Understanding Electoral College Possibilities

by Frank Newport and Jeffrey M. Jones

2000 election provides background for 2004 outcome

GALLUP NEWS SERVICE

The presidential election will be won or lost based on the final count of Electoral College votes. It is, however, much more difficult to understand what is happening in an election by focusing on the Electoral College than it is by following the national popular vote. There are literally thousands of possibilities or combinations of ways in which the states could break that would produce different electoral vote tallies. Even if one focuses just on, say, the 10 states that appear likely to swing either way in this election, there is a large number -- 2 to the 10th power (1,024) -- of ways the electoral vote total could work in favor of either George W. Bush or John Kerry.

The CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll will have updated readings on the election in six key states by Monday. At that time, Gallup will be able to pinpoint more precisely the probabilities of various combinations of Electoral College events.

Meanwhile, there are approaches to the Electoral College situation that can help simplify one's thinking. Here is an outline of one useful way of looking at it.

It helps to begin with the 2000 election. (The lesson of the 1996 election, in which Bill Clinton sought a second term, supports this. Only a few states switched from the Republican to the Democratic column -- or vice versa -- from the 1992 election to the 1996 election.)

Bush ended up receiving 271 electoral votes (after Florida was allocated) in 2000, while Al Gore received 266. (There are a total of 538 electoral votes, but one elector abstained from voting that year.) A candidate needs 270 votes to win.

If each candidate in 2004 wins exactly the same states that his party's candidate won in 2000, Bush would receive 278 electoral votes rather than the 271 he received in 2000. Why? The 2000 Bush states gained electoral votes based on congressional reapportionment after the 2000 census, which ended up giving these states a net gain of House of Representatives seats (and hence, more electoral votes). Kerry, thus, would start out at 260 electoral votes.

Given this starting point, how likely is it that the race will be exactly the same this year as it was in 2000?

First, it does appear at this point that the "blue" states that Gore won by more than five points in 2000 will more than likely stay Kerry states, at least based on available polling. These states total 168 electoral votes.

Two of these states, New Jersey and Hawaii, appear to be much more competitive than expected, according to recent polls in those states. However, given those states' recent histories, if they went to the Bush column, it would be a big upset and probably a sign of a larger Bush victory than most Bush supporters expect.

Second, it is also likely that Bush will retain all of the "red" states he won by more than five points in 2000. Again, there are indications that Colorado and Virginia are closer than expected, but most recent polls show Bush with an advantage in those states. Tennessee, Gore's home state, can be put in the red column. Bush closely won this state, but polls suggest it is now a safe red state.

So the analysis settles down to a look at the 15 so-called showdown states that either Bush or Gore won by five or fewer points in 2000. Bush won six of these showdown states (Florida, New Hampshire, Nevada, Missouri, Ohio, and Arkansas), while Gore won nine of them (Wisconsin, Iowa, New Mexico, Oregon, Minnesota, Pennsylvania, Maine, Michigan, and Washington).

"Red" States -- States Bush Won by Six Points or More in 2000

"Purple" States -- States Won by Five Points or Less in 2000

"Blue" States -- States Gore Won by Six Points or More in 2000

State

Elec-
toral
votes

Mar-
gin

State

Elec-
toral
votes

Winner

Mar-
gin

State

Elec-
toral
votes

Mar-
gin

Wyo.

3

40

Ark.

6

Bush

5

Vt.

3

9

Utah

5

40

Ohio

20

Bush

3

Calif.

55

11

Idaho

4

39

Mo.

11

Bush

3

Ill.

21

12

Alaska

3

31

Nev.

5

Bush

3

Del.

3

13

Neb.

5

29

N.H.

4

Bush

1

N.J.

15

15

N.D.

3

27

Fla.

27

Bush

0

Md.

10

16

Mont.

3

25

Wis.

10

Gore

0

Conn.

7

17

S.D.

3

22

Iowa

7

Gore

0

Hawaii

4

18

Okla.

7

21

N.M.

5

Gore

0

N.Y.

31

24

Texas

34

21

Ore.

7

Gore

0

Mass.

12

27

Kan.

6

20

Minn.

10

Gore

2

R.I.

4

29

Miss.

6

17

Pa.

21

Gore

4

D.C.

3

76

Ind.

11

15

Maine

4

Gore

5

S.C.

8

15

Mich.

17

Gore

5

Ky.

8

15

Wash.

11

Gore

5

Ala.

9

15

N.C.

15

12

Ga.

15

11

Va.

13

8

Colo.

9

8

La.

9

7

W.Va.

5

6

Ariz.

10

6

Tenn.

11

3

Total

205

165

168

The real battle is to see if Bush or Kerry can pick up any of the states their respective parties' candidates did not win in 2000.

Let's start by looking at the six Bush showdown states. Could Kerry flip any of these this year? The one that appears most likely to switch is Ohio, where the latest Gallup Poll showed Kerry with a small lead. If Kerry flips Ohio, he gets 20 electoral votes. Everything else being equal, that reduces Bush's electoral vote count to 258, and Kerry wins the election with 280 electoral votes.

New Hampshire is another strong possibility with its 4 electoral votes. If Kerry wins both Ohio and New Hampshire, he would stand at 284 electoral votes, and Bush at 254.

Of the remaining four -- Arkansas, Missouri, Florida, and Nevada -- recent polls suggest Bush has a good chance of retaining them, though all are probably close enough for Kerry to take with a last-minute surge. The latest CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll showed Bush with a lead in Florida, but that was more than a week before the election, and much could change in the closing days of the campaign.

Looking at the nine states Gore won in 2000 by small margins, the most vulnerable appear to be Wisconsin (10 electoral votes), Iowa (7), Minnesota (10), and New Mexico (5). The race in Pennsylvania remains close, though the polls are on balance more favorable to Kerry than to Bush (the latest CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll has Kerry up by three points).

Gallup Polls have shown Bush in the lead in Wisconsin and Iowa so far this year, but again it is quite possible that Kerry could save these states for the Democratic column with a strong finish over the final weekend of the campaign.

Possible Scenarios

Thus, with all of this as background, two different scenarios can be developed for what may happen on Election Day.

For the moment, assume Kerry wins Ohio and Bush retains Florida. That would leave Bush needing to win back 12 electoral votes in order to win the election.

Gallup's assumption at the moment is that the following four states are the most realistic possibilities for a Bush flip:

  • Wisconsin (10 electoral votes)
  • Iowa (7)
  • New Mexico (5)
  • Minnesota (10)

Since Bush needs 12 electoral votes if he is to win (assuming Kerry takes Ohio), no one of these four states alone would do it for him. He needs some combination of any two of these states to equal the 12 votes required for victory -- assuming he wins Florida.

So the key to the election could well be in the three upper Midwest states of Iowa, Minnesota, and Wisconsin, plus New Mexico.

If Kerry wins three out of four of these, Kerry wins the election. If, on the other hand, Bush manages to win two of them, Bush wins the election -- again, everything else being equal as has been described.

Concluding Note

Gallup believes that this way of looking at the Electoral College situation provides a useful roadmap through the dense web of possible outcomes.

Of course, if there are changes on Tuesday that are more major than those outlined here -- say Kerry wins Florida or Bush wins Pennsylvania -- then all bets are off and the election veers into more complex terrain not described here.

It appears to Gallup that Florida may be the most useful state to follow first on Tuesday. If it goes to Kerry, and if Kerry follows through with a win in Ohio and Pennsylvania, it will be very difficult for Bush to win. If Florida remains in the GOP column, then the next states to watch are Ohio and Pennsylvania. If Bush wins one or both of these, then he is better situated for victory. If Kerry wins both (and Florida remains in the Republican column), the race -- as noted -- moves to the upper Midwest.

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