Mark Nickolas has a fairly obnoxious post at Arianna Huffington’s place lecturing “the talking heads on cable television” for their “incessant bloviating over whether Obama should be leading by more than just five points over McCain.” He writes, “It’s really painful to watch these fools who don’t bother to pay attention to history to understand how a five-point popular vote victory almost always translates when it comes to the only metric that matters — the Electoral College.”
Nickolas’s basic point, bolstered with charts, is right: A five-point Obama win in the popular vote would likely translate into an Electoral College landslide. In 1992, Bill Clinton only beat George Bush by about 43 percent to 38 percent in the popular vote but won the electoral vote 370 to 168. The odds are heavily in favor of a candidate having their five-point popular vote margin distributed in the right places for a convincing electoral vote win.
“So, exactly, what are the dimwits on cable news talking about?” Nickolas asks. Um, they are talking about a five-point (or less) lead in the polls, which can change, not the final popular vote which can’t. The latter isn’t the only history that’s relevant here: Democratic presidential candidates have built up much larger summer leads in the past only to watch them slip away. Jimmy Carter in 1976 and Michael Dukakis in 1988 are the best examples — Obama’s lead isn’t sufficient to sustain the kind of slippage that Carter experienced before narrowly winning the White House or even Dukakis’s slide.
“If you simply allocate undecideds by the percentage each candidate is getting, ” Nickolas writes, “Obama’s lead jumps to close to seven points.” But we don’t know that you can “simply allocate the undecideds by the percentage each candidate is getting” at this point. The undecided voters heavily disapprove of Bush and would like a change but they also have deep misgivings about Obama. We don’t know how they are going to vote right now, which is really the whole point of the political discussion. They may break for the challenger like they did in 1980, turning a nail-biter of an election into a landslide for Ronald Reagan. Or they might swing back to the incumbent, as they did with Gerald Ford in 1976, in which case a challenger who’s never had a 34-point lead is in serious trouble.
I’d suggest to Nickolas that he should learn more history before he lectures the rest of us about it, but what I think he really needs to do is learn some manners.
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