US Polls: The Electoral Math

. 11/4/08

To understand how US presidential elections work, think of the 50 American states the same way as you would 50 Indian states with one important difference. If a candidate wins the popular vote in one state, he gets all its allotted "Electoral votes." The number of electoral votes in each state is its number of Congressmen or Representatives (variable depending on population) plus the number of Senators (always two per state). There are a total of 538 electoral votes and the winning candidates needs at least 270.

The biggest prize is California, which has 55 electoral votes, and this is already in Obama's bag (according to polls) as is New York (31 votes). That's like an Indian candidate or party winning all seats (or electoral votes) in UP and Maharashtra. For good measure, Obama also has his home state Illinois (21), Michigan (17), New Jersey (15), Massachusetts (12), Washington (11) Maryland (10) with him. A host of small states like Connecticut (7), Oregon (7), Rhode Island and Hawaii (4 each) Vermont, Delaware, and District of Columbia (3 each) bring his assured tally to 203.

For McCain, the biggest assured prize is Texas with 34 electoral votes. His home state of Arizona (10), Tennessee (11), Alabama (9), Kentucky and South Carolina (8 each), Oklahoma (7), Mississippi and Kansas (6 each), Nebraska and Utah (5 each), Idaho (4), Wyoming, South Dakota, and Alaska (3 each) bring his assured total to 122.

Then there are states that are leaning towards Obama or trending towards McCain. The Obama leaning states are far more in number and weightier electorally. They include Pennsylvania (21), Virginia (13), Minnesota and Wisconsin (10 each), Colorado (9), Iowa (7), New Mexico and Nevada (5 each), Maine and New Hampshire (4 each). Winning all these states where he is ahead in the polls will put Obama at 291.

He can even afford to lose Pennsylvania or a couple of smaller states and still reach the magic number of 270. He has that luxury, which is why McCain is doing his level best to win Pennsylvania, even though he is 8-10 points behind in the polls.

For his part, even if McCain wins all the states leaning towards him (Georgia – 15, Louisiana – 9, Arkansas 6, West Virginia 5, Montana and North Dakota 3 each), he would have only reached 163. He not only has to grab Pennsylvania from Obama's grasp, but also take home five golden "battleground" or "toss-up" states which we have not even discussed and where polls show they are running even.

These states are Florida (27), Ohio (20), North Carolina (15), Indiana and Missouri (11 each) which have 84 electoral votes between them. So for McCain to make it to the White House, he has to win all the states leaning towards him (besides those he is already assured of), plus all the battleground states, plus Pennsylvania and/or a few states trending towards Obama. The arithmetic looks difficult for him, which is why pundits are forecasting an Obama victory. Obama has many more roads and options to victory. McCain has fewer.

If Obama sweeps the board, winning all states trending towards him and the battleground states, he will have a landslide and end up with 350-plus electoral votes. McCain's best case scenario will barely get him past 270.

But then, stranger things have happened in elections – in the US and elsewhere. So you do your math and lay your bets.

The Times of India

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