The fact that the 2008 Presidential election looks like no other Presidential election in United States history is almost a commonplace.
Next Tuesday, the United States is likely to elect its first African-American President - and its first Roman Catholic Vice President. If this happens, it will be based in large part of unprecedented participation by people of color and young people. Even if the McCain-Palin ticket wins - and this would be the biggest Presidential election upset since 1948 - there will be history made.
The simple fact is that - based on the polling numbers nationally and state-by-state - this Presidential election looks like no other. This reflects the current economic crisis, but also more fundamental changes in this country's politics.
The recent election that might be most similar to this year in popular vote totals, based on national tracking polls, might be 1988, when George H.W. Bush received 53 percent of the popular vote to Michael Dukakis' 46 percent. While the Obama-McCain race might also have a 53-46 margin, the votes will be distributed very differently from state to state as compared to 1988. (See Dave Leip's Atlas.)
In 1988, 21 states - with 271 electoral votes (one more than needed for election) - were decided by less than a ten percent margin. These included California (51%-48% for Bush), New York (52%-48% for Dukakis), Illinois (51%-49% for Bush), and Massachusetts (53%-45% for Dukakis). The implication here is that if the national popular vote margin had been closer than 7 percent, Dukakis' electoral vote totals would have been substantially higher than the 111 electoral votes that he received.
This year, based on the latest state-by-state polls, there are 15 states that look to have less than a 10 percent margin. These states collectively have 159 electoral votes. This means that 379 electoral votes could be decided in relatively lopsided state contests. Of the lopsided contests, Obama is leading in states with 247 electoral votes and McCain is leading in states with 132 electoral votes. These include California, where Obama is leading by more than 20 percent, and New York, where Obama is leading by more than 30 percent.
What this shows is a far more geographically polarized electorate now than 20 years ago. The liberal parts of this country are more liberal and the conservative parts are more conservative - with some exceptions. Parts of the Mountain West and the South are more competitive in Presidential elections.
It is this geographic polarization that gives John McCain a sliver of hope on Tuesday. Even if Barack Obama runs up his popular vote percentage to 53 or 55 percent of the total, McCain will still win an almost guaranteed 150 electoral votes. Close contests in key states could push McCain within striking distance of the 270 electoral votes needed for victory.
Were voting patterns more like 1988, a popular vote percentage of 53 percent for Obama would guarantee a substantial victory in the electoral college - like George H.W. Bush's 426 electoral votes to Michael Dukakis' 111. At this point, even if Barack Obama wins 55 percent of popular vote (something that no one has done since Ronald Reagan), he is very unlikely to win more than 390 electoral votes. Something narrower than a 53-47 popular vote margin nationally could make the electoral college contest more interesting than this observer would like to see.