After two months of zigs and zags in the presidential race - highlighted by the party conventions, the selection of Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin as GOP vice presidential nominee and the financial wipeout on Wall Street - Sen. Barack Obama is closing in on victory, not just in the national polls but also on the map of state battlegrounds.
The last time "Out There" rated the "purple states" - that is, those neither safely Democratic nor Republican - was in mid-August. At that time, Obama, the Democratic nominee, led his GOP rival, Sen. John McCain, by a 241-200 electoral vote margin, with 97 additional electoral votes in the toss-up category.
Now, riding a wave driven by the nation's worsening economic conditions, Obama has gained ground in most of the purple states.
As with previous rankings, "Out There" designates purple states as Likely Republican, Lean Republican, Toss-Up, Lean Democratic and Likely Democratic, based on interviews with sources in the states and a look at recent polls .
In the latest assessment, Obama now leads McCain in electoral votes, 263-163, with 112 in the toss-up category. That leaves Obama just seven electoral votes shy of what he needs to clinch a victory.
In fact, McCain's chances have cratered so badly that Obama would win if he just holds onto the states leaning in his direction and lands one of these other states now up for grabs: Colorado, Virginia, Ohio, Florida or Missouri. Winning any one of these states - not all of them, just one of them - would seal the race in his favor.
"Out There" counts these five states, plus Nevada, Indiana and North Carolina, as toss-ups. In reality, a number of recent polls have shown Obama ahead by single digits in most of these states, giving the Illinois Democrat an extra layer of security. Other evidence of strength in these states is emerging, too. In Missouri, Obama drew an estimated 100,000 people to a rally in St. Louis over the weekend and another 75,000 in Kansas City, while in Nevada, Democratic registration gains and early voting patterns suggest a tide in Obama's favor.
Despite these indications, "Out There," after much consideration, is remaining cautious, declining for now to label these states as Lean Democratic. This decision was made considering the modest size of Obama's leads and the states' long histories of voting Republican.
Still, there's no question that Obama has come a long way during this contest. One need look no further than how the map broke out in the first "Out There" rankings in July 2007.
Fifteen months ago, only three states were classified as toss-ups - Iowa, Ohio and New Mexico. Of these, only Ohio remains a toss-up today; Iowa rates as Likely Democratic and New Mexico is labeled Lean Democratic.
Back then, the remainder of today's toss-up states were in the Republican camp. Virginia and Nevada were considered Likely Republican, while Florida, Colorado and Missouri were Lean Republican. And Indiana and North Carolina didn't even qualify as purple; they were considered Safe Republican.
Meanwhile, the list of today's Lean Republican states - Montana, North Dakota and West Virginia - also makes clear how aggressively Obama has been playing on the GOP's own turf.
Obama has courted Montana and North Dakota - both of which were considered Safe Republican states in July 2007 - during multiple visits, a tactic that would have been considered foolhardy before this spring. And the current economic crisis has helped bring West Virginia back into contention for the Democrats. West Virginia, a two-time backer of George W. Bush, had seemed lost to Obama after a resounding victory by Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.) in the state's Democratic primary.
By contrast, the Democratic stable has remained remarkably uniform over the past 15 months.
In July 2007, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Michigan, Maine, Pennsylvania, New Hampshire, Oregon, New Hampshire and Washington state were considered either Likely Democratic or Lean Democratic states. Each still belongs to one of those categories. In fact, with this edition, "Out There" is moving Wisconsin and Michigan, along with Iowa, from Lean Democratic to Likely Democratic. McCain pulled out of Michigan several weeks ago, and Obama has chalked up a series of double-digit leads in the polls in Wisconsin. Iowa voters, for their part, have been supportive of Obama ever since the caucuses launched his bid for the nomination.
The good news for the McCain camp, such as it is, is that Alaska has dropped off the purple list, because of Palin's addition to the ticket. Also dropping off the list is South Dakota, which does not appear to have warmed to Obama as much as its neighbors, North Dakota and Montana. But Alaska and South Dakota have only six electoral votes between them, and they were always long shots for Obama anyway.
In the meantime, Arkansas, Georgia and Arizona seem to have moved slightly in Obama's direction, although not enough to shift them from Likely Republican to Lean Republican. For now, McCain, despite his recent difficulties, should be able to hold them. All three supported Bush in 2000 and 2004, and Arizona is McCain's home state, Georgia has trended sharply Republican in recent years, and Arkansas may have too few minority and young voters, and too many rural voters, for Obama to gain enough ground there.
Among the toss-up states, McCain seems likeliest to hold onto Indiana and North Carolina.
Separately, in a development that only political junkies could love, both states that apportion some of their electoral votes by Congressional districts, that is, Maine and Nebraska, may be on the verge of dividing their votes for the first time ever.
Maine 's 2 nd Congressional District was already tougher for the Democrats than the rest of Maine, but it became especially so after Palin joined the ticket, since her backwoods persona plays well in the rural region. "Out There" rates Maine's 2 nd a toss-up, compared to Lean Democratic for the state as a whole and the 1 st Congressional district.
Meanwhile, Obama's camp believes that Nebraska's 2 nd Congressional District could break away to the Democrats, so much so that the campaign has sent volunteers to bolster support. "Out There" rates Nebraska's 2 nd as Likely Republican, compared to for the state as a whole and the other Congressional districts, which are rated Safe Republican.
After two presidential elections with razor-thin electoral vote margins, this one, if not a landslide in the making, should provide Obama with the biggest electoral vote victory at least since 1996 and possibly since 1988. Bill Clinton secured 370 electoral votes in 1992 and 379 in 1996, while the first President Bush won with 426 in 1988.
To top Clinton's highest total, Obama would have to win all the toss-up states plus both Montana and North Dakota, or else all the toss-up states plus West Virginia. There's no guarantee Obama can pull that off, but for the first time since Election 2008 got under way, it's no longer folly to say it's possible.
Louis Jacobson is the editor of CongressNow , an online publication launched in 2007 that covers legislation and policy in Congress and is affiliated with Roll Call newspaper in Washington, D.C. Jacobson originated the "Out There" column in 2004 as a feature for Roll Call, where he served as deputy editor. Earlier, Jacobson spent 11 years with National Journal covering lobbying, politics and policy, and served as a contributing writer for two of its affiliates , CongressDaily and Government Executive . He also was a contributing writer to The Almanac of American Politics and has done political handicapping of state legislatures for both The Rothenberg Political Report and The Cook Political Report.