Obama's Lead Passes Magic Number Needed to Win

Washington Matters

Obama's Lead Passes Magic Number Needed to Win

With three weeks to go to Election Day, Barack Obama is now leading in enough states to give him a majority of electoral votes and the presidency.

According to our electoral vote projections, Obama would win at least 273 electoral votes if the election were held today -- and that's with several big states still rated as toss ups that could go either way. McCain needs a late surge of support, a terrific debate performance or an unforeseen event lifting his prospects to change the race in the homestretch.

Much of Obama's recent gains are linked to the financial markets and the economic downturn, now clearly the overarching issue with voters. That's not the only reason, though. Obama is gaining in general favorability with nearly two in three viewing him favorably, according to an Oct. 13 Washington Post-ABC News poll. At the same time, McCain's unfavorable ratings are rising as more voters view his campaign as too negative. The same poll has Obama ahead 53 to 43 on a national basis, and while the election is decided state to state in the Electoral College, the national number is illustrative of Obama gaining popularity and McCain in more jeopardy.

Two changes we are making are worth noting. Minnesota is now leaning to Obama from being a toss-up. Like other states in the upper Midwest, Michigan and Wisconsin, Obama has been steadily gaining in Minnesota, according to recent polls. Plus, the state has a decided Democratic lean in presidential races, having last voted Republican in 1972.

We're also changing New Hampshire from toss-up to leaning Obama. The Northeast is usually safely Democratic in presidential elections, but New Hampshire is a little less so. It voted Republican in 2000 and also in 1988, and New Hampshire has served McCain well in the primaries, both this year and in 2000. Still, Obama is gaining ground steadily since September, according to recent polls.  McCain also has limited resources and he may choose to spend them in other states with larger electoral prizes. New Hampshire has four electoral votes.


Another switch: West Virginia has moved from solid McCain to leaning McCain. GOP forces are worried enough about the state to have Sarah Palin use valuable campaign time for a stop there this past weekend.

As we bear down on Election Day, McCain is clearly the underdog. He has to shore up support in states such as North Carolina, Virginia and Indiana as well as Florida. He is known as a strong finisher, and he'll certainly need to do that, perhaps beginning with a top-notch performance in the final debate on Wednesday, showing full command of economic challenges and charting a new course. There may be some easing in the financial market credit crunch in the next couple weeks, but not enough to allay concerns about the economy altogether or to turn around the overwhelming public opinion that the country is on the wrong track

McCain also needs to turn undecided voters his way without appearing desperate or angry. Maybe one way he will do that is to try to convince moderates and ticket splitters that he alone can be a brake on one-party Democratic government, given that Democrats will gain seats in the House and Senate.

Obama's strategy in the next three weeks will be to hold steady in his message and his reaction to what may be intensifying attacks on his character and judgment. It may come down to this: Obama needs to avoid gaffes or look presumptuous, while McCain needs to create an opportunity -- one way or another.