Defying all conventional logic and proving a number of very important things about the ideology of the American public, this presidential race is essentially a coin flip at the moment. Polling is of limited value and the candidates will likely gain separation as the campaign season enters full swing. But there is little doubt that an election which should be a posterizing tomahawk dunk for the Democrats is, despite the GOP's best effort to tank it, a toss up. In response to Monday's comments, today and tomorrow will be dedicated to explaining the likely scenarios in the event of each candidate's victory.
It's important to note that the odds of either candidate hitting 300 Electoral votes is about 10% IMO. We're in for a lot of close elections until something about the geography of party support changes. So whoever wins this is basically going to sweat it out.
McCain wins by being Not Obama, Not a Liberal, and taking advantage of the fact that the American public is, in this political era, far more conservative than it is liberal. Since the collapse of the New Deal coalition in the 1970s every Democratic victory has been a brutal, bloody, Middle Ages siege of a fight. In other words, Democrats can win by being exceptional, doing everything right, and getting some luck. Republicans can win by showing up. That's what being the dominant coalition is all about.
It wouldn't be fair to be that vague. So here's how McCain actually wins:
1. The droves of "disaffected" Republicans and white working- and middle-class voters who have been loudly criticizing the war and President they elected. But when the chips are down they "vote with their pocketbook" (a phrase that makes me vomit blood) and pick the guy who they think will cut their taxes again. Never mind that Obama's tax proposal also cuts taxes for everyone making less than $200,000. When I recently pointed this out to a conservative, the response was "Yeah, but Obama's lying." Hard to compete with logic like that. White people in the suburbs – people who live balls-deep in debt – fall for the guy who offers Buy Now, Pay Later financing.
2. McCain successfully sells his "maverick" image, allowing voters to vote for "change" without actually changing anything. The suburban masses realize that a 72 year old white Republican who has disagreed with George W. Bush like twice is about the kind of "change" they're ready for.
3. Obama takes Ohio, a state in which the GOP fortunes have plummeted since half the state party got indicted in 2004, and Pennsylvania easily. Bad news for McCain, right? But Florida is becoming a Democratic lost cause – too many religious nutbars, too many panhandle hillbillies, and too many suburbanites. McCain wins Florida and New Hampshire (where he has always been popular). Assuming everything else from 2004 remains the same, New Mexico, Iowa, Wisconsin, and Missouri become the keys. New Mexico goes to Obama (thanks to Bill Richardson) but Missouri remains Republican, giving Obama 263 EV with Iowa (7) and Wisconsin (10) to go. McCain wins those thanks to a large rural turnout and he wins the election without having to lift a finger in Ohio or PA.
4. Alternatively, McCain keeps it simple and just wins Ohio. In that case Obama could win WI, IA, NH and NM and still lose 274-264 (calculator here). Given the preponderance of deindustrialized, angry white people in that state, it's going to be hard for Obama (an admitted black guy) to make up the 120,000 vote margin of Kerry's defeat in 2004. I could easily see McCain winning the whole taco just by squeaking out a 5,000-vote Ohio victory in the suburbs of Cleveland and Cincinnati or in blighted shitholes like Akron and Dayton. If McCain wins Ohio, Obama has to win everything Kerry won plus Iowa and New Mexico (plausible), and one of either Virginia, Arkansas, Colorado, or Florida (all longshots).
So that's how easy it is for McCain to win. The country might seem to be sick of Republicans and McCain might be a terrible candidate, but the magic of the Electoral College means that McCain can be really, really bad (he is) and still win without anything exceptional happening. I think Obama can hold Wisconsin (Madison, Milwaukee) and New Mexico is on balance a favorable Democratic state. But the GOP has an edge in the others. If Obama loses Ohio (or PA, which is essentially the same) because the "salt of the Earth" crowd can't pass up yet another tax cut (one they will be shocked to find out does not solve their economic woes) he is really in trouble. He will need to win states where Democratic candidates have not won a majority (although Clinton got pluralities) since 1976. And that was with a white southerner running.