Covering the Front and Back Pages of the Newspaper
February 05, 2004
POLITICS: Charting The Battleground States
Let's have some fun with numbers . . . as primary season winds down and we look ahead to the likely Bush-Kerry matchup, it's important to bear in mind a lesson that the 2000 election drove home: presidential elections are won and lost in the Electoral College. (Which is, among other things, why national polls are of limited usefulness; it's the individual states that matter). So I thought I'd look at which states are likely to be "in play."
There are two variables: how many electoral votes a state has to offer, and how likely it is that the state could go to either candidate. The first is a fixed number; we know it in advance. (Daily Kos, which has some of the best horse-race coverage around, has a great calculator that lets you compute the electoral numbers by coloring various states red and blue). For the second, a good starting point is the 2000 election results.
I decided to take a whack at combining the two. I started by dividing a state's electoral votes by the percentage point difference between Bush and Gore, but that gave too much weight to the larger states, so I settled on dividing the electoral votes by the percentage point difference squared. (For ease of comprehension, I multiplied the percentages by 10 - thus, a 12-point difference was rendered as 1.2 before squaring it, a six-point difference as .6). This isn't a scientific sample, just a way of quantifying what we already intuitively know. Here's my ranking of the most-hotly-contested states (Under "Margin," I listed a negative margin for states won by Gore):
If you cut the level of significance off somewhat arbitrarily at a factor of 20, you get 18 battleground states, with Florida naturally the biggest. Some thoughts:
*You can see why Karl Rove should be smiling. The least competitive states include a bevy of states that form Bush's base, while four of the top five and six of the top nine are Gore states from four years ago. On top of that, number 11 is Gore's home state, where Kerry is likely to be less competitive, while Kerry hails from a region of the country where most of the states are already solidly in his column anyway. And Florida seems likely to be more Bush-friendly this time, given how easily Jeb cruised to re-election there in 2002 and the absence of Lieberman on the Democratic ticket. There's even hope that Bush may find a more favorable hearing in New York due to the focus on terrorism and in California if Arnold Schwarzenegger is still popular in November, but as you can see, New York in particular isn't high on anyone's priority list.
*Then again, there are countervailing worries for the Bush camp. Kerry seems well-situated to pick off neighboring New Hampshire. Bush's biggest worry has to be elector-rich Ohio; the state has suffered exceptional job losses and Ohio Republicans have had a particularly bad record on tax and spending issues of late. And several of the Gore states at the top of the list (Iowa, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Oregon) were fertile grounds for Nader in 2000; that won't help Bush this year unless there's a lingering animosity towards Kerry's vote in favor of the Iraq war. Nevada could also be in jeopardy for Bush; while he's kept a surprising number of his campaign promises, Nevadans are none too happy about Bush backtracking on hopes that he would oppose the unpopular Yucca Mountain nuclear dump.
In the end, the best source will be state-by-state polls. But those aren't always easy for us amateurs to come by, at least not ones that are reasonably fresh and all taken at the same point in time. For now, though, we know which states to look most closely at.