Barring some dramatic change in the final ten days or so, Mitt Romney will win the popular vote in the 2012 presidential election.
In the 22 national head-to-head polls with Romney conducted in the month of October, Obama has hit 50 percent once, 49 percent four times, 48 percent three times, 47 percent eight times, 46 percent once, and 45 percent five times. (He hasn’t hit 48 percent in a national poll since October 20.) Mind you, in most of these polls Obama has trailed narrowly, with Romney at 48 to 50 percent, and in a few, he’s led Romney, with the GOP challenger at 45 percent or so. But the polling this month points to a strikingly consistent percentage of support for an incumbent president.
Not only is Obama’s percentage in the RealClearPolitics average 47 percent, he’s at 47 percent in four tracking polls: Rasmussen, ABC News/Washington Post, Gallup, and IBD/TIPP. It is not merely significant that Obama is likely at 47 percent at this moment, it’s that he’s been around 47 percent for most of the month — with debates, new attack-ad barrages on both sides, etc. He’s around 47 percent in polls with many remaining undecideds and few remaining undecideds.
We can debate whether those remaining undecideds, ranging from 3 to 8 percent in most of these polls, will break heavily for the challenger. In 2004, George W. Bush and John Kerry split the remaining undecideds roughly evenly. But the one scenario that political scientists deem virtually impossible is one where undecideds who have declined to support the incumbent all year suddenly break heavily in favor of him. For most of the remaining undecideds, the choice is between voting for the challenger and staying home.
The polling currently suggests President Obama has a hard ceiling of about 47 percent, perhaps 48 percent. Let’s take the 50–47 split found currently in the Rasmussen, Washington Post, and Gallup tracking polls. Presume that most of the remaining undecideds stay home, and that the vote for third-party candidates amounts to about a percentage point. Under that scenario, we would see a 51 percent to 47.9 percent popular-vote win for Romney.
There are two other little-discussed indicators pointing to a Romney popular-vote win — the GOP challenger’s level of support in the uncontested blue states and in the uncontested red states.
There are a bunch of heavily populated states in the Northeast and on the West Coast that remain frustratingly uncompetitive for Republicans. But last cycle, the bottom really fell out for the GOP, due to several factors: the Obama campaign’s serious financial advantages, enormous grassroots enthusiasm among Democrats, the John McCain–Sarah Palin ticket’s lack of appeal to these regions, and of course, the economic meltdown. The bad news for Republicans is that the Romney–Ryan ticket is unlikely to put any of these in play. The good news is that Romney appears likely to dramatically overperform the low bar of McCain’s level from 2008, owing to GOP grassroots enthusiasm even in uncompetitive states.
In New Jersey on Election Day 2008, Obama won 57 percent to 42 percent for McCain. Five polls have been conducted in the Garden State in October, and Obama’s support is at 54 percent, 53 percent, 48 percent, 51 percent and 51 percent. None of the polls have Obama ahead by less than 7 points, but it seems a safe bet that Romney will finish better in this state than McCain did.
In California last cycle, Obama won 61 percent to 37 percent. Three polls conducted in this state in October put Obama’s level of support at 53 percent. Again, no one doubts Obama will win; his smallest lead is 12 points. But again, Obama is very likely to come out of the Golden State with a smaller margin of victory, probably hundreds of thousands of votes fewer than in 2008.
In Connecticut, Obama won in 2012 by 61 percent to 38 percent. In this state, there’s been quite a bit of polling because of the state’s surprisingly competitive Senate race between Linda McMahon and Chris Murphy. Obama’s level of support, measured by percentage, has been 52, 55, 53, 49, 51, 53.
In the red states it’s a different story. In state after state, Romney is polling higher than McCain’s percentage in the final vote, or Obama is polling significantly lower than his percentage in the final tally of 2008, or both.
John McCain won North Dakota in 2008 by a 53 percent to 45 percent margin. In the three polls in this state in October, Romney’s lowest level of support has been 54 percent and Obama’s highest level of support has been 40 percent.
In 2008, John McCain won Arkansas 59 percent to 39 percent. Obama’s highest level in any poll conducted in Arkansas this year is 35 percent and he was at 31 percent in mid-October.
Obama failed to win a single county in Oklahoma in 2008, losing to McCain, 34 percent to 66 percent. Only two polls have been conducted in Oklahoma this year, but both had Obama below 30 percent.
Indiana was Obama’s most unexpected victory in 2008, winning 50 percent to 49 percent. Polling has been sparse much of this year, but the two polls conducted this fall put Romney up by 12 and 13 percentage points.
Add up these factors — a consistent national polling lead for Romney, a seemingly hard ceiling of 47–48 percent for Obama support in these national polls, a narrower margin of victory for Obama in blue states and a wider margin of victory in red states — and you have an electoral map where the red states of 2008 turn crimson and the blue states are at least a bit more purple.
Now, as Al Gore will tell you, a popular-vote win and a couple of bucks will get you a cup of coffee at Starbucks. But it’s also relatively rare for a candidate to win the popular vote and lose the Electoral College. And if Obama is running a few percentage points behind his 2008 levels of support in red states and blue states . . . just how much can advertising and get-out-the-vote efforts stem that tide in the purple states?