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Wargaming the Electoral College

Almost exactly eight years ago today, it was all but over for John McCain. Looking at the maps the first week of October 2008, I wrote that "as things stand now, Obama cruises to victory by winning any tossup state other than NV. McCain must win every tossup state other than NV."

Things aren't that bad for Trump-Pence, but most battleground states are trending blue -- and Trump needs to win a whole lot of battleground states.

Before we dig into those, there are two outlier polls. Both Rasmussen (43-41) and the Los Angeles Times (47-43) show Trump leading, albeit nationally rather than in battleground states. And even those figures come with caveats. The L.A. Times tracks eligible voters -- not likely voters, not registered voters, but eligible voters. It would seem that all you need to do to be a respondent for their daily tracking is be at least 18 and have a pulse -- and they probably aren't checking too closely for either. As for Rasmussen, of the major polling outfits last time around, their numbers almost always trended higher than anyone else's for Mitt Romney. Since then, Rasmussen has tracked President Obama's approval rating higher than almost anyone else, so maybe they've fixed their methodology. Or maybe they overcorrected it. Who knows?

So I'm giving Rasmussen a skeptical eye and treating the L.A. Times numbers with total disdain.

Just a couple of weeks ago -- before the first presidential debate -- everything seemed to be breaking Trump's way, when it looked like "Clinton's collapse [in the polls; not on the sidewalk] is as almost as deep as it is broad." She had faded in the Rust Belt stretch from PA to IA (excluding MN), and had also lost ground in a checkerboard full of states along the Atlantic coast and the Mountain West. The total number of Electoral College votes she could count on had dropped to just a hair over 200, down from 247 in August.

Trump, on the other hand, hadn't secured any new red states, however he had chipped away at enough of Clinton's statewide leads to be able to see a couple of clears paths to 270.

But post-debate, the numbers are almost all going back the other way.

Let's look at what I've been calling "Trump's northern route to victory" through those Rust Belt states.

Pennsylvania is of course the biggie, with a treasure trove of 20 EC votes. Clinton is up by an RCP average of 6. The high result (Clinton +10) comes from Monmouth, with Franklin & Marshall just one behind. The real outlier is CNN at Clinton +1, but that poll was conducted before the first debate.

Trump leads by an average of just 2.4 (within the margin of error) in Ohio, but questions remain about Trump's GOTV effort. Bloomberg reports that "Trump’s team is playing catch-up" against Clinton's well-oiled machine, and Team Trump's lack of political infrastructure means they have to rely for GOTV on a state party led by former (?) rival Gov. John Kasich. There's no love lost between those two, and Kasich not only reportedly turned down the Veep spot, but he also hasn't endorsed Trump.

Michigan looks like the Big Blue Blowout it was probably always going to be, and Wisconsin doesn't look much better. While polling in Iowa is slim, Trump appears to lead there comfortably -- but without OH and probably PA, little IA's six votes don't mean squat.

That's the Northern Route, which looks less like a route and more like broken ground, infested by rattlesnakes.

So let's move south.

Florida is ...still Florida, as delightfully crazy and unpredictable as ever. Both candidates have somehow lost ground in the last two weeks. If Trump manages to overcome Clinton's slight edge, it might be from riding Marco Rubio's coattails. That result wouldn't just drip with irony -- it would drip with irony dripping with Hollandaise, covered in sprinkles, and with a birthday candle on top.

Georgia and South Carolina -- which we shouldn't have to talk about, and yet here we are -- have Trump up, if not quite comfortably. North Carolina shows Clinton back with a tiny lead on average. If Virginia was a Neil Diamond song, it would be "Song Sung Blue." Clinton might be tracking only in the mid-40s, but Trump hasn't once hit as high as 39 points in any Virginia poll I can find.

On now to the Mountain West.

New Mexico never looked to be in play, and still doesn't. Arizona, remarkably enough, is still in play at this late date. In the four-way race, Trump leads by an average 42.0 - 40.7, and AZ's libertarian heritage likely won't do him much good on Election Day. If I had to call AZ right now, I'd give it to Trump -- but the point is that AZ shouldn't be anything close to an issue. Nevada is anyone's guess, and Colorado's poll numbers are all over the place, from Clinton +11 to Trump +4. I can't tell if it's the voters or the pollsters who are Rocky Mountain high -- maybe it's both. The trend lines are going Clinton's way, however, especially in polls taken post-debate. Evan McMullin's independent run doesn't seem to be doing Trump any real damage in Red Utah, despite a recent "surge."

I didn't actually forget New Hampshire, but some pollsters might have. I've only found two samples of likely voters which are less than two weeks old, and they show Clinton leading but just barely outside the margin of error. That other bellwether, Missouri, is Trump Country.

So if the election were held today (caveat: the election will not be held today) the result would probably look more like 2000 than 2008 -- a close race coming down to less than a handful of states.

clinton-trump-october-6

You'll notice that on today's map, Trump would need to flip Mighty Pennsylvania and at least one other state to win. Or take Michigan and another state the size of Wisconsin or better. Or snag both of those mid-atlantic neighbors, North Carolina and Virginia.

If Trump were to lose Florida, yet sweep through NC, NH, OH, PA, and VA -- then he would still fall short of 270. In addition to that unlikely East Coast run, he'd need to pick off one out of CO, NV, MI, and WI.

Trump's situation isn't as dire as McCain's in the first week of October eight years ago, but his time is running out and his options are narrowing.