more enthusiastic than McCain's. If anyone suffers from the perception of a foregone conclusion it'll be the Republican. And a close result diminishes the influence of any fraud.

You know Khalidi's been vigorously defended by Marty Peretz , Christopher Hitchens and the editorial board of the Washington Post ?

I'm having second thoughts about this guy. He has questionable associations.

Tuesday, November 04, 2008 6:01:00 PM  
Blogger David Wearing said...


excuse me

clearly a close result increases the risk of fraud. But I don't think the result will be close. That, James, is what I am saying.

Tuesday, November 04, 2008 7:12:00 PM  
Anonymous JamieSW said...

And by starkers you're right, old chap, you're right, but even so I won't feel at ease until the results are in.

realistically, though, I agree that the question is not whether Obama will win (he will), and not by how big a margin (it'll be substantial), but whether, during his victory speech, I'll be more enchanted by Obama's eyes or his smile. Polling so far indicates the race is too close to call.

Tuesday, November 04, 2008 8:00:00 PM  

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