Obama and the Electoral College Math

Legend has it that Democratic strategist James Carville didn't change his underwear the few days before the '92 election for fear of jinxing the returns. Bob Shrum, a key adviser to both Al Gore and John Kerry, treasures a brightly colored scarf he only wears on election nights. He calls it his lucky scarf even though it failed him in 2000 and 2004. I thought of these two characters as I watched David Plouffe, Barack Obama's no-nonsense campaign manager, give a Power Point presentation to a roomful of reporters at the Democratic National Committee headquarters in Washington on Wednesday afternoon. Maybe Plouffe has all sorts of quirks and superstitions he has yet to reveal, but for now he epitomizes the "no-drama Obama" candidate and his campaign.

Slightly built and intense, Plouffe put up a series of electoral maps and with surgical precision illustrated a variety of ways Obama could reach the 270 electoral votes needed to win the presidency. "We're not going to wake up on November 4th with our campaign worrying about one state," he said, harking back to Florida in 2000 and Ohio in 2004. "We will have a lot of states in play … a lot of ways to get to 270." Were he any other partisan strategist, I would discount 50 percent for spin. But Plouffe is convincing, and here's why: He ran a brilliant primary campaign, and Obama will have the money and the technology to pursue every last vote he thinks might be his.

Let's do the math. If Obama holds all the Kerry states, he's at 252. Add Iowa for 259. Add a win in Virginia or North Carolina, "and it's game, set, match," says Plouffe. Or add Colorado and New Mexico, Republican states where Obama now leads, to reach 270. The campaign last week put up a biographical ad in 18 states, including Alaska and Montana, historically Republican states. It looked like Obama was just trying to taunt McCain, lure him into spending money in states where he shouldn't. But Plouffe insists "there's not a head fake in the bunch." Alaska's octogenarian Sen. Ted Stephens, under investigation for corruption and the sponsor of the infamous "bridge to nowhere," is in a tight race for reelection. Montana, which Bill Clinton won in '92, has a Democratic governor and senator.

And Plouffe is just getting started. There's Georgia, a state that hasn't gone Democratic since 1992, but the presence of former Georgia Rep. Bob Barr, who's running for a third party—Libertarian—could drain 2 to 4 percent from McCain and put the state within reach for Obama. "Indiana is another place where I would ask you to reorder your thinking," Plouffe said with clinical certainty, adding it to his list of states "behaving" more Democratic. "Our goal is to adjust the electorate more to our liking," he said, explaining how registering a record number of African-Americans and young people under 40 could swell Democratic turnout and swing Republican-leaning states to Obama.

Plouffe made several references to a "persuasion army" of Obamacons deployed everywhere and turning the campaign's 50-state strategy into reality. I was reminded of a New Yorker cartoon sometime ago of a couple marooned on a desert island. The man turns to his wife and asks if she remembered to make their Jewish Appeal donation. When she says no, he's relieved. "Don't worry," he says. "They'll find us." This year, if you're in any demographic that might possibly vote Democratic, the Obamacons will find you.

The "enthusiasm gap" between Obama and John McCain is huge; only 13 percent of Republicans are very enthusiastic about McCain, while Obama can fill stadiums with people who swoon when he blows his nose. For all the consternation about whether Obama could win over Hillary Clinton's core constituencies—women and Hispanics—Obama enjoys a healthy gender gap, leading McCain among women by anywhere from 12 to 21 points (Kerry won women by 3 points; Gore by 11, and Clinton by 16 points over Bob Dole in 1996). Public polls also show Obama winning Hispanics over McCain with a margin of between 21 and 29 points (Kerry won Hispanics by 9 points; Gore by 27).

OK, there are skeptics. A reporter pointed out that four states Obama is targeting, including Virginia, haven't voted Democratic since '64, resisting the post-Watergate reform tide and the Clinton-Gore baby-boomer joy ride. Is Obama's appeal that different? There's a Gallup poll that shows voters see McCain as the more reassuring commander-in-chief and another poll that shows voters equally divided over which of the two candidates would best handle Iraq. Opposition to the war in Iraq was supposed to be Obama's trump card.

Then there's the setting of Plouffe's press conference, the DNC, which has lagged far behind the Republican National Committee in fundraising. Dig deeper, though, and one reason the DNC is in a hole is that the much-maligned chairman, Howard Dean, insisted on pursuing a 50-state strategy before it was cool, putting paid staffers in places that had never before seen that kind of commitment. With all the pieces in place, how can the Democrats lose? "We could lose because it's us," said a DNC official, only half-joking and voicing the anxiety of a party that has lost too many elections it should have won.