There are persistent reports that the McCain campaign is focusing on Pennsylvania as the key to a come-from-behind victory on Election Day. In essence, this strategy acknowledges that the senator now has few paths to winning 270 electoral votes, and assumes that the most realistic approach involves winning all of the remaining toss-up states and engineering a surprise victory in Pennsylvania.

This strategy makes sense to me, given my reading of the state-by-state electoral with just under two weeks to go. Here’s why:

Looking at the states which are clearly leaning toward one candidate or the other, I currently show Obama with 291 electoral votes, McCain with 171 votes, and 76 votes in states that are still toss-ups.

This means that if McCain manages to win each and every one of the remaining toss-up states, he will still be 23 electoral votes short of victory. So the question becomes, where can he find those remaining votes? And what strategy might also cushion him against losing at least one of those toss-up states (such as North Dakota, with its 3 electoral votes)?

The easiest Obama states to pick off at this point would be Colorado, Nevada, and Virginia, as Obama’s lead in these three states is particularly narrow. If McCain manages to win each of these three states, as well as each of the toss-up states, he would win with 274 electoral votes. This allows enough of a cushion, in fact, to lose the toss-up state of North Dakota, but not any of the other states, including West Virginia.

However, the word from the McCain campaign is that while they are still competing in Colorado and Nevada, their internal polling and analysis suggests that they shouldn’t count on either state. While they remain competitive in both states, presumably they have decided that they would rather focus on one or more of the larger states, rather than counting on a string of smaller states, each of which is highly uncertain.

This means that Virginia would be the easiest Obama state for the McCain campaign to pick off. Assuming he wins Virginia, however, he would still be ten electoral votes shy of victory. So the McCain campaign would also need to pick off a more solidly Obama state with at least ten electoral votes. The obvious candidates would be Michigan, Minnesota, Pennsylvania, or Wisconsin, each of which has been polling consistently for Obama in recent weeks by about ten percentage points or more.

This suggests that Virginia, too, is not worth focusing on for the McCain campaign. Such a strategy would require winning all of the toss-up states, and winning Virginia, and would still require a win in at least one state where Obama has a fairly strong lead. More than that, there would be little cushion with most of these states: Minnesota and Wisconsin, with ten electoral votes each, would leave no cushion at all, while Michigan would allow the loss of only North Dakota or West Virginia, and is currently showing an Obama lead of about 16 points.

This is where Pennsylvania comes in. If McCain could pull off an upset win in Pennsylvania, with its 21 electoral votes, he would not need Virginia to win. With the toss-up states, he would, instead, be only 2 electoral votes shy of victory. This means he would win with a victory in any of the states where Obama has a slim lead (Colorado, Nevada, Virginia) or with an upset in any state now polling more strongly for Obama.

The Pennsylvania strategy doesn’t just protect against needing to win in any particular state, either. Depending on which state it is that puts McCain over the top, that win would also provide a cushion against losing a toss-up state. A Nevada win, for instance, would allow the loss of North Dakota, while a Colorado win would cushion against the loss of North Dakota or West Virginia. A Virginia win would cushion against the loss of either or both of these states, or the loss of Indiana or Missouri. Similar results follow if the one state is Michigan, Minnesota, or Wisconsin.

Pennsylvania would not be an easy state for McCain to win. Obama currently has a double-digit lead there, and has led McCain in the Keystone State consistently since the spring. However, the analysis above suggests that focusing on a win in Pennsylvania probably increases McCain’s odds considerably, as he wouldn’t be relying on taking away any other particular state from Obama, and he would have the maximum cushion against losing one or more of the toss-up states.

Please bear in mind that this analysis concerns which path to victory is most likely for McCain. Obama clearly has the lead at this point, and I have not looked here at Obama’s chances to further improve his position by winning toss-up states by making inroads elsewhere to counteract McCain wins in the states above. Obama has strong chances in the remaining toss-up states, and he could still win in the states where McCain maintains only a very slim lead, such as Indiania and West Virginia.

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