Cross-posted at Election Inspection
Listening to the way news broadcasters and several political analysists tell the story, it sounds like the race is completely in the air, that predicting who will win the presidential election right now would be folly (does this remind anybody of the Democratic primaries?) But is it really appropriate to call this race a true toss-up when the polls are showing Obama with an 5.5 point lead against McCain? Of course, some people would argue "but Elliot, only a few weeks ago, McCain held an average lead of 2-3 points over Obama, which shows movement of at least 10 points in the same period of time as the presidential elections, surely this means that the polls are extremely unstable and could turn on a dime", but this view ignores a little bit of context. Something which has been ignored in this view is that the shift in the poll numbers started happening about a week after the Republican convention. Looking at Gallup's daily tracking poll, you can see that while Obama really jumped up in the polls after the financial crisis, McCain's numbers were steadily dropping (as Obama's were steadly rising) before the financial crisis but quite a while after the Republican convention (which means that the bounce McCain had gotten from his convention and from picking Palin as his running mate were likely to revert back to either a tie or to Obama leading by 1-2 points). Now, obviously I can't say this definitively since that is mere speculation about other possible events, but if we assume that the "natural" state of the race (before both conventions) was Obama leading by 1-3 points (which is about where it stood) then this movement because of the financial crisis is closer to being 5-7 points in Obama's favor than being 8-10 points, meaning that even if the whole financial mess somehow is completely removed, Obama is still ahead (albeit only slightly).
Now then, on the state level, it may seem like it should be characterized as a toss-up, after all neither candidate is favored outright to win at least 270 votes and that almost all of the true toss-ups are in states that went for Bush in 2004 (which should suggest that McCain even has a slight edge). Charlie Cook, of the Cook Political Report, still seems to believe the presidential race can be accurately characterized as a toss-up, but is this a reasonable way to look at the map? Now, obviously I see the race as leaning towards Obama, as my latest projection pushing lean states (which will have fully updated maps tonight, I promise) shows Obama already at 286 electoral votes (a full 16 more than the required 270 votes). Now, I'm not really critizing Cook for having the states that he has as toss-ups, indeed I'm still a bit uneasy calling Colorado and Virginia leaning Obama (recent polling notwithstanding), but even though Obama doesn't have the necessary electoral votes locked up now (that are either leaning towards him or has effectively locked up) it would still be a fallacy to call the race a toss-up.
Here is what Kaus is missing. His two assumptions are (1) that state-by-state elections are independent events, insensitive to national trends, and (2) that to win the election, Obama has to win one of eight "decidedly iffy states" (in an update, he adds Nevada to the list). Let’s take this very, very slowly and deliberately; Mickey, get your No. 2 pencil and paper out. Suppose each candidate is 50:50 to win each of the crucial states — an assumption that is probably overly generous to John McCain, given that Barack Obama leads the polling average in the majority of those states. If McCain had to run the table in two 50:50 states, his odds would be (1/2) x (1/2), or 25 percent — not very good. The odds of running the table in eight 50:50 states are (1/2)8, or 1/256, or less than one half of one percent. Consequently, by Kaus’s assumptions and a generous assessment of McCain’s prospects in each of the states Kaus mentions, Obama’s odds of winning are 99.6 percent. I have a feeling most Obama fans would be willing to take those odds. But Kaus thinks they are reason for Democrats to panic.
As Koffler mentions, these weird assumptions that because the toss-ups are "iffy states" and because there are enough toss-ups to keep Obama from guaranteeing that he wins at least 270 votes means that both McCain and Obama have anywhere near an equal chance of winning the election is laughable. Of course, I'm not arguing that it is impossible for McCain to run the table in the toss-ups, but his odds of doing it are so low that the election still has to be seen, at a minimum, as leaning towards Obama.
Now, for those of you out there who think I'm counting my chickens before they hatch, this is not meant to say that you can relax, on the contrary, we should be doing as Kos suggests, and pressing our advantages. And as Al Giordano writes, we need to shore up our firewalls and move those toss-ups to the Obama category. So if you haven't gone to the Obama website and donated a few bucks to the Obama campaign, then now is the time to do it, remember, only three weeks and six days left to election day.