How Obama Could Still Lose

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OCTOBER 21, 2008

How Obama Could Still Lose

At our election discussion last week at the Sixth and I Synagogue, Frank asked if anyone thought Obama could lose barring some catastrophic external event. I happen to think Obama's chances of winning are upward of 80 percent, and so I didn't say anything. In fact, none of us chimed in. But, truth be told, I can imagine a losing scenario that doesn't involve outside events. It goes something like this: Obama wins all the Kerry states plus Iowa and New Mexico, giving him 264 electoral votes, then narrowly loses the rest of the red states where he's currently competitive.

According to the latest RCP averages,* the next most competitive red states, in descending order of favorability to Obama, are: Virginia, Colorado, Ohio, Missouri, Nevada, Florida. Let's focus on Virginia, since it represents the knife-edge between winning and losing--the potentially decisive red state where Obama's currently got the biggest lead. According to RCP, Obama now leads there by 8 points--very close to his national lead of 7.2. (In fact, polling in Virginia has pretty much mirrorred national polling over the last few weeks.) That should speak well to Obama's chances: Since it's hard to imagine Obama losing the popular vote barring that catastrophic event, it should be hard to imagine Obama losing Virginia, too.

And yet here are the caveats that keep me up at night:

1.) We're at the point in the race when national trends may start diverging from trends in battleground states where McCain is still competing. After all, having an active campaign in a state makes a big difference. Just look at Michigan since McCain pulled out in early October. According to RCP, Obama is up 1.5 points nationally since October 2, but nearly 4.8 points in Michigan.

McCain is husbanding his resources for the absolute minimum number of electoral votes he needs to win, which means ignoring the national numbers and focusing on everything from Virginia on down the list of battlegrounds. There's no reason to think he couldn't lose the popular vote by 2-3 points but still win Virginia by 1.

2.) State polls seem to lag national polls, one-off polls tend to lag tracking polls, and polling averages (like the kind you find at RCP, Pollster.com, and FiveThirtyEight) lag any single poll by design. Which is to say, those state-level averages could easily be 5-7 days behind the current on-the-ground reality.

3.) While eight points is a lot to make up in two weeks, it's not nearly as daunting over three weeks--well under half a point a day (.38, but who's counting?). Or put differently: If, as some analysts** believe, the momentum shifted somewhat toward McCain last week, then Virginia could actually be much closer than 8 points today. We just wouldn't know it till next week.

4.) Throw in a Bradley Effect of even a point or two on top of that, and a few more costly Biden gaffes, and I don't think Virginia is necessarily out of reach.

Having said all that, I do think it's highly unlikely that McCain wins Virginia (and therefore the election, if the standard ordering of battleground states is right). For one thing, just because a state like Virginia could diverge from national poll numbers doesn't mean it will. Likewise, just because a state could be closer than the latest poll averages indicate doesn't mean it is. On top of which, Obama's ground game in Virginia is, by most accounts, far superior to McCain's, which would likely offset any Bradley Effect.

My point is just that it's possible for McCain to win without some major outside event. Obama is absolutely right--this is no time to get cocky or complacent. (That means you Biden!)

P.S. On the other hand, maybe there are other ways Obama could lose...

Update: A number of commenters have pointed out that, with McCain essentially ceding Colorado, Obama wouldn't need Virginia under my scenario. That's fair enough. (When I wrote this, the McCain camp was still insisting it was competing in Colorado.) But don't get too caught up on any one state. My point is just that McCain could still win the relevant knife-edge state--which may now be Pennsylvania--despite appearing to be down by a large margin there. The reasons, as I mentioned, are that the margin could be a lot closer than we think--those state-level averages are pretty backward-looking (and this report, if true, would seem to underscore that)--and that it's possible for McCain to close a margin in a swing state without closing the margin nationally by nearly as much. Keep in mind that Obama loses if he wins all the Kerry states except Pennsylvania, even if he picks up Colorado, New Mexico, Iowa, and Virginia.

*I use RCP since it's the most McCain friendly of the popular polling sites.  

**This particular analysis (by Nate Silver) is based partly on state polls, which I've just argued are dated. So the actual momentum shift may have occurred even earlier, in which case it may already be baked into the current numbers.

--Noam Scheiber

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