Polls and Paradoxes: Obama’s Path to Victory in a Tight Election

obama cafeOne thing about the current campaign has been clear and consistent for months: opinion about Obama is sharply and evenly divided, with only a handful of voters who have no opinion. Nearly half the population seems to have a durable negative view of the President. This certainly suggests that the election will be close.

And many polls confirm this when we look at a hypothetical matchup (“If the election were held today, for whom would you vote?”) between Romney and Obama. Projected margins in most national polls are within, or barely outside, the margin of error. Although most polling lately shows Obama slowly gaining ground, this trend could easily be reversed by a new batch of bad economic news, or by an unforeseen crisis abroad.

Yet, it is essential to remember that this is not a national election, but 50 state elections, and winner-take-all in the Electoral College (except in Maine and Nebraska). So the results could quite easily bear only a passing resemblance to the national popular vote.

Unlike the 2000 election, when George W. Bush was able to eke out an Electoral College victory (with the help of a 5-4 Supreme Court majority), while losing the popular vote decisively, this year the advantage lies with Obama. The reason is that as the Republican Party has become increasingly right-wing, its support has become ever more geographically concentrated.

RealClearPolitics.com (RCP) estimates that Romney is likely to win 20 states with 159 electoral votes, while Obama is likely to win 12 states, plus the District of Columbia, with 175 electoral votes. But 10 more states, with 105 electoral votes, are currently rated as “leaning Obama,” enough to put him over the top. Only two states (Arizona and Indiana, with 22 electoral votes) are rated as “leaning Romney.” Of six “toss-up” states with 77 electoral votes, Obama is polling narrowly ahead in most of them, except for Missouri.

The Republican Party as presently constituted does not poll well outside the South and the Heartland (the Great Plains and northern Rockies). Even in states considered likely to go for Romney, the margins are not always overwhelming: Texas, usually conceded to the Republicans, had Romney up by only 7 points in the most recent state poll cited by RCP, the same margin found in Georgia. In contrast, most of Obama’s likely states show double-digit leads. So if this pattern holds, Romney’s backers will give him solid support in his base, but won’t be able to deliver much outside the base.

A similar pattern could also hold in elections for the House, where generic congressional ballots have again been consistently close for months. But with Republicans having controlled redistricting in far more states than Democrats, there are a great many solid Republican districts, especially in the South and Heartland. So about half the votes for members of Congress might be cast for Republicans, but they won’t necessarily elect a Republican majority because they’ll be too concentrated.

john peelerThis is all just educated speculation at this point: much will change between now and November. But barring a major reshuffle, the cards will go against Romney and the Republicans. They would have been well advised to accede to Democratic demands, after the debacle of 2000, to abolish the Electoral College.

John Peeler

Published by the LA Progressive on April 11, 2012
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About John Peeler

John Peeler is a retired professor of political science at Bucknell University, specializing in Latin American and international affairs. His op-ed essays have appeared in The Christian Science Monitor and USA Today, as well as many in local papers in central Pennsylvania where he lives. He has had letters published in both the New York Times and the Washington Post.