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Moving beyond the Big Three

For at least eight years now, Democrats have told themselves that they couldn’t win the White House without carrying at least two of of the three “Big Three” states: Florida, Ohio, and Pennsylvania. And how has that strategy fared? Needless to say, it hasn’t fared all that well: Democrats carried Pennsylvania in both 2000 and 2004, but lost each of Ohio and Florida both times, and thereby lost the election.

One of the advantages of my simulation model is that we can do some scenario testing. And today, the scenario I want to test is pretty simple. How do the two Democrats fare — Clinton and Obama — in a world where they never carry any electors from Florida, Ohio and Pennsylvania?

The procedure here is pretty simple. I ran a fresh set of 5,000 trial heats for each of Clinton and Obama. With all states included, Obama won 3,112 of his trials (62.4%) and Clinton won 2,062 (41.6%); these numbers differ very slightly from my last “official” simulation run because of random fluctuation. I then pulled states off the table one at a time: first Florida, then Florida and Ohio, and then Florida, Ohio, and Pennsylvania. That is, any electoral votes the candidate won from these states in the trial heats were eliminated.

First, let’s see how this process worked for Obama:

With all states included, Obama wins 3,112 out of 5,000 trial heats (62.2%)

Without Florida, Obama wins 3,096 out of 5,000 trial heats (61.9%)

Without Florida or Ohio, Obama wins 2,867 out of 5,000 trial heats (57.3%)

Without Florida, Ohio, or Pennsylvania, Obama wins 2,389 out of 5,000 trial heats (47.8%)

There are several important things going on here. First, we see how utterly irrelevant Florida is to an Obama candidacy. Florida swung the election between a win and a loss for Obama in just 16 out of 5,000 simulations: or 0.32% of the time. According to our current polling averages, Florida is just Obama’s 32nd best state, not counting the District of Columbia; states that rank ahead of it include North Carolina and Montana. By contrast, Florida is Clinton’s 21st best state.

Obama also isn’t harmed all that much by pulling Ohio off the table in addition to Florida; he still wins the election a solid majority of the time. Losing both Pennsylvania and Ohio in addition to Florida is more problematic for him. However, he still wins the election almost half the time (47.8%). The most likely such scenario is as follows:

Kerry States               252
- Pennsylvania -21
+ Iowa +7
+ New Mexico +5
+ Nevada +5
+ Colorado +9
+ Virginia +13

That is, we take John Kerry’s 252 Electoral Votes and subtract Pennsylvania, leaving Obama at 233. We then add five states to Obama’s column that Kerry didn’t win in 2004, but which Obama is presently favored in based on our averages. As it turns out, this is just enough to get him past the 269 electoral vote hump and win the nomination; he finishes with 270 electoral votes.

There are some other parlays that might work here too. If you eliminate Virginia — the diciest of the five Red states that Obama is favored to win — you could replace it with North Carolina. Or, you could replace it with Missouri plus any of the prairie states (North Dakota looks like the most promising). You could even replace it with Missouri plus one of the congressional distrcits from Nebraska, which would get Obama to exactly 269 EV. These are not the best scenarios for Obama by any means, but they are highly plausible wins, particularly since resources diverted away from the Big Three — big, expensive, oversaturated states in which voters may be hard to move at the margins — could be reallocated to shoring up victory in a place like Virginia, or making some plays in North Carolina, or in the Great Plains.

Now, let’s try the same exercise for Clinton:

With all states included, Clinton wins 2,062 out of 5,000 trial heats (41.6%)

Without Florida, Clinton wins 1,811 out of 5,000 trial heats (36.2%)

Without Florida or Ohio, Clinton wins 1,510 out of 5,000 trial heats (30.2%)

Without Florida, Ohio or Pennsylvania, Clinton wins 1,151 out of 5,000 trial heats (23.0%)

Without the Big Three included, Clinton’s win percentage falls to just 23.0%; these are essentially the cases where she’s won a landslide victory elsewhere around the country. If you absolutely had to create a scenario for Clinton that doesn’t involve Florida, Ohio, and Pennsylvania, you would probably do it like this:

Kerry States               252
- Pennsylvania -21
+ Arkansas +6
+ West Virginia +5
+ Tennessee +11
+ Missouri +11
+ New Mexico +5

The math works out there — Clinton gets to exactly 269 EV and would presumably win in the House of Representatives — but several of these states are tough for Clinton. While she’s a heavy favorite in Arkansas and a slight favorite in West Virginia, she is an underdog in Missouri (46.9% to win), New Mexico (37.2% to win) and Tennessee (35.0%). Moreover, the non-Pennsylvania Kerry states are not gimmes to Clinton in the way that they are for Obama. She is actually an underdog in four of these states: Oregon (25.9%), Wisconsin (29.4%), New Hampshire (32.8%) and Washington (38.9%). So without the Big Three, Clinton would have to win seven states in which she is not presently favored. And that’s just to pull into a tie; if the Democrats lost the House and needed an outright majority, Clinton would also have to bring in a state like Iowa, Nevada, North Carolina or Colorado, in each of which she has polled significantly behind McCain. Obama, meanwhile, would just have to hold the fort across a number of states where he was already ahead.

But perhaps the most powerful version of the formulation is this: even if he never won an electoral vote from Florida, Ohio, and Pennsylvania, Obama would still be a better bet to win the nomination (47.8%) than Clinton would with every state on the table (41.6%). That’s the advantage of a 50-state strategy.

p.s. Notwithstanding all that, Obama still rates slightly ahead of Clinton in both Ohio and Pennsylvania in our weighted polling averages, although she is a heavy favorite over him in Florida. The group of swing voters is very different between the general election and the primaries, and so are the mechanics of inducing turnout. Although clearly there are some relationships between performance in the primaries and the general election, they are by no means dispositive.

Nate Silver is the founder and editor in chief of FiveThirtyEight.