Sunday, June 29, 2008

Even crazier '08 speculation

At the end of my most recent blog posting (about Barack Obama's potential paths to an electoral college victory), I said the following: "If McCain moves Michigan to his column, and Obama nets Ohio, Colorado, and New Mexico, and the rest of the states stay as they went in 2004, then each candidate gets 269 electoral votes. That's right, folks - a tie is possible. Then the vote would go to the House of Representatives, and each state would have one vote. I'm not even going to try to speculate on what would happen then."

Well, I changed my mind; I'm going to speculate. And no, none of the polls have moved since I posted that blog, so this is still a real possibility at this point.

If the electoral college fails to give any one presidential candidate a majority (270) of the votes, the selection of the president goes to the House of Representatives. The delegation from each state gets one vote to cast for any of the top 3 from the electoral college process. Since no third party is likely to get any electoral votes this November, the House would most likely be forced to choose between Barack Obama and John McCain.

This vote, it seems, would heavily favor the Democratic candidate. I believe this vote occurs before the next congressional session begins, since the electoral college vote occurs almost a month before that time. So we'll assume the current congressional make-up would still be in place at the time of this vote. There are 27 states with more Democrats in the House than Republicans, and just 21 that are the other way around (2 are tied - Kansas and Arizona). So Barack Obama would probably be elected president.

But who would be his vice president? Here's where it gets interesting. What most people don't know is that, technically, the vice president is chosen completely separately from the president. When you vote in November, you're really voting for an elector who you trust to vote for the presidential and vice presidential candidates you want to win. Fortunately, electors very rarely vote for a different candidate than the voters from their state want in either office, so if a tie happened in the presidential vote, it would almost certainly be the same in the vice presidential vote.

When there is a tie in the vice presidential electoral college vote, the vote goes to the Senate, with each senator given one vote to cast for either of the top two electoral college vote-getters. So the Senate would have to choose between Barack Obama's running mate and John McCain's.

Right now, there are 49 Democrats, 49 Republicans, and 2 Independents in the Senate. Obviously, this vote would be open to a lot of smoke-filled-room politics. But I personally think the Republican would probably win. All 49 Republicans would almost certainly vote for their candidate, hoping they can get someone in the White House, even if not the president. I also think the Independents, and perhaps even a few Democrats, would go Republican, trying to force Obama to make good on his promises of bipartisanship. After all, what could be more bipartisan than a split White House?

So there you have it, folks. In the unlikely event that the electoral college vote this fall results in a tie, we will probably have a Democratic president and a Republican vice president. Let's all pay extra close attention to who John McCain picks as his running mate. I'm pulling for Obama-Rice '08.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Obama's path to victory

It's important that I start this post with a solid disclaimer: It's really quite impossible to know which candidate will win in any state - especially in an election as strange as this one is shaping up to be. All I want to do with this post is have some fun speculating about the various paths to an Obama electoral college victory in November. So let's speculate!

First, some background for anyone who is unfamiliar with electoral college math: There will be 538 electoral votes in the general election. These are allocated on a state-by-state winner-take-all basis. For example, all of Colorado's 9 electoral votes will go to whichever candidate wins the popular vote in Colorado. In order to win the presidency, a candidate must get a majority (50% plus 1) of the electoral votes; so the magic number is 270.

Counting current state-by-state polling averages as though they are election day voting numbers, according to Real Clear Politics, gives Senator Obama 317 electoral votes, and John McCain 221. At this point, this seems like an attainable goal for Obama; and he doesn't even have to rely on Florida to get there! Indeed, this 317 vote number consists of all the states that John Kerry won in 2004 (which Obama should be able to keep this year, and add up to 252 electoral votes), plus six states which Obama seems poised to either capture or come very close to capturing: Colorado, New Mexico, Iowa, Indiana, Ohio, and Virginia. In short, it is entirely within the realm of possibility that Obama will sweep the election with 47 votes more than he needs to win.

But what if he can't pull all six of those states into his column? Well, luckily for him, he only needs a few of them. In fact, if he can only manage to get Ohio out of those six states, that gives him 272 electoral votes, a close but very real victory. Alternatively, if he gets Virginia and Colorado (two states that are trending Democratic and seem perfect for a Democratic candidate like Barack Obama), that gives him 274 electoral votes - again, a victory.

It's worth noting that there are a couple states which Kerry won that might go to McCain, making things more difficult for Obama. Polls in Michigan show Obama ahead by just 1%. In New Hampshire, his lead is .7%. If McCain manages to win both of those states, Obama loses 21 electoral votes. This would force him to get Ohio, Virginia, and Colorado (or an equivalent number of electoral votes) to win with 273.

There's one last possibility that's worth mentioning, just for the sake of absurdity: If McCain moves Michigan to his column, and Obama nets Ohio, Colorado, and New Mexico, and the rest of the states stay as they went in 2004, then each candidate gets 269 electoral votes. That's right, folks - a tie is possible. Then the vote would go to the House of Representatives, and each state would have one vote. I'm not even going to try to speculate on what would happen then.

But the conclusion of all of this speculation is that Obama has several entirely plausible paths to getting 270 electoral votes, and thus winning the presidency. The election, it seems, is his to lose.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Double-speak at its finest

"Whoever the [next] American president is will realise that co-operating and working with others on a common agenda is more likely to yield the results that we want."
-President George W. Bush, in an interview for London-based Times newspaper, June 11, 2008. In the interview, Bush also expressed regret that his rhetoric in the run-up to the Iraq war made it seem like he was "not a man of peace".

"All options are on the table. The message to the Iranian government is very clear."
-President George W. Bush, at a joint press conference with Germany's chancellor, June 11, 2008. Bush has previously used the phrase "all options are on the table" to express his willingness to attack Iran if it continues its nuclear program.

Sunday, June 8, 2008

Extinct: Caribbean monk seal

There has not been a confirmed sighting of the Caribbean monk seal (Monachus tropicalis) since 1952. Two days ago, after several years of trying to find or confirm any sightings of the seal, the U.S. National Marines Fisheries Service declared it to be officially extinct. This makes the Caribbean monk seal the first species of seal to be brought to extinction by human actions.

Why this seal, and not another? Because Monachus tropicalis was subjected to the worst of European colonialism. Christopher Columbus himself had his crew kill and eat 8 of them on his second voyage. Before long, the entire region was swarming with Spanish and other European colonists, who exploited the seals commercially for oil and meat. As human civilization in the Caribbean advanced and expanded, the seals' habitat was restricted bit by bit, to the point that the species simply couldn't sustain itself. And so, like so many plant and animal species before it, the Caribbean monk seal was driven to extinction.

According to the World Conservation Union, there are nearly 800 recorded instances of "modern extinction" - human-caused extinction of species after the year 1500. And this doesn't even account for all of the undocumented extinctions, like the extinction of plant and animal species in the disappearing Amazon and other endangered ecosystems, or cases like that of Monachus tropicalis prior to this announcement (it may have been extinct as long as 50 years ago). In fact, the time period since humans began settling and growing in population and habitat is described by biologists as the sixth period of mass extinction in the history of life on Earth. The current rate of extinction is estimated to be between 100 and 1000 times as great as the average rate of extinction suggested by fossil records. Some predict that as many as 20% of species that existed in 1998 could be extinct by 2028. In 2002, one biologist predicted that half of all living species will be extinct within 100 years.

Great strides have been taken in species conservation in recent decades. Endangered species lists, special legal protection, and other measures taken by governments around the world have surely saved many species from the fate suffered by the Caribbean monk seal. But these efforts have been confronted with one of history's greatest ironies: Just as we started to get most of the other factors right, we learned that a product of human civilization we've never taken seriously - pollution - is now bound to put the greatest strain on ecosystems the world has seen in roughly 65 million years. Human expansion and colonial exploitation of animal species, it seems, will soon pale in comparison to the damage that will be caused by global warming.

I have a terrible feeling that within a few decades, species as adorable and innocent looking as the Caribbean monk seal will be succumbing to extinction every day. And it's our fault. How on earth are we going to live with that?

Saturday, June 7, 2008

No Triple Crown for Big Brown

Today, Big Brown, the horse that became a mob darling and the center of great media speculation after winning the first two races of the Triple Crown, finished last in the Belmont Stakes, the third and final race of the series. The winning horse, Da' Tara, as well as the other 7 horses who beat Big Brown, crushed the dreams of millions of horse racing fans and commentators who hoped the horse would be the first Triple Crown winner in 30 years.

Now, if you've ever read any of my blogs, you'd better be wondering right now, what on earth is he doing talking about horse racing?

Good question. The answer is that Big Brown's story teaches a very valuable lesson: Nothing is certain. Big Brown's odds on the race were 1 to 4; Da' Tara's were 38 to 1 (in other words, it was generally accepted that Big Brown was 152 times as likely to win as Da' Tara). And yet, somehow, Da' Tara won, and the favorite came in a distant last place.

So the next time you think something is certain - like, I don't know, a Democrat winning the presidency this year - remember Big Brown. Even if the odds are 152 to 1.

Friday, June 6, 2008

Oil price rises by $10.75 in one day

CNN reports that the price of light sweet crude oil closed today at $138.54 per barrel on the New York Mercantile Exchange, up from yesterday's closing price of $127.79. This marks new records in both the closing price of oil, and one-day growth in oil prices.

The highest price oil reached today was $139.12 per barrel, shattering the old intra-day record of $135.09, which, according to CNBC, was set on May 22.

So the question is, why? And, as it turns out, most of the blame can be placed on two factors:

1: Heightened tensions in the Middle East

Reuters reports that earlier today, Israeli Transport Minister Shaul Mofaz told a newspaper, "If Iran continues with its program for developing nuclear weapons, we will attack it." In fact, says the minister, conflict will be "unavoidable" if Iran does not stop its program. When questioned on this, even prime minister Ehud Olmert's spokesman said "all options must remain on the table" with respect to Iran (sound familiar?).

Any tensions in the Middle East tend to cause an increase in oil prices, and tensions involving Iran are certainly no exception. According to the Energy Information Association of the Federal government, Iran is second only to Saudi Arabia in both production and reserves of oil among Persian Gulf nations. In addition, the EIA says that nearly all of the oil exported from the Persian Gulf region, and about a fifth of the world's total oil supply, goes through the Strait of Hormuz, which Iran controls. In the event of an Israeli strike on Iran, which the United States would probably support, it's not hard to imagine a disaster in America's oil market.

2: Dire predictions

CNN Money reports that Morgan Stanley analyst Ole Slorer predicted today that oil would cost as much as $150 per barrel by July 4. Slorer said that this increase would mostly be due to the market readjusting to increased demand for oil from Asian countries.

Of course, leave it to oil traders to see a prediction suggesting amazing profit on their part as authorization to exploit the market. Do they really expect us to believe speculation and manipulation have nothing to do with the recent rise in oil prices?

Does anyone else still remember the good old days when $70 seemed high?