Electoral Math

Washington Matters

Electoral Math

With the vice presidential frenzy throttled back a little, national polls getting more baffling by the day and people seeking respite from the campaign by focusing on the Olympics, let's indulge in a look at the race that really matters -- the race for the 270 electoral votes needed to win the White House.

Start by taking a hard look at our electoral map. Then look at others with a slightly different approach, such as Realclearpolitics.com, Pollster.com and  MSNBC's First Read.

All of the maps give Democrat Barack Obama an advantage. We are the most generous to Republican John McCain, giving him 24 states leaning or solidly behind him for 200 electoral votes. We give 228 votes to Obama, the second lowest total. MSNBC gives him 217, while Pollster.com is on the high end with 284. 

But regardless of which map you look at, it's clear McCain enters the last three months of the campaign with some serious disadvantages:

If the election were a lot sooner and we had more trust in relatively close polls, we'd probably give McCain Florida and Nevada, and we'd give Obama Michigan, New Mexico and New Hampshire. That would leave Ohio, Minnesota, Colorado and Virginia as the remaining toss-ups -- and McCain would have to pick up at least three of them to crack 270. That looks like a very tall order right now, given that most recent polls in all three lean toward Obama, albeit by very small margins.

McCain's woes don't stop there. He has relatively fragile leads in states that have not gone Democratic in decades, such as North Carolina and Indiana, underscoring the weakness of the Republican Party in general and forcing him and the party to spend money in places that they should be able to take for granted. Pollster.com even has the red state redoubts of Montana and North Dakota as tossups and Realclearpolitics has GOP bastions like Texas and Mississippi just leaning toward McCain.

The upshot for now is that to have a chance, McCain will have to turn those states long in the GOP column from toss-ups or leaning toward him into solid red. And he must do so relatively quickly. The longer that he has to spend time shoring those places up, the less time and money he will have to spend on the real battleground states.

If you'd like to do your own electoral map or experiment with how losing or gaining a particular state affects the  candidates, realclearpolitics.com allows you to do that, either beginning from scratch, using their count as the starting point or choosing other scenarios (like dropping toss-up states, which realclearpolitics then assigns to a candidate based on the most recent polls). After fiddling for a bit, you can post the numbers you come up with or  observations here.