UPDATE: Shortly after the article below was posted, a new New York Times/Quinnipiac/CBS News poll was released showing President Obama leading Mitt Romney by five points in Ohio, 50 percent to 45 percent.  The poll, which shows Democrats with an eight-point advantage over Republicans in the electorate, immediately re-ignited the debate over polling bias.  But one finding stood out.  The new survey showed Romney leading the president by six points, 49 percent to 43 percent, among independent voters — a group many analysts consider key to the race.  How could Romney be leading by six points among independents and trailing by five in the broader race?  Especially when the pollsters asked independents whether they considered themselves closer to the Republican or Democratic party, and 44 percent said Republican, while 36 percent said Democrats?

The Romney campaign is not buying the poll.  “We see Ohio much closer than that,” Romney pollster Neil Newhouse told me by email Wednesday morning, “and believe that the most telling data in that poll is our lead among independents and the one-point margin among those most interested/likely to vote.”  And what about that six-point Romney lead among independents? “Chances are if we win Ohio independents by six, we win the state,” Newhouse said.  “Period.”

Now, the original post:

There’s been a never-ending stream of polls in this presidential race, but a new survey from Gallup could mark a key moment in the campaign. Mitt Romney, Gallup reported Monday, is leading Barack Obama among Americans who have already voted.  Fifteen percent of those surveyed have voted, Gallup said, and among them, Romney leads the president by 52 percent to 46 percent.

The news was particularly bad for the president because at this time in 2008, Obama led John McCain by an even bigger margin.  And it was made even worse because early-voting totals are lagging among some of the groups most important to Obama’s re-election.  The most reluctant early voters, it turns out, are in the crucial (for Obama) 18-to-29 age group; just seven percent of them have already voted.  The Obama campaign has been making a huge effort to get those voters to the polls early, because campaign officials worry that younger voters can’t be fully relied on to show up at the polls on Election Day.  Obama needs all the early voters he can get because in some key swing states, Romney is likely to win among those voters who actually cast ballots on November 6.

Gallup’s numbers are for the nation as a whole.  But Romney campaign officials believe the same trends are present in Ohio, the most important swing state in the election.

“The Gallup numbers nationally confirm what we think is happening here in Ohio,” says one Romney official.  “It’s two things.  One, their margin of victory in early voting is greatly diminished — drastically diminished.  And two, they are having a very difficult time generating enthusiasm among young people.”

Asked for evidence to support those claims, the official cited a Romney tally showing absentee and early voting is ten percent higher in counties McCain won in 2008 than in counties Obama won.  He also pointed to sluggish early voting in the Toledo area, which Obama won in ’08, and particularly energetic early voting in the Cincinnati area, which McCain won. In addition, the official argues that Republicans are “outperforming our share of voter registration in absentee requests and early votes” and that the GOP has “closed the gap on Democrats’ historical absentee and early vote advantage for 20 of the past 21 days.”

As far as younger voters are concerned, Team Romney is operating mostly on anecdotal evidence.  First, they believe that Obama’s message this time, a mostly anti-Romney message, simply cannot be as inspiring to younger voters as his 2008 theme of there-is-no-red-America-no-blue-America-just-the-United-States-of-America.  “It’s the opposite of hope and everything he ran on in ’08,” says the official.

The Romney case, at least the case it is willing to make public, is somewhat impressionistic. But the Gallup numbers are real, and if trends in early voting nationally are also happening in Ohio, then Romney has reason for optimism. “There’s a lot of evidence that we are erasing the deficit from the summer,” says the official.  “The track is unmistakable.”