Fanning the Flames: The Freedom Project Blog


Poll Position, Level Two

By Shawn Healy
Monday's post touched upon the internal dynamics of public opinion polls, and this follow-up will serve to place this daily flurry of information into the context of the 2008 presidential election. On Monday, I focused on national surveys, but as we learned in 2000, presidential elections turn on the Electoral College, or a state-by-state breakdown of the election.

We have become increasingly familiar in recent years with the red-blue divide that defines our electoral map. Republicans tend to dominate the Great Plains and the Deep South, while Democrats own the Northeast and West Coast. The Midwest stands as the swing region, along with the Mountain West in this cycle. While some suggested that the rise of Senators McCain and Obama, both departures from previous nominees in terms of both rhetoric and record, might somehow alter the Bush-driven electoral maps of 2000 and 2004, it appears that we are falling back into a familiar pattern as Election Day looms ever closer.

Given the fact that the McCain-Obama contest remains a dead heat and is likely to remain this way from here on out, this election will turn once more on the outcomes in a handful of swing states. Casting national polls aside for the balance of this post, let's consider the race in the context of state surveys. According to, based upon an aggregation of polls, Obama is poised to win 238 electoral votes to McCain's 224, leaving both short of the 270 necessary to win. This leaves eight toss-up states, NV, NM, CO, MT, MI, OH, NH, and VA, wielding 76 electoral votes, whose decisions will likely elevate one of the two contenders. Notice also that there are a handful of states in each candidate's column that are merely leaning in their direction and are still considered in play, including MO, WI, PA, and FL.

Real Clear Politics offers a slightly different projection, moving Montana into McCain's column, and adding Minnesota and Pennsylvania to the list of toss-ups, thus giving McCain a 227 to 206 lead over Obama. The reality is that these maps change with the polls they are based upon, and these same polls surface from a myriad of sources and with varying degrees of sophistication. Moreover, they are conducted with less frequency, thus failing to account for fundamental changes to the face of the contest, such as McCain's choice of Governor Sarah Palin for vice president. These factors alone should make us skeptical. Moreover, close contests at the state level often turn on the so-called ground game, simply, who is better at turning out their core supporters on Election Day.

This said, a breakdown of these swing states is warranted. I will rely upon both Pollster and Real Clear Politics for identification purposes, but Pollster alone for polling data for the sake of simplicity. In order, McCain leads Obama in Nevada based upon a conglomeration of polls, 47%-44.7%. Obama is up 47.3-43.3% in New Mexico, and McCain is up by a whisker in Colorado, 47-46.8%. McCain also leads in Montana, 49-46%, though recent polls show a wider margin. Moving to the Midwest, McCain leads in the Show Me State, 49.8-44.3%. Obama is ahead by a similar margin in Minnesota, 48.3-43.6%, and also in neighboring Wisconsin, 48.1-40.4%. Obama leads in traditionally Democratic Michigan by a 47-44.3% margin, while McCain clings to a similarly narrow margin in Ohio, 47-44.5%. Obama leads in the Keystone State (47.7-44.1%), although polls are tightening here, too. McCain also holds slight leads in the final three battleground states, New Hampshire (47-45.3%), Virginia (47.8%-46.7%), and Florida (48.6-44%).

We are now swimming in a sea of data with only minimal significance. It represents nothing more than a rudimentary temperature of the electorate, or at least that portion of it likely to decide who will serve as our 44th president. For the sake of curiosity, I gave each of the states listed above to the candidate who holds a lead in the aggregation of polls to date. Using a web site called 270towin, Senator McCain would best Obama 278 electoral votes to 260. To show how fickle this lead is, however, flip Colorado where McCain holds a scant 0.2% lead to Obama and the race is tied, 269-269, and would be decided by the House of Representatives. I encourage you to have fun with this map, manipulating it through a variety of scenarios. Come November 4, it will be all that matters.

This will certainly not be the final post where I address polling data in the context of the Electoral College, but seems fitting on this date, September 17, when our nation honors the completion of the Constitution that created it, for better or for worse. I'll be back on Friday to discuss the candidates' web presence in an election where the Internet has transformed many aspects of campaigning. Happy Constitution Day!


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Managing Director

McCormick Freedom Project

Shawn is responsible for overseeing and managing the operations associated with the McCormick Freedom Project. Additionally, he serves as the in house content expert and voice of museum through public speaking and original scholarship. Before joining the Freedom Project, he taught American Government, Economics, American History, and Chicago History at Community High School in West Chicago, IL and Sheboygan North High School in Wisconsin.

Shawn is a doctoral candidate within the Political Science Department at the University of Illinois at Chicago where he received his MA in Political Science. He is a 2001 James Madison Fellow from the State of Wisconsin and holds a bachelor's degree in Political Science, History, and Secondary Education from the University of Wisconsin at Madison.

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About Fanning the Flames and the McCormick Freedom Project

Fanning the Flames is a blog of the McCormick Freedom Project, which was started in 2006 by museum managing director Shawn Healy. The blog highlights the news of the day, in hopes of engaging readers in dialogue about freedom issues. Any views or opinions expressed on this blog represent those of the writers alone and do not represent an official opinion of the McCormick Freedom Project.

Founded in 2005, the McCormick Freedom Project is part of the McCormick Foundation. The Freedom Project’s mission is to enable informed and engaged participation in our democracy by demonstrating the relevance of the First Amendment and the role it plays in the ongoing struggle to define and defend freedom. The museum offers programs and resources for teachers, students, and the general public.

First Amendment journalism initiative

The Freedom Project recently launched a new reporting initiative with professional journalists Tim McNulty and Jamie Loo. The goal is to expand and promote the benefits of lifelong civic engagement among citizens of all ages, through original reporting, commentary and news aggregation on First Amendment and freedom issues. Please visit the McCormick Freedom Project's news Web site, The Post-Exchange at

Dave Anderson
Vice President of Civic Programs
McCormick Foundation

Tim McNulty
Senior Journalist
McCormick Freedom Project

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