06 September 2012

Will Obama Win?

I love politics, and I follow it obsessively. And a question I am frequently asked is one that is important not just to Americans, but even to the Kiwis here: will Barack Obama win a second term of office?

For more than a year, I've stubbornly insisted that his odds were - at best - 50/50. To many people, particularly the contingent abroad (which is usually far more liberal than the majority of America) this was unbelievable. During the heights of the Republican primary circus, where the rhetoric and personalities were contemptuous and silly, some of my friends laughed at my pessimism. But while Obama has an advantage in likability and in ideology, these traits have only barely managed to sustain him in the face of some severe problems. He inherited the worst economic crisis in a generation, and while he's pulled back and pulled the economy out of its nosedive, the gremlins on the wings are still successfully taunting him about our altitude. And his signature accomplishments have been astoundingly effective, but also effectively invisible: the stimulus' greatest effect was on sustaining programs and jobs that would otherwise have been lost, and most of Obamacare's programs are gradually enacted around 2014.

Now, though, I am finally willing to revise my estimate upwards. This is not based on blind optimism or the misleading dialogue of the moment, but on facts and numbers. To put it simply: Romney has very few paths to victory, and Obama has many.

Romney's best chance has always been that there will be a disaster. A foreign policy disaster, like Carter's Operation Eagle Claw, would have allowed the Republicans to paint Obama as a feckless failure - which actually shows you just how gutsy was the Bin Laden raid.  An economic disaster, which was a bit more likely, would also put iron in the glove of the GOP when they claimed that the President had made the recession worse.

Unfortunately for Romney, while the recovery has been anemic, disaster has remained elusive. Politico ably summarizes the economic news of the moment:
The Nasdaq-100 index hit its highest level since December 2000 and Standard & Poor’s 500 Index is at its peak since January 2008, Bloomberg reported on Thursday. The S&P 500 gained 2 percent to reach 1,432.12, a four-year closing high, and the Nasdaq-100 Index climbed to 2,829.71, its highest close since 2000. The Dow Jones Industrial Average jumped 244 points to 13,292, its highest since December 2007.

The market highs come in the wake of the European Central Bank announcing its bond-buying plan to support countries heavily in debt in the region, Bloomberg noted. Elsewhere on the economic front, employment numbers at service companies grew faster in August than July, according to The Associated Press on Thursday. Fewer Americans also applied for unemployment benefits last week, the Department of Labor announced, with applications for jobless benefits down 12,000.

And tomorrow morning, the government delivers its highly anticipated August jobs report. According to economists, the report will likely show 135,000 jobs were added last month, but the unemployment rate is expected to stay at 8.3 percent, according to the AP.
The heart of that news is that European Central Bank announcement that they will buy up all that Eurozone debt. And while the Democratic National Convention is important and some of the speeches have already been amazing (especially Michelle Obama's), the debt announcement is the single best news for Obama's re-election. It almost eliminates one of Romney's best hopes for disaster.

Because of this positive news, Romney is in trouble. Nate Silver at the NYT's 538 blog puts him at a 24% chance of victory and the betting market InTrade has it at 41%. Considering how national polling generally has Romney within the margin of error of Obama, why do these pundits - and now myself - all think that the GOP is in serious trouble?

The answer is the electoral college.
2008 Electoral College Results

Dividing all of America up into reliably Democratic states and reliably Republican states shows that the Democrats have a baseline of 187 electoral votes (MD, DE, NM, NY, RI, VT, HI, CA, IL, MA, MN, NJ, WA, NM). Republicans, on the other hand, have a baseline of 140 (AL, KY, UT, WY, ID, OK, AK, IN, SC, WV, MT, TX, NE, KS, ND, LA, MS). So Democrats have a significant advantage in the base of the numbers as they race to 270.

Other states are also fairly certain for either party - they're not ironclad, but they're very unlikely to shift. This leaves Obama at 221 electoral votes (CT, OR, PA), and it puts Romney at 191 (TN, MO, AZ, SD, GA).

Thus, the entire campaign to date has been about the 126 electoral votes left in the "battleground" states - the states that can be won be either party. But Romney's chances of winning most of these states have become increasingly remote. For example, just yesterday the Romney campaign and the "independent" Super-PAC run by Tagg Romney pulled their advertising from the battleground state of Michigan. In their judgment and based on their internal (and secret) polling, they have decided that Michigan cannot be won and the money is better spent elsewhere. And other states have so few electoral votes (NH, NV, IA) that it's unlikely they would make a substantial difference in the totals.

So when you get right down to it, there are three states that will decide the election: Ohio, Florida, and Virginia. These three states have 18, 29, and 13 electoral votes, respectively.

Bottom line: Romney has to win all three of these states to win. Obama just needs any one of them.

It's not a done deal - not by a long shot. But I think Barack Obama will probably win another term.

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