Just a few weeks ago, Ohio was a state that was considered almost every media outlet to be a solid lock for Obama. There’s no need to rehash the actual headlines, but some even suggested Romney give up on Ohio and look elsewhere for a path to victory. Before the first debate, Romney was down 5.6 in RCP’s Buckeye State average. Today he is down 2.5, cutting his deficit by more than half, presumably in large part due to his strong first-debate performance. Here are a few reasons why it’s even closer than that:
Democratic turnout advantage from 2008 probably wasn’t as big as you think: Last cycle was a wave election and Barack Obama took Ohio by 4.6 percent, 51.5 to 46.9. The exit polls showed a split of 39 percent Democrats, 31 percent Republicans, and 30 percent independents. If that had been the actual turnout, according to exit polls’ measurement of how members of each party said they voted, Obama would have won 52.8 to 45.6, for a 7.2 percent margin victory, substantially bigger than the margin by which he actually won. This means that the exit polls were off a little, which is unsurprising since they are, after all, just polls.
But we have actual vote totals to compare these polls to. If you use the exit-poll numbers for reported voting by party and then look at what kind of a turnout by party you’d need to get to the actual state vote tally, you come out with this breakdown: 37.5 percent Democrats, 32.5 percent Republicans, and 30 percent Independents (that gives you a vote of 51.6 percent for Obama and 46.9 percent for McCain — pretty close to actual results). So while the 2008 exit polls show an eight-point Democrat advantage, in reality it was likely closer to five percent. That is a big difference when analyzing current polls.
Romney is up big with independents: In 2008 Obama beat John McCain by 8 percent among independents in Ohio. Of the seven current RCP polls that give independent numbers, Romney is up by an average of 8.7 percent:
That’s a 16 percent swing in independents toward Romney from 2008′s numbers. If you assume equal turnout in 2012 as 2008 (using my number from above) but take Obama’s 8 percent edge with independents and give it Romney, that 4.6 percent 2008 margin becomes a tie. At that point, Romney would win if he chips away at the five-percent turnout advantage from 2008.
The current poll samples have Democratic turnout matching or exceeding 2008 levels: Of the seven current RCP polls in Ohio, the average Democratic advantage in party ID is 5.5 percent. That is, if we assume 2008 advantage was D+5, as explained above, then the average poll in Ohio right now assumes a 2008-level turnout. While anything is possible on November 6, there are not many people on either side thinking Obama can match his 2008 turnout advantage.
Early voting is not as positive for Obama as it was in 2008: This is the last point, but a huge one. Take this quotation, from CNN today: “Four years ago, Democrats made up about 42 percent of the early and absentee vote while Republicans made up 22 percent. Through Wednesday, however, the margin has narrowed: Democrats account for 36 percent of the early and absentee vote while Republicans make up for 29 percent.” The current polls have been seriously inflated for Democrats because they’re reporting Obama with 30+ percent leads in early voting (which is then automatically counted in “likely voter” samples), which seems to be vastly overestimating the Democratic advantage among these voters. As CNN explains, Romney is making huge gains from 2008.
Obama won in 2008 largely because of a healthy lead among independents and a highly enthusiastic base’s turning out votes. Right now Romney is leading big with independents, has a more enthusiastic base, and is drawing crowds in Ohio that rival Obama’s. While he is down 2.5 points in the polls, the average poll is assuming 2008 turnout which is unlikely to repeat itself this year. Adding the fact that early voting is trending more Republican than in 2008, there is a lot of reason for optimism that this race is much closer than the current polls suggest. Not bad for a candidate who was declared dead in the state just a few weeks ago.