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Tuesday, October 23, 2012

All Signs Point to a Romney Win

Update: Obviously I was wrong.

The election is a mere two weeks away and I've decided to step away from the twitterverse and provide a more detailed write-up on the state if the race between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney. Anyone who has read my tweets on the campaign will not be surprised when I say that I believe that Romney currently has the momentum and I consider him to be the favorite to win on Election Day. I argue the current electoral college map, national polls, support levels among women and Independents, and the results of the debates all point to a Romney win. I'll consider each in turn.

The Electoral College
There can be no question but that Romney has made significant gain in the battle for 270 electoral votes in the past 3 weeks. Romney has a solid hold on every state John McCain won in 2008 and has reclaimed two Obama states - Indiana and North Carolina. But that tells only part of the story. Florida and Virginia have also moved significantly toward Romney and if you look at the top ten advertising market ad buys Virgina is nowhere to be found and Florida is at the bottom of the list. Democratic operative and CNN contributor Paul Begala told CNN just yesterday that Florida has been lost to Romney. That Virginia is not even in the top ten speaks to the reality of race in that state. Add to that the fact that the scuttlebutt is that Obama for America has ceased polling in Virginia and team Obama may have pulled upwards of half of their staff out of the state to be used elsewhere.

With Florida and Virginia in the Romney column I see a current electoral map with 237 electoral votes for Obama and 248 for Romney. Six states remain as toss-ups - Nevada, Colorado, Iowa, Wisconsin, Ohio, and New Hampshire.

Among those six states, Colorado has been trending to Romney and Nevada has been trending to Obama - that would create 243 votes for Obama and 257 for Romney. There has been much talk of everything coming down to Ohio, but that is now only true for Obama. In the map I'm seeing, Obama must win Ohio to win, but he'd only have 267 electoral votes and would need New Hampshire, Iowa, or Wisconsin to cross the victory line.  Romney can hit 270+ by winning Wisconsin and New Hampshire or Wisconsin an Iowa. Romney doesn't need Ohio, but if he does win it, he wins it all. And the trend in Ohio is toward Romney. Since the first debate Obama's average lead in OH has fallen from 5% to below 2% and multiple polls show Obama receiving 47% support or below - that's a dangerously low level of support for an incumbent. If one looks to the last 5 presidential elections, in 4 of the 5, late deciders broke strongly for the challenger. In Ohio specifically, late deciders broke for John Kerry by a 22 point margin in 2004. Kerry still lost, but a key difference between George W. Bush and Barack Obama is the fact that Bush was closer to the 50% mark already and there were fewer undecided voters in 2004.

But the electoral story goes deeper. Recent polling data and campaign actions suggest that once safe Obama states may now be in play - Pennsylvania and Minnesota. Paul Ryan attended a rally in Pittsburgh last weekend and in Minnesota the Obama campaign has made an ad buy. Worse, I'm hearing rumblings today that one of two campaigns is conducting polls in Oregon. Obama won all three states by comfortable margins in 2008. Romney is unlikely to win any of the three, but the simple fact that they are in play demonstrate how Obama's fortunes have changed. I see an end result that puts Romney at 285 electoral votes as a minimum.

The National Polls
The national polls provide the best evidence of Romney's momentum. Prior to the first debate on October 3rd, Obama held a clear advantage.


The table above, from Realclearpolitics.com makes clear the strength of Obama's position just before the first debate. Obama was ahead by an average of 3 to 4 points and more important he was regularly hitting 49% and 50% in the polls.

Then came the debate....




Obama's advantage was gone and worse his 49% and 50% marks were now accompanied by 45% and 46% levels of support - deadly for any incumbent.  Some on the American Left have tried to argue that Romney gained temporary momentum after the first debate and that momentum stalled after the 2nd debate - that is clearly wishful thinking.

 

Romney is in a better position today than after the first debate. Romney is hitting the 49%, 50% and 51% mark and appears to be establishing a lead. The one poll that offered Obama hope was the IBD/TIPP tracking poll that had Obama with a 6 point lead on Sunday, but within two days the lead fell to 2% suggesting the lead was just the result of a bad day of polling. Obama is regularly receiving support in the 45%-47% range and it's hard to see how he climbs back to 50.1%. 

Support Among Key Voting Blocs
When you take a glance deeper inside the polls you see greater trouble signs for Obama. Obama is counting on a large gender gap to win him a second term - namely he hopes to win women by a large margin. That was the basis for the "war against women" meme and the constant talk of contraception access. But the approach isn't working. The Monmouth/SurveyUSA survey shows what has been a common element most national polls - Obama is not winning women by a margin sufficient to win. Romney has a double digit lead among men, but Obama has only a mid single digit lead among women. Team Obama has failed to recognize that women are more concerned with the economy than any other issue. The focus on "gender issues" came at the expense of presenting a plan for improving the economy in his second term.

Independent voters are the other key group. Obama won Independents by 7-8 percentage points in 2008, yet in most national polls and in most swing states - including Ohio - Romney has a clear advantage among Independent voters - usually in the 5-7% range. Absent the gender gap and the support of Independent voters, Obama would need Democratic turn-out to match or exceed 2008 levels. But 2008 was an election marked by tremendous enthusiasm among Democrats and the party's 7 percentage point turn-out advantage likely was a high water mark that will not be repeated. If the party's turn-out advantage winds up at the 4% range (the average of 2004 and 2008) Obama will fall short of victory.

The Debates
The prior paragraphs make clear the gains Romney made from the first debate, but his gains continued through the 2nd and 3rd - debates he "lost." After the 2nd debate, a CNN poll of viewers found Obama scored a narrow victory, but on the most important question - who would be the better leader on the economy - Romney won 58%-40%. After the final debate on foreign policy, many of Obama's supporters were convinced of the president's clear victory. But CNN again found viewers gave the president a narrow win and on the only question that mattered - is the candidate ready to be commander-in-chief - Obama and Romney tied. A different poll of  viewers by PPP (a Democratic firm) asked if the debate made viewers more or less likely to support a candidate. Among Independent voters, 32% said they were more likely to vote for the President and 48% answered less likely. For Romney, the numbers were reversed, 47% more likely and 35% less likely. 

The debates also allowed Romney to undo the negative effects of $100 million in swing state advertising by the Obama campaign to define him as an unacceptable candidate. Going into the fall Obama enjoyed a tremendous favorability advantage over Romney. Romney was considered to be one of the least liked candidates ever. As of today, Romney enjoys a 6% advantage over Obama on favorability! It marks a stunning turnaround.

Summary
For all of the reasons discussed above, and many more, I see a race that has shifted dramatically in Romney's favor and at present I consider him the most likely victor. Obama's Intrade advantage has collapsed and one of his biggest supporters, Nate Silver of the 538blog, has begun to hedge his bets and discuss the limits of his probability models (which are actually variants of the rather commonplace Monte Carlo method). If you follow Silver religiously you should really move on, because he's not doing anything special and the modifications he's made to the Monte Carlo model all favor Obama - for instance he tends to add greater weight to polls favorable to the President and will even weigh such polls more heavily when they are older and clearly contradicted by newer surveys. Those who follow the futures markets have seen in the past 24 hours how quickly they can change.

All indications are that the results of the election will be close, and it may well come down to a single state that makes the difference, but right now Romney is the candidate with the momentum and the likely victor. I will add, however, that there is the possibility - if national polls are truly capturing the dynamics of the race - that Romney will win by a more comfortable margin.

I may well be wrong, but a week before the the 2010 midterms when most political science models and analysts (including Nate Silver) were predicting GOP House gains in the 50 seat and below range - with many models predicting the GOP would fail to even capture the majority in the House - I predicted a 65 seat gain (the actual was 63) and I correctly called all of the Senate races (also something Silver failed to do) - so I'm just sayin'...