Presidential Elections for Canadians

I got a lot of great feedback from my “Primary Politics for Canadians” post that I wrote back in January at the start of a confusing, convoluted and fascinating primary season. Now as the Democrats meet in Denver and as the Republicans prepare to gather in Minneapolis – St. Paul next week, the presidential campaign is about to begin in earnest. 69 nights from tonight, we’ll know who will be the next president of the United States: Democrat Barack Obama and Republican John McCain. What better time than now to go back into the complicated ordeal of the American political system and try and review the enthralling mess that we’re all about to dive into.

Fasten your seatbelts, folks.

So your primary write-up was a bit complicated. This presidential election must be a lot easier – the person with the most votes wins, right?

Hah! If only!

What do you mean?

Al Gore got over 540,000 more votes than George W. Bush, but the latter was sworn in as president. Of course, many believe that result was unfair given the shenanigans in Florida, but it wasn’t the first time that a candidate won the popular vote but lost the election. In fact, it was the fourth, following Adams over Jackson in 1824, Hayes over Tilden in 1876, Cleveland over Harrison in 1888.

You see…voters aren’t actually casting a ballot for president.


It’s actually similar to the way things worked in the primaries, where the votes decided how many delegates each candidate got to send to the national convention. In the presidential election, the vote decides which candidate will receive a state’s electors in the Electoral College.


Okay let’s backtrack. The November 4th election leads directly to the White House, but there are some procedural quirks in between…

The votes that ultimately decide the next president of the United States are cast by a group of representatives known as the “Electoral College.” There will be 538 electors in the college, divided among the 50 states plus the District of Columbia in amounts equal to their congressional delegations (senators + House of Representatives members). Allotments range from 55 electors for California to a handful of states with only 3 electors.

The votes cast by the public on election day determine how many electors each candidate will get to send to the Electoral College, awarded on a state-by-state basis.

Then, sometime between the election and January’s inauguration day – usually at some point in December – these electors assemble and votes for both president and vice-president. While they’re constitutionally allowed to vote for anybody, electors are chosen by the candidates and their campaigns and almost always tow the line. A candidate must receive a majority – 270 votes – to be officially declared president-elect or vice-president elect. If they don’t…well…we’ll get to that later.

Okay, now we’re getting somewhere. So is this like the primaries, where there’s a big convoluted mess of different systems for deciding how these Electoral College votes get assigned?

Thankfully, the system is much more uniform than the primaries. With two exceptions, every state chooses their electors on a winner-take-all basis, where the candidate who gets the most statewide votes gets to select EVERY one of the state’s Electoral College representatives. So the candidate who wins California (spoiler alert: Obama) will get all 55 of that state’s votes on the Electoral College.

This may seem quite different to you than in the primaries, where most states allotted delegates proportionately and the losing candidate still banked a significant number of votes in their favor at the convention. In the general election, though, it doesn’t matter if a candidate wins a state by one vote or a million votes: they get the entire allotment of electoral college votes.

The exceptions are Nebraska and Maine. In those states, the winning candidate in each congressional district gets an elector with two extra electors chosen by the winner of the statewide popular vote. But honestly? A split doesn’t happen very often.

So the first candidate to 270 wins?

Exactly. You see…

Hold on a minute. There are 538 votes in the Electoral College. That’s an EVEN NUMBER. Are you telling me that this thing can end in a tie? Is that possible?



It’s statistically unlikely – numbers run earlier this year put it at 0.63 per cent chance – but it’s conceivable that Obama and McCain could each end up with 269 votes on the Electoral College. If that scenario were to occur, the House of Representatives votes to decide who becomes president. It’s not “one rep, one vote” though – each state gets one vote, which means that the majority decision from each state’s delegation of congresspersons is what ultimately leads to the final decision. If this scenario were to occur this year, Obama would probably end up president but I’m not sure anyone knows for sure what would happen under such circumstances.

Okay, I think I’ve got the system down. Tell me about this year’s election in particular.

What about it?

Well, what’s up with all these “____ state” labels? Red states? Blue states? Battleground states?

Red states are states that Republicans do well in; blue states, Democrats. The “red state, blue state” terms became extremely popular after the 2004 election, thanks to a proliferation of digital maps among television networks desperate to find explanations for the result; it also didn’t hurt that the states that the states Kerry carried sat isolated on the coasts with a big swath of red dominating the map. It was a good narrative. It’s a simplistic division, and is unfortunately used to define the political and social cultures of these states, which can be very misleading. But since we’re talking electoral politics, the terms actually help us map out where each candidate’s areas of strength are.

You see, the political fault lines in 21st century America are so entrenched in geography that there are only a small number of states that are genuinely up for grabs in November. As I hinted at earlier, Obama is almost certain to win California. McCain is going to win Utah. Both candidates are going to win their home states (Illinois and Arizona, respectively – although the latter is surprisingly competitive). The states that are genuinely competitive are called “swing” or “battleground” states.

So what are the swing states this year?

Polls shift regularly, and the states “too close to call” could end up a bit different by the end of October. But here are the main states to watch over the months to come:

Florida – 27 electoral votes
Ohio – 20 electoral votes
Michigan – 17 electoral votes
Virginia – 13 electoral votes
Missouri – 11 electoral votes
Minnesota – 10 electoral votes
Colorado – 9 electoral votes
Nevada – 9 electoral votes
Iowa – 7 electoral votes
New Mexico – 5 electoral votes
New Hampshire – 4 electoral votes

There are some other states that could be interesting, but their success is tied to states where Obama’s chances are a bit better. For example, Obama is doing well in both Virginia and North Carolina, but the odds of him winning the latter without the former are slim. So Virginia is the state to watch.

So what’s the deal with all these polls anyways?

Polls are not a projection about who is actually going to win the election; they’re designed to measure the state of the race at that very moment. More significantly, every pollster is a bit different in their methodology and there’s always an outlier or two with data sets that miss the mark. So here are few guidelines to keep in mind when you’re poll watching:

National polls are rather pointless. Sure, a blowout in the national polls likely is reflected in the states, but in an election this close they distract from the real action in the state-by-state polls. That’s where your attention should be.

Watch the aggregates. Some pollsters rule, some suck, but most are just inconsistent, with better methods in some states than others. The best strategy is to avoid looking at individual polls and instead look at websites like that combine surveys from a variety of different polls. That way you get a balanced sense of where the race stands.

Don’t miss the margin of error. Accuracy is everything in polling, and if you see a poll with a margin of error higher than five, it’s probably not worth your time (another reason why the aggregated polls are best).

Think about who’s being surveyed. Obama is a historic candidate, which may conflict with the history-dependent strategies of modern polling. When polls try and come up with projections they often do so among “likely voters” based on historical voting patterns; if you’re a young person, for example, you’re less likely to vote than an older person so you’re weighed less in the polls. So what happens if Obama succeeds in dramatically increasing voting patterns among, say, young people or African Americans or voters who only own cell phones (often missed by pollsters)? Well…we don’t know. We just don’t know.

Anyways, moral of the polling story: just read FiveThirtyEight. The website is run by baseball statistician Nate Silver and is great at not only helping readers follow polls but understand them and use them to project the results in November based on historical record. Plus, unlike other pollsters, Silver actually ponders what happens if history turns out completely different this time and voting patterns shift. FiveThirtyEight is really the only polling resource that you need.

So this week is the Democratic convention; next week is the Republicans. How much impact do these have?

The conventions used to be about picking a leader. Today, the leader is decided months in advance and the conventions are more like a national infomercial for the two political parties subsidized by the television networks. They’re about stagecraft, not substance.

But they do matter. It’s really the first time that most Americans get to see full, uninterrupted, unedited speeches from the two candidates and their various surrogates (the VPs, spouses, etc.). And because of that, historically both parties’ candidates will receive a bounce in the polls after their convention, and sometimes those bumps are sustained through to November. But the conventions are only a week apart this year, the first time in the modern era there’s been no breathing room between them. Will this hurt one party or the other? Frankly, I have no idea – we’ll have to wait and see.

So let’s look at the candidates – how are they going to win this thing?

Well…are we talking about the electoral map’s hard numbers or about more abstract concepts in campaign politics like “narrative” and “issues”?


Alright. Let’s do narrative first.

A while ago, David Brooks of the New York Times basically summed up my feelings on how the narrative of this campaign is going to play out: it’s all about Barack Obama. And as much as the Democrats may want to make John McCain’s personality and record an issue, they’re going to have a hard time doing so.

Part of the reason for this is that McCain’s brand is clearly defined among voters and really isn’t malleable to change. Part of the reason is that Obama’s campaign is so historic than it’s always going to be blessed/cursed with being the centre of attention. But mostly, it’s this: America is ready to elect a Democrat and is trying to figure out if Obama is the right man for the job.

Upwards of 80 per cent of Americans believe that the country is on the wrong track. Americans side with the Democrats on almost every issue, and on the few outstanding ones (like national security) they’re more competitive than ever before. The Republican brand is at the weakest point it’s been since 1964. Hell, I’d make the case that this might be the best electoral environment for a Democrat since that election; at the very least, the best since 1976.

This year’s election is close in part because the Republicans nominated the one truly viable candidate they had, but also because the Democrats – consciously or unconsciously – chose to take advantage of this moment and put two bold, historically unprecedented candidates into a sometimes bitter competition for their nomination. Both were risky options: Clinton for her negatives among independents and Republicans, Obama for his unknowns. In choosing the latter, the Democrats guaranteed a contest that was going to be a referendum on whether or not Barack Obama is ready to be president.

How else to explain McCain’s “go negative, go often” strategy straight out the gate? Any pretence of McCain running a civilized, anti-Swift-Boat campaign has been thrown out the window because his advisors have smarty realized that this election isn’t about him. If he wants to win, he has to seed enough doubt about Obama in the American consciousness that he can squeak ahead in victory.

In short: if Obama can convince enough Americans that he has the temperament and values to be president regardless of his skin colour or his inexperience, he will win. If he doesn’t, he will lose.

And the electoral map?

Alright, here’s where I lay it on the line: in spite of the tightening in the national polls this past month, I still think the smart money this election is on Obama and political geography is the reason why.

Earlier in this post I included the 2004 presidential election map, with states Kerry carried in blue and states Bush carried in red: Now look at the current composite about the state of the 2008 race:

There are two important lessons to take from this map:

1. Obama has a much stronger foundation to start from, with 214 Electoral College votes that he can safely count on in November. McCain, in contrast, only has 112 votes that he can take to the bank.

2. With the exception of New Hampshire, every state that is currently a “toss up” was a red state in the 2004 election, as is every state that is currently listed as “lean Republican.” And two of the five “lean Democratic” states were red states in 2004 as well (Iowa and New Mexico).

Put together, these two realities mean that this is an election where the battleground is on red soil, and it’s a campaign that Barack Obama will fight on offense and John McCain will fight on defense. And this is one of the reasons why I was such a strong supporter of Obama as the Democratic nominee. He’s still competitive in the traditional swing states like Ohio and Florida, but he’s the type of Democrat primed to take advantage of dramatic shifts in party identification in the West (Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico), the Midwest (Iowa, Montana), and the northern South (Virginia, North Carolina).

Obama is starting this race much closer to the finish line than his opponent and has several different paths to victory. McCain has to basically plug every leak, hold every fort and emerge clinging desperately to the same map that Bush won in 2004.

So how will this all play out?

Let’s prognosticate for a bit. Let’s suppose that Obama is able to hold onto the same map that Kerry won in 2004 – reasonable, considering that the only one of those states that is currently a “toss up” is New Hampshire, and that’s only 4 electoral college votes. Hell, you know what? Let’s give McCain New Hampshire, but we’ll give Obama Iowa, which seems like a good bet at this point. That scenario would give Obama 255 Electoral College votes, needing only to flip 15 Electoral College votes in red states to win the election.

Under this scenario, if Obama wins Flordia and its 27 votes he wins the election. Ohio would get 20 votes and the big prize as well. But unlike Democrats in the past two election cycles, Obama has legitimate paths to victory without those two traditional swing states. Virginia puts him two votes from the White House. Missouri, four votes from victory. Colorado or Nevada, six votes from the win. If Obama carries two of these states, he wins the presidency. Or, he could pair one of these states with a few smaller ones like perhaps Montana or North Dakota where he’s currently running in a dead heat with McCain.

So what about McCain?

In contrast, John McCain has few options to expand the Bush map of 2004. New Hampshire is the best possibility and would gain him four votes. He’s got his sights on Michigan’s 17 votes and Minnesota’s ten, which may explain why Michigan-born Mitt Romney and Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty are getting thrown around so much as VP contenders, but right now both states are still holding blue. Oregon’s polls are tightening but still not truly close. And at this point, we’re running out of possibilities.

If McCain wins this election, it will be the same way that Bush did in 2000 – by the skin of his electoral teeth, a victory earned through narrow wins in one or two key swing states.

Any final thoughts?

I’m just really friggin relieved that John Edwards didn’t win the Democratic nomination. Oh and if you want a truly insightful take on this campaign, this YouTube video does a great job boiling the 2008 election down to its essence.

Like my last “…for Canadians” post, I expect this one to kick around for a while. So, if you have any further questions, post them in the comments and I’ll add them to the post.

Watch: BARACKY II: Obama vs. McCain


7 responses to “Presidential Elections for Canadians

  1. You’re a great guy Ryan. It’s just sometimes it makes me angry how much more intelligent, dedicated and witty you are then myself.

    Seriously you should be writing political primer text books.

    (Another)great post.

  2. Agreed, nice work once again. I’m sure I’m going to be going back to this post often, like I did while trying to figure out the primaries.

  3. I’m wondering:

    What impact will former Clinton supporters (who plan to vote for McCain, in I suppose a form of protest) have on this election? I ask because I just found out I know one.

    – Eddie

  4. If I was judging based on how the convention went, I’d say that most Clinton voters will eventually come around and vote for Obama. Clinton herself made a very strong case as to why people should.

    However…the rumours swirling about McCain’s VP choice suggest that he’s going to continue to aggressively play for women voters. So much so that for the first time this election, I’m genuinely worried that Obama is going to lose, in spite of what I’ve written in my post. Stay tuned…

  5. Pingback: …in which McNutt looks at John McCain plumbing problem « McNutt Against the Music·

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