Gordon Campbell: How To Watch A US Election

swinging states
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On Wednesday, as results come in from the US election, I’ll be blogging the signs/consequences live on Scoop. The target to win the Presidency is 270 votes in the US Electoral College, and even the most zealous US patriot would probably concede that this system is an imperfect one. Essentially, it is not really a national election. Fifty-one separate elections (including DC) are being held simultaneously, 49 of them by under a FPP winner take all system. Only Maine and Nebraska allocate their electoral college votes via a tiered version of proportional representation.

Everywhere else, states get their electoral votes allocated according to the total number of senators and members of the (lower) House of Representatives from each state. Right there, that introduces a skew : in that even the smallest states (plus Washington DC) will, irrespective of population, get three electoral votes at least.

Another way in which the electoral college system departs from the strictly ‘one person/ one vote’ notion of democracy is that the House seats have been allocated according to the total size of the population in the state, not according to the numbers of those who are eligible to vote. So given that large numbers of children, non-citizens and (in quite a lot of states) criminals and former criminals can’t vote, this does distort the electoral college ratios, a bit. Or quite a bit, depending on your perspective.

The best example of the skew? Wyoming has three electoral votes, but each represents about 135,000 voters while the ratio in Florida is 27 votes – which comes out to one electoral college vote for every 480,000 voters. So while Wyoming may be mere peanuts in the overall race, a vote there is three times more valuable than a vote cast in the Sunshine State.

Tomorrow, because of the time zones, the results will (generally) come in from the right of the map, and sweep on left out towards California. In many cases – not all – counting seems to come in first from city/urban areas. This can create a deceptive pattern – in 1976 for instance, RNZ ran a narrative of Jimmy Carter starting strong and then Gerald Ford making a surprising comeback run, when that sequence was the entirely predictable product of the order in which the results came in.

From all the available evidence – the poll data at national and state levels, the relative efficiency, organization and motivation of the two teams on the ground, and the size of the turnout in early voting – this race should be won fairly comfortably by Barack Obama. So, for starters, here’s an inspirational quote as to why this would be a good thing:

I truly believe that the example of how Obama has lived his life, what he has learned, his many years of grass roots activism to improve the lives of people, how he has coped with racism and being the “outsider” ….these things connect to the countless layers of American society. Obama speaks to them because he has lived it; and the living-of-it gives him the right to talk about inclusiveness. He personifies hope for a better future for our fractured and hurting country.”
– Sylvia Alf, 68, Obama volunteer in Florida, as cited on Five Thirty Eight.com

The scenarios for victory/defeat

For the past seven weeks, Obama has been ahead by anything from 4 to 9% nationally, with a couple of outlier polls putting him anything up to 14 % clear of John McCain. This is not directly relevant to the outcome, since the immediate battle will be won or lost, IMHO, in five truly “swing” states : Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia, Nevada and Colorado.

I say that on the assumption that Obama will hold onto his current relatively comfortable poll leads in Minnesota, New Mexico, New Hampshire, Iowa, Michigan, and Wisconsin. Go back to those five key states : victory will then follow if he (a) wins Ohio and either Colorado or Virginia (or b) wins Pennsylvania and any of the other four. Or, in the worst and most unlikely case, somehow manages to lose both Ohio and Pennsylvania, and yet wins the other three. (This would create a very messy 269/269 tie, that Obama would win, for reasons too arcane to go into, and too undemocratic to bear.)

Note: that victory plan for Obama is a very conservative one. For one thing, it does mean he can still win the presidency without winning Florida. In fact, Obama can still win if McCain takes all of the Bush states from 2004 ( and in several of them McCain is currently on a knife edge or worse, such as North Carolina, Florida, Indiana, Georgia, Colorado, Nevada, Missouri and North Dakota ) IF the Republican still loses either Ohio or Pennsylvania.

McCain’s dependence on Pennsylvania is pretty striking. One sign sign of just how dire a plight the McCain campaign has been in for the past two weeks is that he has thrown enormous resources into Pennsylvania, which has not voted Republican since 1988 – and where McCain has only in one rogue poll got within three points of Obama, and more commonly has been six to twelve points behind in the tracking polls for well over a month.

Early signs

Still, if McCain is going to have a good night, it should start in the crankily maverick state of New Hampshire, the only New England state where he is competitive. Nate Silver of the 538 polling site says in Newsweek this week that if McCain can hold Obama to within five points in ultra white New Hampshire early on, we should start to worry about the impact of racism and of the Bradley Effect kicking in elsewhere.

Among the early time zone states : Indiana will almost certainly come in earliest of all results and if there is to be an Obama landslide, this is where it will show up first. The polls are still very, very tight – in margin of error territory – in Indiana. Conversely, if McCain is going to make it a close contest or win, the results in Virginia will be crucial, and will come in early as well. Kentucky will also be in early, but that’s totally safe for McCain. Georgia, North Carolina and of course Florida are also among the early ones to watch.

The interesting races

OK, the presidency is the big one, but there are also 435 congressional races, 35 senate races, 11 gubernatorial contests and innumerable local initiatives up for grabs as well. Including the battle for Proposition 8, a spectacularly ugly brawl in California over gay marriage rights, that has evolved into a contest pitting the Mormon Church (who are big funders for the “Yes” vote to ban it) against a fractious “No” alliance of gay advocacy/human rights organizations.

If I had to pick the five most interesting races – besides the nailbiting outcomes in Ohio, Virginia and Pennsylvania that is – it would be :

Georgia Normally this is a safe Republican stronghold. But black early voting was very high, and that could tilt the tight poll race into a stunning victory for Obama. Such an outcome would also spell the end of Georgia senator Saxby Chambliss, who memorably included New Zealand in 2001 on a list of countries that he alleged were operating Bin Laden terrorist cells. Chambliss is in a tight race with Democrat hopeful Jim Martin. Libertarian Party leader Bob Barr ( a former Georgia Congressman for the Republicans ) could play a spoiler role here, and siphon off just enough McCain votes to make a difference.

Florida Again, victory in Florida would not only just about clinch the presidency for Obama, this would be sweet revenge for the stolen election in 2000. In the south of the state there are two close and interesting Congressional races, both involving the Republican Diaz-Balart brothers. If either or both of them go down, this would spell the beginning of the end of the old anti-Castro dominance of south Florida politics, and herald the emergence of a younger, migrant Hispanic population.

Iowa Farmbelt Iowa is one of the more surprising likely additions to the Obama column. Curiously, one of the things that has done McCain in here among rural Iowans has been his opposition to ethanol. and its effect on driving up food prices – a concern that Obama has not shared, or expressed.

Minnesota Call this one the Jon Stewart/Stepohen Colbert Effect. In Minnesota, Democrat comedian and author Al Franken is tantalizingly close to victory in a three way brawl with Republican incumbent Norm Coleman, and with a strong third party candidate called Dean Barkley also in striking distance. In this contest, Coleman may just survive any national trend to Obama.

Arizona, Alaska You’d think these two races would be safe home state victories for John McCain and Sarah Palin but… the Republican Party in Alaska is in tatters, following the conviction on corruption charges last week of Senator Ted Stevens. True, he is a Palin adversary but it will be interesting to see the impact, if any, on Palin from the Stevens debacle, and from the debacle of her own candidacy. McCain is closer to losing in Arizona than Palin is in Alaska, and has been out-organised by the Obama army of volunteers, in his own backyard. A key theme of this election though, has been the relative collapse of the Republican Party out on the plains, and in the Rocky Mountain West.

The bellwether counties

One of the old, trusty ways of picking up early trends and indicators is by focusing on the so called ‘bellwether’ counties beloved by pollsters, because they (statistically) tend to be a mirror of the nation as a whole, and regularly go with the winner of the state, and/or of the national election. The state of Ohio is itself a bellwether, in that it has gone with the successful presidential candidate in every election since 1960.

Last week for instance and in line with the Suffolk University, Boston polls, I suggested the welfare hellhole of Perry County as a bellwether for Ohio, and/or Scioto County to the south. The Salon online magazine has since done an entire article on Perry County.

Still… given the huge increase in registration among the Democrats in particular this year, I’m not sure that previous lists of bellwether counties will be of much use – and in fact, if there is a massively increased turnout, it could also affect the “likely to vote’ estimates built into some polls, thus countering (I hope) any contrary impact on Obama’s chances caused by the Bradley Effect. For that its worth, here are a list of the 50 most reliable bellwether counties between 1980 and 2004.

Evidently, Defiance County, in northwest Ohio, is the most reliable swing county in the entire country. The country (and its largest settlement) were named ‘Defiance’ after the exploits of General “Mad” Anthony Wayne. The county’s second-largest town is called Hicksville.

As the Democrats worry about the result there are hopeful signs aplenty to soothe the fraying nerves. For one thing, the Obama machine also seems far tougher and savvier than the Kerry or Gore campaigns were in countering the Republican Party strategies of voter suppression. The presence of Obama volunteer lawyers in and around the booths for instance during early polling in Florida already seems to be helping prevent challenges to votes based on alleged ID problems, or on the alleged lack of perfect signature matches. Also, the decision in Florida by Republican governor Charlie Crist to manage the high early voter turnout by keeping the polling booths open until midnight has also helped the democratic process to function as it should.

Which leads to one final point. Back in June, Scoop touted Crist as being the best veep candidate for McCain. How much easier would life now be for McCain if he had chosen Crist or Tim Pawlenty of Minnesota as his running mate? Both would have delivered their home states, fairly easily. Palin, on almost all counts, has been a disaster nationally and she has created even more negatives for the McCain campaign than his association with George W. Bush. Also, Palin’s brand of Christianity is still being seen as doing McCain no favours at all within many of the heavily Jewish retirement communities in Florida.

This can only be good news for the Republicans, looking ahead. Because even if the worst happens tomorrow, it means that popular, moderate Republicans like Crist and Pawlenty will escape the blame entirely if McCain loses. And they will have far more appeal than Palin next time around, in 2012.

Tomorrow : Follow the US election on Scoop, as it unfolds.