Will the Electoral College even matter?

It’s fun to check in on the latest electoral vote projections, all of which show a close race between Barack Obama and John McCain (see Electoral-Vote.com and FiveThirtyEight.com). But the odds are good that the Electoral College will be a moot point, and that someone will win the popular vote by enough to avoid a "it all comes down to Florida (or Ohio)" scenario. That’s what happened in the five elections from 1980 through 1996; having two tight races in a row, as we did in 2000 and 2004, is unusual, and a third one would be quite extraordinary. I wouldn’t bet against the extraordinary, but there are a few scenarios that could turn this year’s match-up into an electoral vote landslide. I’ll start with Obama and follow up with a post on what could give McCain a runaway lead.

Factors that could lead to an easy Obama win:

1.) A smooth reconciliation with Hillary Clinton supporters. For a lot of Democrats and independents, Obama is still seen as the opponent of Hillary Clinton, not John McCain, and they may not be inclined to choose his name in any poll, even if it pits him against Lyndon LaRouche. If enough Clinton supporters drift to Obama, the game may be over early.

2.) Horrible economic news. The weak economy already favors the Democrats, but McCain may seem like enough of a change (and Obama as too much of a change) to give the Republicans a chance of keeping the White House. If things get worse over the next few months (rising inflation, unexpected job losses, etc.), doubts about Obama may be swept aside by the desire to punish the ruling party.

3.) Libertarian Party nominee Bob Barr. The Libertarians have never hit 2 percent of the national vote, but Barr is perhaps their most credible candidate of the past 40 years. He’s unlikely to hit the heights of Ross Perot, but if he gets 3 or 4 percent, he could tip a few red states (Montana, Barr’s native Georgia) to Obama that Obama doesn’t necessarily need.

4.) The debates and campaigning style. Obama wasn’t able to outshine Hillary Clinton in the primary debates, thanks to her quick-wittedness and command of policy details. But McCain has not been a strong debater, instead excelling at town meetings and informal Q&A sessions. Obama’s skills as an orator may be more of an asset than they have been during the past few months, particularly if he gets under McCain’s skin (and the Arizona senator showed flashes of nastiness in his encounters with Mitt Romney et al.) or is able to portray McCain as too conservative for today’s electorate.

5.) Obama’s get-out-the-vote efforts. Obama has proved skeptics wrong by bringing out young and first-time voters in the Democratic primaries (and by compiling a massive database of financial contributors). This hasn’t been a silver bullet; huge turnouts in places like Ohio and Pennsylvania apparently cemented wins for Clinton rather than cause upset wins for Obama. But the general election may be a different matter, since the Democratic Party has built wide leads among younger voters. Getting them to the polls may give Obama a couple of points in states all over the map — if he’s able to incorporate the Hillary Clinton faction among first-time voters, which brings us right back to the first point.