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So the day after the first presidential debate my boss, a military guy I can only assume is a Republican, asserted his theory that there are a whole bunch of people who were sitting on the fence just waiting for a reason to like Mitt Romney … and that he thought Governor Romney’s debate performance was it. His expectation was that Romney’s bump would be pretty substantial, and in many ways that has been the case. There have been several polls released that indicate an admirable bump for him, and in some cases he has now taken the lead.

And all of this is good for him. Makes for an exciting election, I guess.

The problem is that these polls are largely meaningless. In the United States of America, presidents are not elected by direct popular vote – they are elected by the representatives of the Electoral College, an anachronistic and misunderstood body that only really is discussed every 4 years and then only in passing unless something like the 2000 presidential election happens.

So, given that a national popular vote doesn't mean anything (ask Al Gore) and that national polling is therefore irrelevant, what we should be looking at is Electoral College math – and that paints a different picture. There are several sites that will do running totals, and I follow three of them pretty closely. Most of what I’m about to do below is based on how these sites have trended over the last several weeks & months … those sites are: Run by a Democrat and my favorite in terms of readability Run by a Republican and not updated as regularly as I’d like Useful largely for a current “Probability of reaching 270”, which helps with trends

OK – based on what I’ve seen, there are several states that can be pretty well considered “safe” for both Democrats and Republicans:

Blue Red In Play
California 55 Texas 38 Florida 29
New York 29 Georgia 16 Pennsylvania 20
Illinois 20 Arizona 11 Ohio 18
New Jersey 14 Tennessee 11 Michigan 16
Washington 12 Indiana 11 North Carolina 15
Massachusetts 11 Alabama 9 Virginia 13
Minnesota 10 South Carolina 9 Missouri 10
Wisconsin 10 Louisiana 8 Colorado 9
Maryland 10 Kentucky 8 Nevada 6
Oregon 7 Oklahoma 7 Iowa 6
Connecticut 7 Utah 6
New Mexico 5 Kansas 6 Total 142
Hawaii 4 Arkansas 6
Maine 4 Mississippi 6
New Hampshire 4 Nebraska 5
Rhode Island 4 West Virginia 5
Vermont 3 Idaho 4
Delaware 3 Montana 3
DC 3 Wyoming 3
North Dakota 3
Total 215 South Dakota 3
Needed to Win 55 Alaska 3

Total 181
Needed to Win 89

OK – so this is a starting point that is going to be pretty hard to argue with, I think. Probably the biggest arguable inclusion here is Wisconsin for Obama, given the Paul Ryan connection. However, all of the poll aggregation has been very consistent over time, and there is of course the 2008 history … overall, I don’t think that is too egregious.

So right off the bat we see that the starting line is not in the same place. Governor Romney’s problem is that the states where he is most popular tend to be smaller in population – most of the old South and the plains states especially. If you take just the top three states in each “safe” column (California, New York, and Illinois for Obama; Texas, Georgia, and Arizona for Romney) you can see that these spot Obama a 39 point lead before things have even gotten started good. Romney has to make up for that with the smaller population states, and there are only so many of those before the runway shortens too much. Given this built-in lead, the Romney campaign’s strategy on the right-most column is critical because there is very little room for error.

And that room for error factor really starts shortening up if you start being realistic about the column on the right. For example – Missouri is going to vote for Romney. They voted for McCain in 2008, and they have been consistently leaning right this whole cycle. Michigan has consistently leaned left, and Romney’s auto-industry bailout problems mean that his chances there are realistically pretty slim. North Carolina has flopped a little, but has leaned right a bit too much to discount – the Obama camp has basically conceded here, though they won’t tell you that. But I’m not giving Romney North Carolina without giving Iowa to Obama – they have wobbled very little on the “barely Democrat” side of the line. Just those four states, which the campaigns would argue about but which represent pretty reasonable assessment of the prevailing wisdom and campaign direction, make that table look like this:

Blue Red In Play
California 55 Texas 38 Florida 29
New York 29 Georgia 16 Pennsylvania 20
Illinois 20 North Carolina 15 Ohio 18
Michigan 16 Arizona 11 Virginia 13
New Jersey 14 Tennessee 11 Colorado 9
Washington 12 Indiana 11 Nevada 6
Massachusetts 11 Missouri 10
Minnesota 10 Alabama 9
Wisconsin 10 South Carolina 9 Remaining 95
Maryland 10 Louisiana 8
Oregon 7 Kentucky 8
Connecticut 7 Oklahoma 7
Iowa 6 Utah 6
New Mexico 5 Kansas 6
Hawaii 4 Arkansas 6
Maine 4 Mississippi 6
New Hampshire 4 Nebraska 5
Rhode Island 4 West Virginia 5
Vermont 3 Idaho 4
Delaware 3 Montana 3
DC 3 Wyoming 3
North Dakota 3
Total 237 South Dakota 3
Needed to Win 33 Alaska 3

Total 206
Needed to Win 64

And now Mitt Romney’s math problem becomes very clear – he can’t and won’t win everything. But the built in lead that President Obama has means that every single electoral vote lost is absolutely critical.

So now lets take a look at what is left.

The first thing to do is state the obvious – Obama won every one of those states in 2008.

If Romney loses Florida, he must sweep each of the other “in play” states in order to win. That scenario is all but impossible, so lets let him win Florida for purposes of this analysis. But don’t forget as we do that that if President Obama wins Florida, this is basically over.

If Gov. Romney wins Florida, there is no other scenario by which he can achieve 270 electoral votes without winning either Pennsylvania or Ohio. Pennsylvania has been awfully consistent about “leaning left” throughout this cycle, and I personally don’t think Romney can win there unless there are get-out-the-vote problems associated with things like the voter ID requirements that have been suspended. And I also think that Ohio presents the exact same auto-industry problem for him that Michigan does. But one of those states must break his way, or he cannot win.

So what are the scenarios? Including the incredibly improbable one where he loses Florida, there are 7:

Florida, Pennsylvania, Ohio
Florida, Pennsylvania, Virginia, Colorado
Florida, Pennsylvania, Virginia, Nevada
Florida, Pennsylvania, Colorado, Nevada
Florida, Ohio, Virginia, Colorado
Florida, Ohio, Virginia, Nevada
Pennsylvania, Ohio, Virginia, Colorado, Nevada

That’s it. In 6 out of the 7, he must win Florida. In 5 out of the 7, he must win Pennsylvania. If the path goes through Ohio, he must either win Florida AND Pennsylvania or also win Virginia and somebody else.

So whether or not you think Romney has a shot here depends on how you feel about these 6 states, and really the three biggest ones are the absolute most important. Even if you assume all of them are toss-ups (which the trending, by the way, has not agreed with), you’re looking at an incredibly difficult … and improbable … path to the White House.

This is all, of course, as of right now. Several things could still happen:

1. An October surprise could pop up, though every day shortens that runway in terms of both time and early / absentee voting
2. Voter turnout could be radically different than what is expected, particularly if voter ID laws are upheld and / or enforced. The objective reality is that voter fraud is largely non-existent in terms of affecting elections, but some of the disenfranchisement efforts we’ve seen could sway a very close election in some states. Also, the demographics that elected President Obama in 2008 may not be as likely to turn out again in big numbers – African Americans, young people, and Hispanics / Latinos being the primary list. The flip side of that is how energized the Southern and Mid-Western Republican base will be to vote for a Northeast Mormon businessman who sounds like an idiot when he says “y’all” and talks about eating biscuits and gravy.
3. The Libertarian candidate for president, Gary Johnson, is on 47 of the 50 state ballots plus the District of Columbia … and appears to be likely to be added to Pennsylvania, though less likely for Michigan and Oklahoma. That won’t matter in Oklahoma, but in a state like Pennsylvania, which will be extremely close if Romney wins, even 0.5% or less could make a difference. This isn’t Ross Perot in 1992, or probably even Ralph Nader in 2000 … but it isn’t so easy to dismiss, either.

All of which is to say that we need to actually have the election and not just declare a winner now. However, given the data we have on October 10, a Mitt Romney victory would be a pretty incredible upset.

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