It really is no wonder that Nate Silver got so into this election thing. Playing with the electoral numbers is really just about as much fun as playing with baseball statistics. Even more, it's a whole lot like playing with NFL playoff possibilities at the end of the season (which, of course, is awesome).
The other day, I was trying to explain the election to my daughter, and we were playing with the CNN election map. (Warning: Do not click on that link unless you want to spend the next several hours coming up with your own electoral scenarios). She didn't really understand when I explained that there are 42 states that are more or less decided already. I tried to explain to her polling and state's histories, but she had trouble with the concept. Her thought: How can you know who will win the election until you actually have the election?
Still, I showed her that according to CNN -- and I think this is probably about right based on the little I know -- there are eight states really in play in the 2012 presidential election. And we clicked each state red and blue to see how the numbers added up. It was great -- the first time time I was really able to share with her how much fun statistics and numbers can be. And the great thing is that it really was all about numbers -- we didn't talk about the issues, the candidates, the contentiousness or anything like that. Not this time. It was an escape from all that. It was Candidate A and Candidate B. And it was a math puzzle.
Repeat: A math puzzle.
With 42 states more or less locked in, the numbers look like this:
President Obama 237, Mitt Romney 209.
There is some wiggle room in those numbers, of course. Those numbers assume Romney wins North Carolina, and assumes Obama wins Pennsylvania and Minnesota and Michigan. It's possible those could go another way.
But, again, we're playing a stats game here. Let's go with the assumption that there are eight states in play. Here they are, their electoral vote total and (for fun) Nate Silver's percentages on who likely will win the state.
New Hampshire: 4 (Obama 75.4%)
Nevada: 6 (Obama 82.8%)
Iowa: 6 (Obama 74.4%)
Colorado: 9 (Obama 60.7%)
Wisconsin: 10 (Obama 88.1%)
Virginia: 13 (Obama 61.8%)
Ohio: 18 (Obama 77.6%)
Florida: 29 (Romney 59.3%)
It should noted here that I started this post on Tuesday … by Wednesday, Obama's percentages had gone up in all eight states (including Florida, where Romney was a 64% favorite before). If Obama wins the seven states where Nate has made him the favorite, he will win the election rather handily (303 to 248). This might help explain why Nate now has Obama 77.4% likely to win the election.
But you really can play all sorts of games with those eight states to determine the winner. Colorado and Virginia are basically toss-ups at this point (Nate's percentages for Obama were in the mid 50s on Tuesday, so you can see how volatile the polling is right now). Win those two and Florida and Romney is an Ohio away from the Presidency.
Some questions we tried to answer:
Question 1: Is there a realistic way for Romney to win without winning Florida?
Answer: I don't think so, no. I mean, we are assuming there is no big surprise in Michigan or Pennsylvania, but assuming those go blue (and it's hard to imagine Romney winning Pennsylvania but losing Florida), Romney simply cannot lose Florida and win the election. There just aren't enough electoral votes in play. Even assuming he wins Florida, he seems to me to be facing a pretty severe uphill electoral fight. Without it, Obama essentially would wrap things up by winning ANY of the other seven states in play, including Wisconsin which looks less and less like a toss-up state and more and more like an Obama certainty.
Question 2: Is there a a way for Romney to win without Ohio?
Answer: Yes, but it's a longshot. It goes without saying that Romney would have to win Florida and sweep the toss-up states of Virginia and Colorado. Without Ohio, though (or an upset in Pennsylvania or Michigan), Romney would have no choice but to win Wisconsin and either Iowa or New Hampshire (Wisconsin would be a pretty big long shot at this point) OR he would have to win win Nevada, Iowa and and New Hampshire (Nevada would be a tough one). It's become an election cliche, but it really does seem true: Romney's hopes are in winning Ohio.
Question 3: Is there a way for Obama to win without winning Ohio?
Answer: Yes. It's tricky, but certainly less tricky than Romney's map. Obama will probably win Nevada and Wisconsin. That would leave him 17 votes shy of the 270 needed. He could get those 17 any number of ways even without Ohio. Virginia and any of the other three states would get him to 270. And if he lost Virginia, then a sweep of Colorado, Iowa and New Hampshire would get him there. But if Obama lost Ohio, that would probably be a bad sign for those toss-up states. And without Virginia or Colorado, he would could not reach 270.
Question 4: What would be the biggest surprise?
1. Obama wins Utah. Republicans have won the last three elections by 28, 45 and 40 points … and Romney obviously has deep connections to the state.
2. Romney wins Hawaii. Not only has Hawaii gone hugely Democrat the last three years, Obama was born there and won by 45 points in 2008. Hawaii has gone blue every year except during Nixon's landslide in 1972 and Reagan's landslide in 1984.
3. Obama wins Wyoming. Republicans have won last three by an average of 48 percentage points. Last time Wyoming voted blue? That was Lyndon Johnson in his 1964 landslide.
4. Romney wins Illinois. The state has gone double-digit blue the last three elections and Obama won his home state by 25 points in 2008. Illinois was a reliably red state until 1992, and has voted Democrat every election since.
5. Romney wins New York. Democrats have won by 27, 18 and 25 points the last three elections. Obama is ahead by about 25 points in the polls. The last time New York went Republican? Ronald Reagan in 1984.
6. Obama wins Alaska. Republicans won last three by 21, 27 and 31 points and Alaska has gone blue only one time, for Lyndon Johnson in 1964. As far as I know, there has not been a significant poll done in Alaska. None is really needed.
7. Romney wins Massachusetts. His time as governor would make this only slightly surprising; Democrats have won by an average of 26 points the last three elections. Other than the Reagan elections, Massachusetts has gone blue every year since Ike.
8. Obama wins Oklahoma. Republicans have won the the last three elections there by 31, 31 and 21 points. And the state has voted blue exactly one time since 1950.
9. Obama wins Idaho. Republicans have won the the last three elections by 25, 38 and 39 points.
10. Romney wins California. The state was once pretty reliably Republican, but has not gone red since 1988 and had gone double-digit blue each of the last three elections.
Others receiving votes: Obama winning Alabama, Mississippi, Lousiana, Kansas; Romney winning Maryland, Connecticut, Washington.
Question 5: What is the most likely scenario for a Romney win?
The most likely scenario is he wins Florida and Ohio and finds himself 17 electoral votes shy of 270. He can get those any number of ways, but I would say a victory in Virginia is the best one. That would leave him four shy, and he gets those four in Colorado or Iowa or New Hampshire.
Question 6: What is the most likely scenario for an Obama win?
It's likely Obama will win Nevada and Wisconsin, leaving him 17 votes shy. His most likely victory comes in winning Ohio. There are other opportunities, but Ohio would get it done.
Bonus question: For brilliant reader Owen … can we get a tie?
Yep. There are probably several ways to do it, but here's the easiest: If Romney wins Florida, Colorado, Nevada, Iowa and Virginia, that gets him to 269. Obama would win Wisconsin, Ohio and New Hampshire, getting him 269. At that point, the House of Representatives would pick the next president, which would certainly be Mitt Romney. However, the Senate would choose the Vice President, which would probably be Joe Biden. What fun for everyone.