Electoral College Calculus

News that the McCain presidential campaign was pulling out of Michigan (stopping its television ads, removing staff and canceling events) hit the political world hard last week. McCain’s strategists had come to the conclusion that they could not win that state and, therefore, decided to refocus their energies and resources elsewhere.

Despite the fact that Democratic presidential campaigns have won Michigan in the last four elections, the McCain campaign had, early on, believed that they could compete there this year. But with Michigan among the states hardest hit by the economic downturn, polls now show Democrat Barack Obama holding a seven point lead in that state.

With Michigan out of reach, the McCain campaign faces an increasingly difficult road ahead. Here’s why:

By now many readers worldwide have an understanding of the unique way Americans elect their Presidents. For those who do not, what follows is a sketch of the process.

American presidential elections are not a "simple majority" wins national contest. Instead, we have 51 separate elections (one in each of the fifty states and the District of Columbia). Each state is assigned a number of "electors" with the exact number of these electors for each state being equal to the number of its Congressmen (which are determined by each state’s population) and Senators (two per state). The total of electors is, therefore, 538 – equaling 435 (the total number of Members of Congress), plus 100 (the total number of Senators), plus three (awarded to the District of Columbia).

Winning the overall national vote, as Al Gore discovered in 2000, does not win the White House. To win the Presidency, a candidate must win the elections in enough states to amass 270 total electors (i.e., more than half of the total of all electors).

Given the deep polarization of the U.S. electorate, recent presidential contests have been quite close. In 2000, for example, George W. Bush won enough states to amass 271 electoral votes to Al Gore’s 267; and in 2004 Bush bested John Kerry 283-255.

With this as the backdrop, the electoral strategies of the two major campaigns have been to focus on securing victories in their party’s safe states while seeking to encroach on those states that the other party has won in previous elections – but which now appear to be contestable. In political shorthand, safe Republican states (like Texas, South Carolina and Idaho) are called "Red" states while safe Democratic states (like California, Massachusetts, and New York) are called "Blue" states. States that can go either way and are, therefore, hotly contested, are given the designation "Purple" or "battleground" states. In recent elections, the traditional battleground states have been Michigan, Wisconsin, Wisconsin, Ohio, Florida, New Hampshire, and Pennsylvania. In the past two elections, Democrats have won Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, while Republicans have won Ohio and Florida. Thus, when Republicans began to map out their 2008 strategy, they planned to hold on to all of the states that Bush had won in 2000 and 2004 and take at least one of the other battleground states away from the Democrats (either Michigan or Pennsylvania).

But polls in each of these states now point to trouble for the Republican camp. Not only is McCain losing in Michigan by seven points, he is losing by more than 10 points in Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and New Hampshire. Of greater concern to Republicans, McCain is also down five points in Ohio and Florida.

Making matters worse for the McCain campaign is the fact that Obama also appears to be positioned to win in some traditionally "Red" states like Virginia, Colorado, and New Mexico – where the Democrat is leading by margins ranging from four to seven points.

There appear to be a number of factors working in Obama’s favor. Obviously, the economic crisis is a key issue impacting voters, but there are other factors. The Obama campaign has succeeded in a massive voter registration effort, dramatically increasing the numbers of African American, Latino, and young voters. And the Obama camp has used its money wisely, not only saturating media markets with their candidates’ message, but also hiring hundreds of field workers in every state and recruiting tens of thousands of volunteers to register voters and prepare for a massive election day "get out the vote" effort.

All of this has created an effective Obama presence in states Republicans had hoped to win, as well as in the states Republicans needed to win. So when the McCain campaign pulled out of Michigan it was the first sign of a defensive withdrawal, as they try to salvage victories in what are now vulnerable "Red" states.

A final note: this is a complicated process, to be sure, with no shortage of critics. But there is also a genius to this system. If the U.S. had a simple majority vote presidential election the campaigns would expend all their energy and resources on national advertising. And they would spend most of their time in the states with the largest populations.

But because of the calculus required to win in this system, complex strategies must be developed to win in smaller and very diverse states – with unique approaches designed to compete in states as different as New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, Virginia and New Mexico.

The result is a fascinating process well worth watching.