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Three Days To Go

Here are some Saturday morning, home stretch observations, for those who intend to torture themselves by obsessing on the polls over the weekend:

1-Forget the national polls. No matter which candidate you favor, you'll drive yourself crazy if you invest emotion in the constant fluctuations of the multiple daily tracking polls (let alone the nonstop efforts of the Drudge Report to try to swing the momentum of the election through the sheer size of his screaming red headlines every time any survey has a hiccup in John McCain's favor).

2-Keep an eye on the state polls. As all loyal CL readers know, the presidential race is not a national election, but a collection of 50 state races 51 actually, counting the District of Columbia, which has three electoral votes although not a state. The crucial numbers, as Al Gore can tell you, are not for the national, popular vote, but for the combination of states that result in 270 electoral votes.

(Quick refresher on the Electoral College vote: Each state gets a share of electoral votes equal to the number of its representatives in the House, plus its two Senators. So California, for example, which has more electoral votes than any state, has 55: 53, or one for each of its congressional districts, plus its two members of the U.S. Senate. Adding up the total electoral votes for all states equals 538; this means that the candidate who gets 270 EV 50 percent plus 1 wins the presidency).

3-The current shape of the Electoral College vote strongly favors Obama.

The Democrat currently holds what appear to be decisive leads at least five points in 20 states that total 238 EVs, and it's difficult to see him losing any of those states (California, Connecticut, Delaware, District of Columbia, Hawaii, Illinois, Iowa, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Oregon, Rhode Island, Vermont, Washington and Wisconsin).

Republican McCain, by contrast, holds such solid leads in 16 states totaling just 127 EV (Alabama, Alaska, Arkansas, Idaho Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, and Mississippi. Nebraska, Oklahoma, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee Texas, Utah, Wyoming).

Taking these 36 states off the board leaves 15 states with a total of 173 electoral votes. To be elected, Obama needs to win just 32 of the 173; McCain needs to capture 143.

4-The election will be most likely decided among 7 states:

Recent polling shows Obama holding statistically significant, but not necessarily, solid leads in 6 of the 7, with a total of 73 EV, of the 15 states left. The 6 are Colorado (9); Nevada (5); New Mexico (5); Ohio (20); Pennsylvania (21) and Virginia (13). If Obama wins any two of the Eastern Time zone states Ohio, Pennsylvania and Virginia it will be clear that he's the new president hours before the polls close in California. If he fails to win two of three, the focus will shift to the West.

As for McCain, he holds a statistically significant, but not decisive lead, in one additional state West Virginia (5); a victory there would give him a base of 132 EV, still far short of what he needs.

It's not coincidence, of course, that both campaigns have spent much of the past several weeks in these states, where they'll also be in the next few days. Of these seven key states in play, all but one Pennsylvania were won by George Bush in 2004. So in the battle over them, McCain is trying to reclaim the Republican base, while Obama is seeking to expand greatly the Democratic base.

5-There are 8 other states that are currently too close too call.

The remaining 8 states, totaling 95 EV, are current battlegrounds, in the sense that polls now show statistical ties between the two candidates. They are Arizona (10); Florida (27); Georgia (15); Indiana (11); Missouri (11); Montana (3); North Carolina (15); North Dakota (3).

As a political matter, what is interesting is that ALL of them were won by Bush in 2004; in other words, Obama here again has taken the fight to McCain, who is playing defense in states that he should have nailed down long ago, if the 2008 election had the same basic red state-blue state shape of the last two. It doesn't, because Obama's campaign has expanded the electoral map for Democrats. That is why he remains the favorite to win Tuesday, regardless of what national polls show. And if he wins Florida early, he's on his way to a landslide.

Bottom line:

a) Obama is ahead in 26 states with 311 electoral votes.
b) McCain is ahead in 17 states with 132 electoral votes.
c) Eight other states with 95 EV are tied.
d) Obama needs to hold on to what he's got; McCain needs to hold what he's got and take away a batch of other states.
e) The biggest wild card is the possibility of confusion and chaos in voting on Election Day, particularly in Ohio. If things get ugly, with long lines, legal motions to keep polls open late, millions of challenged ballots, and the like, Democrats will be accusing Republicans of suppressing minority votes, and the GOP will attack their rivals for trying to steal the election by tainting the voter pool. More work for lawyers.

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