Page last updated at 14:16 GMT, Tuesday, 21 October 2008 15:16 UK

Obama's chance of winning big

By Professor Larry Sabato
University of Virginia

The whisper of September has turned to a roar in October: Barack Obama may be on the verge of a landslide victory.

A year ago, no one on the planet could have conceived of such a thing.

Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter on election night, 1976
Jimmy Carter took 50.1% of the vote, in 1976
After all, Democrats have elected just two American presidents since 1968, moderate white Southerners Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, both by modest popular vote margins.

In 2008 Democrats took a daring leap of faith and chose a far more liberal nominee who is the first African-American standard-bearer - no minor matter in a nation that is just 11% black and has been plagued by racial divisions since its founding.

Yet the improbable is becoming probable.

With the presidential debates completed, Obama appears to have an unobstructed path to the White House.

The polls show he won all three debates and is viewed more positively than opponent John McCain.

Voters also believe Obama has the more qualified vice-presidential candidate, Joseph Biden. Sarah Palin, who once gave McCain hope for attracting a generous share of Hillary Clinton's supporters, did so poorly in a series of well-publicised media interviews that she has become a liability outside of the conservative Republican base.

The 'wrong track'

More importantly, the fundamentals of the election year have conspired to create a perfect storm for Democratic victory:

John McCain
Analysts are straining to come up with ways McCain could reverse the flow of the election at this late date. The truth is, such a task is out of his hands
• President Bush's popularity is now at 23%, three points below Richard Nixon on the day he resigned the presidency in August 1974 and only one point higher than the all-time presidential low of 22% recorded for Harry Truman in 1952, in the twilight of his White House years. Bush has made the political environment toxic for all Republicans, even one like McCain who enjoys a "maverick" image and ran against Bush in 2000.

• The rocky economy, with an ongoing mortgage crisis and other troubles, became a major disaster area with the financial meltdown of Wall Street in September and October. Americans are now convinced that a major recession - some insist it is a depression - has begun, and the traditional "pocketbook" issue has powerfully taken over the campaign. The party not in control of the White House (in this case, the Democrats) always benefits from the fear and anger such conditions create.

• An astounding 91% of the voters say that the country is seriously on the wrong track - a level of dissatisfaction never registered in the history of polling.

Obama had held a modest lead in the popular vote and the electoral college count since June, save for the period immediately following the Republican National Convention, when McCain enjoyed a decent "bounce".

By late September the financial crisis had converted Obama's edge into a gulf, and his margin expanded to an average of seven percentage points. In more than a few respectable polls, he has been outpacing McCain by 10% or more.

Obama's lead

The electoral college has followed suit. Based on current polling averages, Obama is already above the 270 electoral votes needed to win the White House.

This map shows Obama at 273, and includes only those states where Obama has leads outside the margin of error in current surveys. McCain has just 155 electoral votes firmly in his column.

Electoral college map (Larry Sabato)

This leaves nine states unaccounted for: Florida, Indiana, Missouri, Nevada, North Carolina, North Dakota, Ohio, Virginia, and West Virginia. At present, Obama has modest leads in all of them, save Indiana, North Dakota, and West Virginia - which are essentially tied toss-ups.

Should Obama capture all the states where he is ahead with two weeks to go in the campaign, his electoral college total would be a remarkable 364 - 94 more than needed for election.

If he also wins the three pure toss-ups, he would go to 383, an excess of 113 votes. Such a total would exceed that of Jimmy Carter in 1976 (297), Bill Clinton in 1992 and 1996 (370 and 379), and both of George W. Bush's elections (271 in 2000 and 286 in 2004).

Close finishes

Realistically, many observers doubt that Obama will hit the 383 mark, and perhaps even the lower 364. Indiana, North Dakota, and West Virginia may be a bridge too far, and no-one would be surprised to see McCain hold on to Missouri and North Carolina.

Should McCain win relatively conservative Florida, Ohio, or Virginia, it would count as only a mild upset. After all, these eight states backed George Bush twice, and only Ohio was even close.

Douglas Wilder

Are there some people who just cannot bring themselves to vote for an African-American? Yes

Douglas Wilder

Analysts are straining to come up with ways McCain could reverse the flow of the election at this late date. The truth is, such a task is out of his hands.

A major terrorist strike or an international crisis might give McCain the opportunity to demonstrate his commander-in-chief credentials, though there are no guarantees this would work.

The much-discussed "Tom Bradley-Doug Wilder" effect, named after two black politicians who unexpectedly lost many white votes on election days in the 1980s, could enable McCain to sneak past Obama on 4 November. Yet the country has made great strides in race relations over the past several decades, and it would be a major surprise if so-called "racial leakage" at the polls cost Obama the White House.

It is important to note that some presidential contests have tightened considerably in their final days, resulting in a closer-than-expected finish.

This phenomenon was observed in 1968 (Richard Nixon v Hubert Humphrey), 1976 (Jimmy Carter v Gerald Ford), 1992 (Bill Clinton v George HW Bush), and 2000 (George W Bush v Al Gore). In each case, though, the frontrunner managed to hold on.

In 1980, the opposite happened, as a tight match-up between Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan turned into a Reagan landslide. A late debate conquest by Reagan and the collapse of the Iranian hostage negotiations pushed the lion's share of the undecided voters to the Republican in the campaign's final week.

Political capital

Tightening aside, at this point, a McCain victory would rival that of President Harry Truman's giant upset in 1948. It's always possible Truman will be reborn, but the 33rd chief executive is invoked every four years by the trailing candidate - and nothing like Truman's triumph has happened in a presidential election since his long-ago shocker.

Marine One, heading for the White House
When governing, the size of your electoral college majority matters

Of course, if asked today, Obama would be pleased to take the absolute minimum of 270 electors, and be done with it.

However, if elected, he will inherit a deeply troubled economy, $10 trillion in national debt, and controversial wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. He will need all the help he can get.

Large electoral college majorities confer political capital on a new president, enabling him to claim a mandate for swift passage of his platform.

The essential question to be resolved in two weeks is the identity of the 44th president.

A second vital query will be answered then, too: Will the new president have enough clout to deal confidently and effectively with the enormous challenges that await him on 20 January?

In the electoral college, for governing at least, size matters.

Professor Larry J Sabato is the director of the Center for Politics, University of Virginia, and author most recently of A More Perfect Constitution.

Electoral College votes

Winning post 270
Obama - Democrat
McCain - Republican
Select from the list below to view state level results.

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