- Less than a week out, Barack Obama leads Mitt Romney in polling averages in Ohio
- These polls arguably oversample Democrats by not taking account of early voting
- The Democratic turnout strategy is defensive, rather than focused on expanding the map
- National polls show a clean Republican victory
- Independents breaking for Romney by double digit margins nationally, by high single digits in Ohio
Ask any election analyst what the chances of a particular presidential candidate will win the election, and their response will almost invariably be the question of whether that candidate will win Ohio. The crucial battleground state carries a whopping 18 electoral college votes and is generally seen as the toss-up to end all toss-ups, though recent public polling has consistently favored President Obama by small margins.
Yet despite the avalanche of these polls over the past few weeks, conservatives remain not only optimistic, but downright chipper, about the state. This is especially true of Ohio Republicans who are actually watching the race play out and seem to believe they have moved steadily into the lead.
Which raises the question: why?
The answer is that Ohio GOP leaders and their allies in the press tell a very different story from the one put forward by polling outlets. What's more, the conviction with which they tell it, to say nothing of the evidence they marshal, suggests something beyond spin. Specifically, the Ohio GOP stakes its claim to a strong victory on a wide lead with independents and a ground game built to match the Democratic juggernaut that is Organizing for America. They also model the race fundamentally different from their counterparts on the Left, many of whom assume 2008 levels of turnout, and 2008 partisan margins.
And contrary to the accusations of "trutherism" that some on the Left have thrown at the GOP over this narrative and its skepticism of the polls, it is not at all a baseless theory of the election. In fact, it is a theory with about as much data to support it as the Left's narrative of drastically increased turnout, which is part of the reason many pundits find this election frustratingly difficult to predict. The polling data quite literally supports two equally strong narratives, and neither campaign is going to admit to a disadvantage against its opposition, so the whole thing arrives as a wash.
Many have detailed the Obama campaign's reasons for optimism in Ohio, making that narrative the dominant one in the media thus far. However, the Romney campaign's reasons for optimism are usually buried or their reasoning is deliberately left incomplete. As such, the following are what we consider the three best reasons to be optimistic about the Republican party's chances in Ohio:
3. The state polls
No, really, hear us out on this one. A quick perusal of the current polls making up RealClearPolitics' average can look depressing for conservatives at first sight. It is, after all, a sea of blue leads. However, dig into the internals and a more complicated picture emerges. In fact, several factors in these polls point to a potential stealth Romney win.
First, rewind a bit to polls taken closer to the beginning of early voting. Specifically, look at the SurveyUSA poll taken on October 17, before the third debate, and two numbers jump out:
Obama's lead over Romney swells among Ohio voters who have already cast their ballots, 57 percent to 38 percent. The two are tied among those who haven't voted yet.
So as of October 17, according to SurveyUSA, the GOP and Democrats were running even in terms of voters who had yet to vote, but Obama was running away with early voters by a nearly 20 point margin. Fast forward to the poll by the same company taken from October 20-22nd and the margin shifts. Obama is still ahead by 19 points, but Romney is leading by two points 46-44, where before he was tied with the President. Fast forward to the most recent SurveyUSA poll, and Obama is leading by a whopping 23 points with those who plan to vote before election day, but Romney is up by an equally stark margin of 9 points among those who will vote on election day.
These numbers, taken from different iterations of the same poll, show a clear trend - the Democratic advantage in early turnout is not absolute, but is rather simply a function of Democrats eating away at what would have been their election day margin. In short, the Democrats' early turnout is really just cannibalizing what they would have gotten on election day. Their total population of likely voters is not growing, it's just voting earlier than the Republicans'. What's more, the lead enjoyed by the Republicans steadily grows at a greater pace than the lead enjoyed by the Democrats, suggesting that the Republicans aren't just turning out their base, but getting new voters to join the fold.
So why are the Democrats still ahead? Because the number of them who've already voted automatically make it into the likely voter screen, whereas Republicans and Republican-leaning independents who have yet to vote are more of an uncertain commodity. In practice, this produces a polling sample that is necessarily skewed toward the Democrats. This explains why, in most of the polls where Obama holds a lead, the sample of Democrats relative to Republicans outperforms even Obama's blockbuster margin of D+5 in 2008. In fact, in most of the polls where Obama's lead is outside the margin of error, his party's advantage can stretch to as high as eight or ning percentage points, suggesting a turnout coup nearly double the scale of 2008. This is, to say the least, a debatable assumption about the composition of Ohio's electorate.
Now, conservative voters should not get the wrong idea here. This skewing probably didn't happen by any intentional malice on the part of the polling companies. However, when only nine percent of Americans answer the calls of pollsters to begin with, and a large chunk of them are certain voters because they claim to have already voted, beggars can't be choosers. The polling companies take what they're given in crafting their polls, but just because a sample says something doesn't make it true. Hence, while most of the polls show Obama leading, a tiny fraction show him leading by anything close to outside the margin of error. Hence, one poll's Obama lead of +2 may turn out to actually be a Romney lead of +1 or +2 on election day if those margins kick in.
So the state polls show Obama's election day lead eroding at a greater pace than his early voting lead expands, suggesting he's cannibalizing his voters before election day, and they, in turn, are skewing the sample in a way that suggests a level of Democratic turnout that is highly improbable, if not impossible. This is, as it turns out, precisely what the Ohio GOP believes is happening.
Matt Henderson, spokesman for the Ohio Republican Party, told TheBlaze that "The Democrats have a different kind of turnout model" devoted to turning out reliable voters. He also contests that the GOP is trailing Obama by double digit margins in early voting.
"The Secretary of State mailed 6.9 pieces of early voting applications. 1.3 million voters indicated they'd like a ballot. Since the ballots went out, about 70 percent of those have been returned," Henderson said. "We've been leading, compared to where it was in 2008."
Highly placed sources in the Ohio Republican Party are even more specific, pointing to Romney campaign internal polls that show the former Massachusetts governor maintaining a 1 to 4 point lead in the state. It would be easy to dismiss this as election year bravado, but once more, the state polls provide evidence in their internals that this is could, in fact, be the case. However, seeing as this is a topic that forms the brunt of one of our later reasons for optimism, we will leave the discussion of state polls here for now.
#2. The national polls
Here, the evidence for a potential Romney victory requires substantially less explanation. Since the first Presidential debate, Mitt Romney has led or tied President Obama in the average of national polls, with one or two outlying polls showing an Obama lead. Most of these polls converge to a 1 or 2 point lead for Romney, but some show wider margins (as in the case of Gallup, which has shown Romney at or above 50 percent for over two weeks, occasionally leading by as much as 7 points).
If these polls are right, Romney almost certainly wins the election outright, with a slim chance that he will win the popular vote but lose the electoral college. On the other hand, if the state polls are right about the toplines, Romney should lose both. It is to the consternation of pollsters and data junkies everywhere that they cannot both be right.
Analysts like Nate Silver of Fivethirtyeight, one of the Left's more beloved election forecasters (who presently gives Obama an over 75% chance to win the electoral college), have thrown in their lot with the state polls - especially the ones conducted in Ohio. And if you support Obama, that's precisely what you should do. However, that doesn't mean there isn't a credible case to be made for the opposite approach - a case articulated perhaps best by Sean Trende of RealClearPolitics, who sees merits in both approaches but has leaned slightly more toward a national approach on his Twitter feed:
Among national pollsters, you have a battle-tested group with a long track record performing national polls. Of the 14 pollsters producing national surveys in October, all but three were doing the same in 2004 (although AP used Ipsos as its pollster that year rather than GfK, and I believe a few others may have changed their data-collection companies). Of the 14 pollsters surveying Ohio in October, only four did so in 2004 (five if you count CNN/USAToday/Gallup and CNN/Opinion Research as the same poll).
Pollsters such as ABC/Washington Post, Gallup, Pew, Battleground, and NBC/WSJ are well-funded, well-staffed organizations. It’s not immediately obvious why the Gravises, Purple Strategies and Marists of the world should be trusted as much as them, let alone more. And since virtually none of the present state pollsters were around in 1996 or 2000 (except Rasmussen Reports, which had a terrible year in 2000 and has since overhauled its methodology), it’s even less clear why we should now defer to state poll performance based upon those years.
Finally, remember that in 2008, the national polls were pretty much spot-on; the state polls were off by a couple of points.
So what happens if Trende is right, and these polls are right, and Romney is leading Obama by a few points? If undecideds follow their usual pattern of breaking for the challenger, Romney almost certainly runs the table, taking Ohio, Virginia, Florida and one other state with him. If not, Romney might still eke out a narrow victory on the basis of his existing margin alone. In short, if the national polls are right, the odds are that Romney will unambiguously win, and the only question is by how much. Moreover, unlike the state polls in Ohio, where internal numbers signal potential mathematical problems for Obama's lead, the internals on the national polls present no such problems for Romney, who can tie Obama even in a situation where the turnout mirrors 2008.
Why? That brings us to reason number...
1. Romney has independent voters locked up
If there's one area that the state and national polls unequivocally agree on, it's that Mitt Romney is running away with the independent vote this election cycle. In fact, if almost any of the current numbers are anywhere close to true, it's difficult to see how Romney loses the election. Romney pollster Neil Newhouse and Political Director Rich Beeson told Politico as much on Wednesday:
Romney political director Rich Beeson said Wednesday that the Obama team's electoral firewall -- aka, Ohio, Iowa and Wisconsin -- is "burning."
"The firewall that I think they talked about was Iowa, Wisconsin,and Ohio," he said on a conference call with reporters to discuss the state of the race. "Right now their firewall is burning."
Romney advisers spoke optimistically about the former Massachusetts governor's chances next Tuesday, suggesting Romney is up among independents and even that he'll win Florida by double digits on Election Day.
"The race comes down to independents," said Romney pollster Neil Newhouse. "We lead among independents."
Yes, they do. And how. A poll of independent voters nationwide released by Resurgent Republic shows Romney carrying independent voters by a sky high 12 points. President Obama only led John McCain by 8 in 2008. This massive margin may account for another encouraging phenomenon measured by the heavily respected national pollsters Pew and Gallup - namely, that nationwide, Romney is actually leading early voting.
This is equally true in Ohio. Highly placed sources in the Ohio Republican Party told TheBlaze that Romney is leading among independents by double digits in internal tracking polls. This is consistent with the polls released by public polling firms in the state, which show Romney up by margins between 6 points in the most favorable polls to 11+ in the tighter ones.
To overcome numbers like this, Obama would likely need a wave of turnout among the people who went most strongly for him in 2008 - specifically, minorities and young voters - that eclipses even his performance then. In the case of minorities, demographics might make up for the lack of enthusiasm, but in the case of young voters, this is not at all a done deal. In fact, Matt Henderson of the Ohio Republican Party points to young voters as a huge source of decline for the president, citing an article released earlier this month by the Columbus Dispatch.
All of this combines to show a scenario where, in the words of RedState's Dan McLaughlin, Obama is "toast" in Ohio:
In Ohio, ARG has Obama down 20 with independents, 57-37, SurveyUSA has him down 8, 47-39;TIME has him down 15, 53-38; PPP has him down 7, 49-42; CBS/Quinnipiac has him down 7, 49-42;Gravis has him down 19, 52-33.
Obama has lost independents. He will lose them nationally by easily 5-8 points, and quite possibly well into double digits. And he will lose them in Ohio by at least 5 as well. With no sign that he’s winning the crossover battle, partisan turnout is his only hope.
So is the President "toast?" Time will tell, but there certainly is more than enough math to bolster an aggressive GOP case that the President will be defeated in Ohio, as in the rest of America.
The trendline of independent voters' choices in 1972 (Photo credit: Redstate)
As Ohio goes, so goes the nation. And if the Republicans are right, Ohio might just tell Barack Obama he has to go.