United States

Nov 6, 2012

What’s up for grabs today, and how they’ll win it

Four years of campaigning end today as votes are counted in the US presidential election. Our man-at-large assesses the state of play and the possible scenarios, however fanciful ...

Guy Rundle — Correspondent-at-large

Guy Rundle


Four years ago, Barack Obama won a stonking 53-46% victory against John McCain. Across the nation, in thousands of campaign offices, they partied late into the night, and the next day. Then the volunteers went back to their lives, the office keys went back to the realtors, the charts and posters were binned, and the organisers took a day off. Then, on the Thursday, in Columbus, in Orlando, in Richmond, someone came back in, switched on CNN, started up the coffee machine and put up a new poster: "Obama 2012". In DC and a half-dozen swing states, the 2012 campaign has been going for four years. Now it is coming to a close -- and we're three days away from the start of the 2016 campaign. Ditto in the Senate. In the House of course, with two-year terms, there is no governance, just electioneering. So let's have a look at what to watch out for tomorrow, across the board ... WHAT'S UP FOR GRABS?
  1. The presidency and vice-presidency of the Unites States of America. Since 1804, these offices have been jointly selected. There's a slim but non-trivial chance that may not happen this year (see below). There are 538 electoral college votes that determine the presidency -- each state gets one voter per congress member (i.e. House districts total plus two for senators). The District of Columbia gets three votes.
  2. Some 435 seats in the House of Representatives, the lower house of Congress. Every House seat is us for grabs every two years. This would ordinarily create a system so volatile as to be unreadable. However, the boundaries of each district are set by state governments, for the most part without any legal limits. This creates hundreds of gerrymandered seats with curlicued and rococo borders, garnering names such as the "ear muffs", the "hopscotch", and the "rabbit on a skateboard". No more than 50 seats are in serious contention, and of these, really only about 25. The Republicans have a comfortable 50+ seat majority in the House, and they won't lose it in this election.
  3. Thirty-three Senate seats. The 100-member Senate has six-year terms, elected in thirds, with the occasional "special" election out-of-cycle for senators died or resigned. The Democrats "control" the Senate 53-47, that 53 including two independents. However, in the last two decades, both parties in the Senate have conspired to elevate the "filibuster" -- a variety of motions that require a 60-vote "super majority" for bills to proceed -- from rare measure, to standard practice. Thus neither side will gain full control of the Senate. However, the budget is not subject to the filibuster and requires only a simple majority, so getting to 51 still matters a great deal.
  4. Special measures. Across the country, specific legislative measures are put up for popular vote on a state-by-state basis. Most of these are utterly local. However, some will have huge cultural and state-federal implications.
  5. State legislatures and governorships. There's a number of state elections, though less competitive ones than in previous years. It's important not only for the way a state runs (and, for example, the implementation of Obamacare) but also, crucially, for control of the federal voting process.
  6. Mayoralties. Gaining control of a big city is the basis of establishing control of a state.
  7. Other. Everyone who votes must select dozens of officials, from judges and district attorneys to water-board supervisors.
WHAT'S THE STATE OF PLAY? A candidate needs 270 electoral college votes to win outright. In 2008, Obama won 365 votes, McCain 173 votes. Due to reapportionment of votes between states (this is done after every 10-year census), Mitt Romney needs to take 91 electoral college votes off Obama to win. Since the early '90s, when the country settled into a fairly fixed cultural-political post-industrial social division, the Democrats have been able to count on around 190-220 votes solid, the Republicans 150-180, depending on your reckoning. The latest polling, at a national level, has Obama leading Romney by 1%, usually 48-47%. That pretty much applies across the board, if you re-weight the polls for their systematic bias (Rasmussen, for example, skews to Republicans 3%, PPP to Democrats). Of the states that have been spoken of as in contention ... Solid GOP in 2012
  • Indiana: a surprise win for Obama in 2008, this is rock-solid Republican now, likely to go red by 10-12%.
  • Missouri: lost its bell-wether status by going for McCain in 2008. Now leaning Romnney by 5-7%.
  • Arizona: once seen as a possible Democrat gain due to its Latino population, it has now returned to the GOP fold.
Solid Democrat in 2012
  • New Mexico: a swing state for the last two decades, it now appears to be a solid Democrat state, leaning blue 10%.
Leaning Republican
  • North Carolina: a close Obama gain in '08, the campaign has given up on it. Now leaning GOP by 3-5%. If Obama is winning in it, it'll be a landslide.
  • Colorado: was running evens, now appears to be leaning Republican by a solid 2%.
Leaning Democrat
  • Nevada: now appears solid Democrat, based on early voting, with a 2-3% Democrat margin, maybe more.
  • Iowa: a majority of polls give a solid Democrat lean in this case, from 2-7%. Only a handful of polls have it at evens
  • Wisconsin: came into play due to Paul Ryan's selection as VP. But though this was a shock to the Dems, it appears safe, with a 3-5% blue shift.
  • New Hampshire: a couple of polls have it at evens, and have gained great currency. But most leave it in the Dem column.
Toss-up states
  • Florida: was polling towards Romney by 2-4% until about 10 days ago. Is still around 1% shifted to Republicans, but very possible for the Dems. If they win Florida, the Republicans are finished.
  • Virginia: based on its history, will be a Republican return. But the numbers show a slight Democrat edge at the moment.
  • Ohio: based on the polls, should be in the leaning Democrat column. But its crucial importance to both states puts it in this column.
Dark horse states
  • Pennsylvania
  • Michigan
  • Minnesota
All these states are running around 5% pro-Obama. But GOP pundits have argued they're in play, and Romney has spent time in Pennsylvania. Is that desperation, or deep confidence? We will find out. HOW THEY CAN WIN So what are the paths to victory? Here's a few dominant possibilities among the two to the power 12 possible combinations (they all assume that Romney wins North Carolina and Indiana, and Obama win New Mexico and Wisconsin) ... Obama victories
  • Obama Slam: Obama takes Florida and Ohio. If that happens Romeny can't win, even with all the other swing states -- and a Florida victory would make a win in the "dark horse states" virtually impossible.
  • The Cleveland Steamer: Obama loses Florida, takes Ohio, and enough of the smaller states -- most likely Nevada, Iowa, New Hampshire -- and precludes a Romney victory, even with Virginia, Colorado, etc.
  • The Southern Comfort: Obama loses Florida, Ohio and even Colorado, but wins Virginia, Nevada, Iowa, and New Hampshire. Depends on turning out the urban Democrat vote in the northern Virginia suburbs.
  • The Ring of Fire: Obama loses Florida, Ohio, Virginia and Iowa, but Obama takes Nevada, Colorado and New Hampshire. Obama still wins by a whisker.
  • These Colours Don't Run: Obama loses Florida, Ohio, Virginia, Iowa and New Hampshire, but takes Nevada, Colorado and North Carolina, due to a huge Latino and black turnout. Very unlikely, but that's how it would happen, if it happened.
  • The Omaha Turtlehead: see below.
Romney victories
  • The Three, Two, One: the strategy the GOP have been working on -- Florida (plus NC and Indiana, the three); the two (Ohio and Virginia) and one of Colorado, Iowa and (unlikely) Nevada.
  • Ohio Impromptu: without Ohio, Romney has to win everything else to squeak in. Also, the Improbability Drive: without Florida, Romney has to win everything, including Wisconsin. Both of these are staggeringly improbable.
  • The Pittsburgh Tugboat: Romney drags in a win in Pennsylvania -- or Michigan and Minnesota (where Republicans haven't been campaigning). Winning Pennsylvania would allow him to lose Ohio and New Hampshire, and still prevail, or win with Florida, Ohio and Virginia alone. Once again, once we leave the Florida/Ohio double, Romney's chances become very small indeed.
The tie There are 16 possible ways for the candidates to tie. Several of them involve Obama winning NC or Virginia but not Ohio, which is unlikely. So too is Obama losing Nevada and New Hampshire, but taking Colorado. However, if Obama won Ohio, Wisconsin and New Hampshire, and lost the others -- a quite plausible scenario -- then there will be a tie. OK, but here's the weird thing: all these scenarios are based on the supposition about the obscure wrinkle whereby two states split their electoral college vote. Both Maine (two votes) and Nebraska (three) give the vote to whoever won the district, and then the two other state votes to whoever won the state overall. Maine is unlikely to split, but in 2008 Obama won the Nebraska district around Omaha. It's assumed he will now lose it -- and if he does, and wins Nevada, Iowa and Colorado, while losing Ohio, Florida, Virginia and New Hampshire, then the result will tie at 269 each. In that case, and following weeks and months of recounts and lawsuits, should the result stand, the president would be chosen by the House of Representatives (this last occurred in 1816, but due to no candidate getting 50%+1 of the votes, not due to a tie). Each state delegation makes one vote -- since the Republicans dominate, Mitt Romney would be president. But aha! The Senate selects the vice-president, which would be Biden. Intriguingly, the Senate has to choose from among the two highest place-getters -- so it has to be Biden. But the House can choose from among the three highest place-getters. The third place-getter will probably be Gary Johnston, Libertarian Party candidate. (Idea for thriller -- Tea Party states conspire with Democrats to make a Libertarian president. Was the vote always rigged to achieve this? Damn, James Patterson has already written it in the time it took to write this sentence.) Of course, if Obama took Omaha and Ohio, Wisconsin and New Hampshire, he'd win 270-268. THE AFTERMATH The looming nightmare for the US is a split between the popular vote and the electoral college vote. Despite the excitability of psephs like us, Nate Silver puts the possibility of a split at no more than a 7% chance, with Obama winning the college and virtually no chance of a reverse scenario. Still, how good would it be? Twice in 12 years. It occurred twice in the post-Civil War 19th century, in 1876 and 1888, advantaging the Republicans in both cases. They weren't too fussed by this, since the Democrats were suppressing so many -- that is, all -- black votes in the South that it was quid pro quo. But if it happened now, as I've noted before, it would shake the system to its foundations. One reason for this is that with the change in the nature of political division, from economic class to culture/values, states may be far less fluid in their voting shifts than hitherto. In 1976, Jimmy Carter took Texas and New York, but not California. In 1988, Dukakis took West Virginia and Massachusetts, but not Vermont. Reagan took Massachusetts, Clinton took Tennessee. That sort of fluidity will re-emerge, but possibly not for decades. That means that safe areas can become voting sinks, where a majority could pile up, while a candidate with a bad campaign still loses in Ohio or Iowa. The electors have to be selected by the states by December 12. They then cast their votes in January. There's no doubt about how they cast their votes, right? Uh, not so much. For two centuries there were no real binding rules about how electors cast their vote (early on, they weren't even voted for -- they were chosen by the state assembly). In total 156 electoral college votes have been "faithless" -- most recently in 2000, when a DC Democrat elector didn't vote for Al Gore in protest at DC's lack of statehood. There were protest votes through the '80s and '70s -- including votes switched to the Libertarian Party -- and various chaotic results in the 19th century. Post-2000, some states moved to strengthen college fidelity -- either by state law, or by party pledge. But about 20 states have no requirement on the college voters on how they should vote, including Iowa and New Hampshire, as well as Pennsylvania and Minnesota. However, of those states that do try and restrict their college's vote, only a few "void" a wayward vote. But wait, it gets even better. And here is the kicker that would send everything spinning sideways. After 2000, a movement began to try and redress the popular/college split. Changing the college was too hard -- it meant changing the constitution -- so instead a pledge was developed, whereby a state's voters would vote for the candidate selected by the national majority vote, rather than by the state's majority vote. Clever, OK? Not so much. Eight states have now put that principle into law, binding their college voters -- and they're all deep-blue states, from California to Vermont; there's not a red-state among them. But the initiative is going through another 13 state legislatures -- oh, and they're all blue states too, except for one swing, Colorado, and a single red state, Arkansas. So here is the thing: should Romney win a majority vote, but not take the college, these doofus states are pledged to vote for him -- without any guarantee the Republicans would return the favour in the future. Is this the ultimate example of absurd liberalism, a la The Onion story about the ACLU fighting in court for the right of people to burn down its building as an act of protest? What would such electors do in these circumstances? Who are these electors anyway? Party grandees, surely. Actually, they're often chosen the way that bass guitarists or number three Australian Senate candidates are chosen -- first through the door gets it, unless its Feeney. Yes, all very unlikely. But when you add accusations of voter suppression, voter fraud and vote rigging to that, then it's all more likely that some sort of crisis occurs this year than any other. Tomorrow, as the votes start to roll, the Senate and Congress overview, a last look at the ground game, and results through the afternoon as the "most important US election of our lifetime" unfolds ...

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13 thoughts on “What’s up for grabs today, and how they’ll win it

  1. frey

    I know it’s the end of a long campaign, but you may want to check the number of ways you have spelt ‘Romney’ in this article….

  2. Chris Heath

    Correction, the Popular Vote pledge you refer to, called the “National Popular Vote Interstate Compact” (or NPVIC) only goes into effect once states which between them have a majority of the electoral college votes.

    So these states’ electors are not pledged to vote for Romney if he wins the popular vote.

    See: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/National_Popular_Vote_Interstate_Compact

  3. Chris Heath

    And apologies – that comment sounded quite pompous on second reading – it truly wasn’t meant to be.

    It seems unreasonable that all the polls are wrong (as some republican commentators would have us believe), but also unlikely that the electorate would be the same partisan breakdown as the Democratic wave of 2008.

    Ultimately, I think the better thing to do is trust the polls (with a pinch of distrust) and that Obama will likely be reelected tomorrow, probably with about 290-300 electoral votes. The House will remain Republican, probably 230/235 seats to the Democrats 200/205. The Senate, courtesy of many republican missteps and candidate idiocy, will likely stay Democrat 53-47.

  4. marce

    Your ‘Obama/Romney Victories’ list is a joke.

    You said: “The Cleveland Steamer: Obama loses Florida, takes Ohio, and enough of the smaller states — most likely Nevada, Iowa, New Hampshire — and precludes a Romney victory, even with Virginia, Colorado, etc.”

    If Obama loses Florida and takes Ohio (plus your assumed Wisconsin), he has 271. He doesn’t need any of Nevada, Iowa or New Hampshire.

    You said: “The Ring of Fire: Obama loses Florida, Ohio, Virginia and Iowa, but Obama takes Nevada, Colorado and New Hampshire. Obama still wins by a whisker.”

    No. If Romney takes Florida, Ohio, Virginia and Iowa, then he has 272 electoral votes, and wins.

    You said: “Also, the Improbability Drive: without Florida, Romney has to win everything, including Wisconsin.”

    Try staggeringly impossible. If Obama wins Florida he has 272 electoral votes, even if Romney wins Wisconsin, Virginia, Ohio, Iowa, New Hampshire, and Colorado. Romney’d have to win New Mexico too, which you’ve said you assume goes to Obama.

  5. Chris Heath

    Marce: Guy is right on “improbability drive” – if Obama won Florida, Romney could conceivably still win by winning all of Nevada, Colorado, Iowa, Wisconsin, Ohio, Virginia, North Carolina, and New Hampshire. Those would give Romney 272 (highly highly highly unlikely though.

    “Ring of fire” would give Romney 272.

    “Cleveland Steamer”: Guy is right, but Obama would only need to win one of Nevada or Iowa to hold on, but he would need at least one of them.

  6. Guy Rundle

    No, Marce, if Obama takes only Ohio and Wisconsin, and loses everything else, he loses narrowly. Obama needs Ohio, Wisconsin and a state other than New Hampshire to win. With NH it’s a tie. There’s many possible combinations, which I didn’t go into.

    If Obama wins Florida and loses everything else he falls short. Why? Because he has lost the Nebraska 2nd district, as I mentioned, and because the electoral college numbers have changed. Have you factored those in? I mentioned them both in the story.

    You’re right on one of them. I transposed Iowa and Virginia.

    If you dont believe me, check the NYT interactive vote pathway


    So 1 out of 3 for you. Care to check your own figures before you hand out the abuse?

  7. mattsui

    hehe, Cleaveland steamer….

  8. Chris Heath

    Another good place to look for those interested in prognosticating:


    Easy to make your own map and share it via facebook or email or whatever.

    Cripes I sound like an advert……

  9. marce

    Sorry for my mistakes.

    Re ‘Ring of Fire’: I don’t understand what you mean by saying you ‘transposed’ Iowa and Virginia. You had them both for Romney. If you ‘transpose’ them in your list they’re still for Romney. Which states did you mean?

  10. Alister

    “Ohio: based on the polls, should be in the leaning Democrat column. But its crucial importance to both states puts it in this column.”

    Well, that’s a silly statement. It translates to, “Obama looks very likely to win Ohio, but I’m going to ignore this reality because it doesn’t suit my article.”

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