How the Race Will Be Won

By ksascomm

Political Science Associate Professor Adam Sheingate on some critical, and sometimes overlooked, components of winning a presidential campaign.

Most people tend to forget that the U.S. presidential election is really 51 elections, not one. Because of the Electoral College, candidates in the general election are competing in all 50 states, plus the District of Columbia, in order to reach the 270 electoral votes required to become president. This is something media accounts of the race do not address enough.

When you think about a candidate’s chances for election, you have to think in these terms: What does the map have to look like to get to 270 electoral votes? Many criticize the Electoral College, and rightly so. Because electoral votes are awarded on a winner-take-all basis, votes for a losing candidate are almost meaningless. Five million people voted for John McCain in California in 2008, yet Barack Obama received all 55 electoral votes from that state. A better system would tie the outcome more directly to the popular vote. As we know from the 2000 election, this is not always so. Reforms are unlikely, however, and no matter what system we put in place, the rules will always dictate how the game is played.

Thus, even with all of the money in campaigns, candidates must still allocate resources wisely to garner 270 electoral votes. Both campaigns will avoid spending money in states like Maryland that are almost certain to go one way or another. Instead, campaigns focus on contested, or battleground, states that will ultimately decide the race. In 2008, Obama and McCain made more than 20 personal appearances in four battleground states, skipping 27 other states entirely during the general election. This makes sense given that the average margin of victory in these 27 states was more than 20 percent. By contrast, the average margin of victory in the four most heavily visited states was only 6 percent. We see the same pattern in advertising. Sixty percent of all advertising in the last months of the 2008 campaign was in just five states—Florida, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Virginia, and North Carolina—where the average margin of victory was just under 5 percent.

Looking ahead to this year’s race, the congressional reapportionment following the 2010 Census has shifted the distribution of electoral votes across the country. States won by Obama in 2008 have lost a total of six electoral votes, which may change the calculus of the campaign slightly. More important, it is unlikely that Indiana or North Carolina, states Obama won narrowly in 2008, will go Democratic in 2012. States like Virginia, Colorado, Ohio, and Florida will be key battlegrounds for the campaign. On the other side of the column, McCain won Missouri by less than 4,000 votes in 2008; the state will be closely contested again this year.

Organization matters, especially in these battleground states. One of the great successes of the Obama campaign in 2008 was the way it transformed a grassroots organization created to win the nomination into an effective campaign operation for the general election. Obama will have to re-create the organization and enthusiasm, something that may be difficult to replicate this time around. His Republican challenger will try to use his momentum from the nomination to build a strong organization in key states. The lesson of recent elections is that the outcome will depend on which campaign builds a superior organization to get out the vote.