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The State Of the Races
Polls Show Obama Leading in States Whose Electoral Votes Total Nearly 300, and the Democrats Heading Toward Expanded House and Senate Majorities

By David S. Broder, Dan Balz and Chris Cillizza
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, November 2, 2008

Barack Obama and the Democrats hold a commanding position two days before Tuesday's election, with the senator from Illinois leading in states whose electoral votes total nearly 300 and with his party counting on significantly expanded majorities in the House and Senate.

John McCain is running in one of the worst environments ever for a Republican presidential nominee. The senator from Arizona has not been in front in any of the 159 national polls conducted over the past six weeks. His slender hopes for winning the White House now depend on picking up a major Democratic stronghold or fighting off Obama's raids on most of the five states President Bush won four years ago that now lean toward the Democrat. He also must hold onto six other states that Bush won in 2004 but are considered too close to call.

Two factors cloud the final weekend projections. The first is how voters ultimately respond to the prospect of the first African American president in U.S. history, a force that could make the contest closer than it appears. The other, which pushes in the opposite direction, is whether Obama can expand the electorate to give him an additional cushion in battleground states.

Obama leads in every state that Democratic Sen. John F. Kerry won four years ago, which gives him a base of 252 electoral votes of the 270 needed to win. He also has leads of varying sizes in five states Bush won: Iowa, New Mexico, Virginia, Colorado and Nevada. Were he to win all of those on Tuesday, he would claim the presidency with 291 electoral votes.

The tossup states include traditional battlegrounds such as Ohio, Florida and Missouri, as well as North Carolina, Indiana and Montana, which have been firmly in the Republican column in the past. They account for 87 electoral votes, and if Obama were to win several of them, his electoral vote total could push well into the 300s.

In Senate races, Democrats, who control 51 votes, are closing in on a filibuster-proof 60-seat majority. Three GOP-held seats whose Republicans are retiring -- in Colorado, New Mexico and Virginia -- appear almost certain to go to Democrats. In five other states -- Alaska, Minnesota, New Hampshire, North Carolina and Oregon -- incumbent Republicans are seriously threatened. To get to 60, Democrats would have to win all those seats, plus one of three other competitive races: in Georgia, Kentucky and Mississippi.

In the House, Democrats look to repeat their gains of two years ago, when they picked up 31 seats and took control of the chamber. On Tuesday, they could add 25 to 30 seats to that majority, which would bring them to their highest number since 1990, when they had 267 seats. Ten Republican-held seats lean toward Democrats, and two dozen are viewed as tossups. Five Democratic-held seats are considered up for grabs.

Of the 11 gubernatorial races, only three are competitive. Democratic Attorney General Jay Nixon has the advantage over Rep. Kenny Hulshof in Missouri, where Republican Gov. Matt Blunt is not running for reelection. Two other races in states held by Democrats are considered tossups.

In Washington, Democratic Gov. Chris Gregoire, who won a controversial victory four years ago, faces a tough rematch against businessman Dino Rossi. In North Carolina, where Democratic Gov. Mike Easley is term-limited, Lt. Gov. Bev Perdue and Republican Pat McCrory, the mayor of Charlotte, are in a race that is too close to call.

These projections are based on interviews by a team of Washington Post reporters with strategists in both parties, the presidential campaigns, state and local officials, and other analysts. The projections also include an analysis of a wealth of polling data on individual races and states.

In the Washington Post-ABC News daily tracking poll, Obama currently holds a nine-point national advantage, topping McCain 53 to 44 percent. The poll started after the last of the three presidential debates, and Obama's margin has held between seven and 11 points throughout.

More than half of all voters in the Post-ABC poll say the economy is their central voting issue, and Obama has been the main beneficiary of that focus. He has a double-digit edge on the question of which candidate is better able to handle the economy, and he has had even wider leads as the one who is more in touch with the financial problems people face.

Presidential

No Democrat has won more than 50.1 percent of the national vote since Jimmy Carter in 1976, but Obama could eclipse that number on Tuesday if current projections hold. McCain advisers said yesterday that they think the race has tightened but acknowledged that the senator has a difficult path to victory, given the economy, Bush's unpopularity and the sour public mood.

Early on, Obama set his sights on expanding the number of battleground states. He has used his superior financial resources to put Democrats in a competitive position in places where they have not been before. With the largest war chest in presidential history, Obama has heavily outspent McCain on television and has poured millions into building an enormous field organization around the country. As a result, he has many more options to get to 270 electoral votes.

David Plouffe, Obama's campaign manager, said he has always assumed the race would be close in the end, but added: "We are entering the election with a lot of different scenarios to win the election, which was always our number one strategic goal. We think we are not in danger in any of the Kerry states, and we've got obviously about a dozen Bush states that we think are potentially winnable. So, a lot of different ways to get to 270."

McCain strategists insist that he is still in a position to win. But his margin of error is very small. He is investing time and resources in Pennsylvania, the one big state Democrats carried four years ago where his advisers think he has a chance to win. McCain is currently behind in Pennsylvania, but even if he were to win there, and hold onto Ohio and Florida, he could still lose if Obama carries the five Bush states where he is now leading.

Bill McInturff, McCain's pollster, offered a counter view by saying that the contest is shifting in the final days and that it is highly competitive. "The race is changing quickly," he said, "and I believe we're seeing real movement that is putting this race within margin of error nationally and too close to call in too many states to be able to predict the outcome."

Obama lost Pennsylvania to Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton in the primaries, and some Democrats have fretted publicly that the state's older population and the issue of race make it a more difficult state for him than many others. Democratic Gov. Edward G. Rendell said he expects a massive vote from Philadelphia and a potentially strong showing in the surrounding suburbs to compensate for weaknesses in other parts of the state.

Both of the vice presidential running mates -- Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin for the Republicans and Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. of Delaware for the Democrats -- have been employed heavily in the Pennsylvania campaign. Palin has proved popular among conservatives in the central and western parts of the state, while Scranton native Biden has worked to overcome resistance to Obama in northeastern Pennsylvania.

Ohio and Florida were major disappointments to Democrats in the past two elections, twice providing Bush with his electoral-vote margins. Obama, however, is competitive in both states and will spend his final days working each one.

The Mountain West is another region where Obama has expanded the battlefield. A rising Latino population and other demographic changes have reshaped the politics there, with significant increases in Democratic registration in Colorado and Nevada. McCain, who pushed for comprehensive immigration reform, hoped to attract significant support from the Hispanic community but has fallen short, according to polls. That has helped Obama in Colorado, Nevada and New Mexico.

Obama planted his flag early in two traditionally conservative states -- Indiana and Virginia -- in a further effort to stretch the map. He appears to have withstood McCain's effort to depict him as a tax-and-spend liberal and clearly has benefited from the economic woes that hit hard this fall. He is in a solid position in Virginia and competitive in Indiana. Neither state has voted for a Democratic presidential nominee since 1964.

African American votes are critical to Obama's hopes in both those states, and the same is true in Georgia and North Carolina, which have even higher percentages of black voters. Georgia appears likely to stay Republican on Tuesday, but North Carolina is highly competitive, based on the patterns of early voting there.

Senate

Democrats hold a 51-to-49 edge in the Senate. Two years ago, on their way to capturing control during the midterm elections, they won every close race. The same must happen Tuesday for them to reach the 60 votes needed to block Republican filibusters.

Three Republican retirements have given Democrats almost certain victories. In Virginia, former governor Mark R. Warner (D) is trouncing former governor James S. Gilmore III (R) for the seat of Sen. John W. Warner (R). In Colorado, where Republican Sen. Wayne Allard is stepping down, Democratic Rep. Mark Udall is the clear favorite. In New Mexico, Rep. Tom Udall, Mark Udall's cousin, is in similarly strong shape to win the seat of Republican Sen. Pete V. Domenici.

The collapse of support for Bush has put three other incumbent Republicans in jeopardy. In New Hampshire, Sen. John E. Sununu is in a rematch with former Democratic governor Jeanne Shaheen. In Minnesota, Sen. Norm Coleman faces stiff competition from comedian Al Franken. In Oregon, Sen. Gordon Smith appears to be trailing state House Speaker Jeff Merkley.

Three other incumbent Republicans are in trouble in part because of the potential for sizable African American turnout for Obama on Tuesday. In North Carolina, Sen. Elizabeth Dole is in a very competitive contest against state Sen. Kay Hagan. In Georgia, Sen. Saxby Chambliss is in some jeopardy in his race against former state representative Jim Martin. In Mississippi, appointed Sen. Roger Wicker is struggling to hold on against former governor Ronnie Musgrove.

Two other prominent Republicans are in tough races. In Alaska, Sen. Ted Stevens, who was convicted on seven corruption counts last week, faces possible rejection in his race against Anchorage Mayor Mark Begich. In Kentucky, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has gotten a scare from businessman Bruce Lunsford.

Only one Democrat is in a competitive race. In Louisiana, Sen. Mary Landrieu rates a narrow favorite over State Treasurer John Kennedy.

House

An extremely challenging national political environment, a series of unexpected retirements in swing seats and a deep fundraising deficit have put Republicans on the defensive in the House. Twenty-nine Republicans chose not to seek reelection, opening unexpected opportunities for Democrats.

By early fall, the cash shortage had grown beyond the expectations of even the most pessimistic Republicans. At the start of September, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee had $54 million to spend on House contests, compared with $14 million for the National Republican Congressional Committee.

Democrats see pickup opportunities everywhere they look, including multiple races in Florida, Ohio and Virginia, three normally Republican states that are now presidential battlegrounds.

Republicans, however, are counting on gaining the seat of Rep. Tim Mahoney (D-Fla.), who admitted to infidelity. In Texas, Democratic Rep. Nick Lampson, who two years ago took over the district of former House majority leader Tom DeLay, is struggling to win reelection. In Pennsylvania, Democratic Rep. John P. Murtha, a close ally of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, is in trouble.

Polling director Jon Cohen and staff researcher Alice Crites contributed to this report.

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