Mitt Romney has led Barack Obama in the Gallup national tracking poll for nearly three weeks. He has led the Rasmussen national tracking poll for about the same time. And now that the Washington Post and ABC News are publishing their own tracking poll, he’s leading in that one, too. It seems reasonable to conclude that, at this moment in late October, Romney is leading the presidential race.
Those results have led to a lot of nervousness among Democrats and a number of reassuring analyses from party operatives and left-leaning journalists. No matter what the national polls say, they argue, President Obama is still leading in those states that will lead to victory in the Electoral College. Their hopes are focused on Ohio, where the RealClearPolitics average of polls shows Obama leading by 2.3 points. The president also leads in New Hampshire by 1.4 points and Iowa by 2.3 points, while Romney leads in Florida by 1.8 points and Virginia and Colorado are tied, all in the RealClearPolitics averages.
It’s the states, particularly Ohio, that really matter, argues New York Times poll analyst (and former DailyKos blogger) Nate Silver. “Mr. Obama is the favorite [in Ohio], and because of Ohio’s central position in the Electoral College, he is therefore the overall favorite in the election,” Silver wrote Saturday. Along those lines, there is some speculation that Obama’s relative strength in some states and Romney’s position nationally might mean Romney will win the popular vote and Obama the electoral vote. Although that is an extremely unlikely outcome, and would certainly lead to a nerve-wracking election night, it’s another ultimately comforting scenario for Democrats, since it would of course mean Obama goes on to a second term.
That’s what Team Obama and the president’s supporters are saying. How does Team Romney read the situation? After discussions with various experts inside and outside the Romney circle, it appears the thinking is roughly like this:
On one hand, Ohioans have seen a different campaign from Americans in most other states. People in Ohio have been subjected to an unprecedented amount of campaigning, both from the candidates in person and especially in the form campaign advertising. And its been going on quite a while. So it is to be expected that there might be some differences between polls in Ohio and polls nationally, which also reflect areas with far less active campaigning.
On the other hand, Team Romney believes there is a fairly close relationship between the national polls and the polls in Ohio. Romney aides are highly skeptical of any results from Ohio that are several points out of line with the national polls. For example, if Romney is up two nationally, they would find it very hard to believe a poll that shows him down by five in Ohio — to them, that seven-point gap just seems too big.
Further, they believe that the national and state numbers ultimately move together, and that if national numbers move, the state numbers will eventually move, too. They concede that intense campaigning in individual states can change perhaps two or three points, but they believe there is still a fundamental relationship between national and state poll numbers. They discount the possibility of conflicting popular vote/Electoral College results as extremely remote.
Republican experts who are not affiliated with the campaign agree. The reason Ohio is the center of attention now, they say, is that it has a mix of the electorate that creates a hugely competitive race similar to that on the national level. Ohio is not exactly like the American electorate as a whole, but it’s pretty close. For example, in 2008, Barack Obama beat John McCain nationally by 53 percent to 46 percent. In Ohio, the margin was 52 percent to 47 percent.
Given that, a number of well-connected pollsters expect that in the end, Ohio’s results will be fairly close to the national results. If Mitt Romney wins the national vote, they expect to see him win Ohio, too. And they would be very surprised to see a close national race and a blowout in Ohio, or a close race in Ohio and a blowout nationally.
Finally, of course, there is the question of who is really ahead in Ohio. Going back over the last 15 polls in the RealClearPolitics average of polls for the state, Obama led in 12 and three were tied. None showed Romney leading, so it’s safe to say Obama is leading in Ohio. Yet Team Romney views the race as closer than the 2.3 percent Obama margin in the RealClearPolitics average would indicate. And not only is it closer than 2.3 percent, they say, there is also the issue of Romney’s lead among independents in several polls. In past Ohio elections, they argue, the candidate who won independents also won the election. Obama, John Kasich, Ted Strickland, Rob Portman — they’re all winning candidates who fit that pattern. So watch the independents, Team Romney argues, in hopes the race will eventually line up their way.
That argument got a boost, at least a momentary one, on Sunday morning, when the consortium that conducts polling for major newspapers in Ohio released the results of a new poll showing Romney and the president tied at 49 percent. “Obama wins support for his foreign policy and for pushing the auto loan package for GM and Chrysler,” the Columbus Dispatch reported. “But [Romney] scores with his performance in the debates. And on the crucial question of who would do the best job handling the economy, Romney prevails by six percentage points among all voters and 18 percent among independents.”