Politics & Policy

The Path Without Ohio

Romney’s odds are dramatically improving, but finally showing a lead in Ohio would be huge.

Ohio proved decisive in President George W. Bush’s victory over John Kerry in 2004, and its sizable swing in favor of Barack Obama in 2008 exemplified the dramatic shift to the left that gripped the country that year. This cycle, the state has proven particularly tough ground for Romney, and much of the coverage of the fight for Ohio suggests that without the Buckeye State, Romney has no chance of winning the presidency.

In fact, even if he loses Ohio, Romney still has a chance, but it would require some wins in other states that have proven tough for Republicans in recent cycles. And an Obama win in Ohio remains a distinct possibility, perhaps even a probability. Even as Romney’s numbers have surged nationally and in almost every key swing state, Obama is holding onto a slim lead — 1 percentage point in Rasmussen, 6 points in Marist, 1.3 points in the Real Clear Politics average.

Both campaigns know how important the state is; Obama has 120 campaign offices in the state, while Romney has 40. The Obama campaign has spent $52 million on advertising in Ohio, while the Romney campaign has spent $30 million (as of October 5). However, the Republican National Committee has spent $4.4 million to the DNC’s zero, and there have been $15.3 million in ads from right-leaning outside groups and super PACs against $11.6 million from left-leaning outside groups.

The Romney campaign is making a hard push in the Buckeye State — four days of campaigning here before this week’s debate.

The good news for the Romney campaign is that with their candidate’s recent surge in the polls, the Electoral College map looks a lot more like 2000 or 2004 than the wider swaths of blue in the 2008 map. But the bad news is that while Romney has gained a lot of ground, he still needs at least one more sizeable state to shake loose and fall into his pile.

The political world expressed surprise this week when David Paleologos, director of the Suffolk University Political Research Center, declared that he thought three big swing states were no longer in play — and he felt so confident in the assessment, his organization wouldn’t be conducting surveys in them again.

“In places like North Carolina, Virginia, and Florida, we’ve already painted those red,” Paleologos said on The O’Reilly Factor Tuesday night. “We’re not polling any of those states again. We’re focusing on the remaining states.”

“Let me stop you there. You’re convinced that Florida, North Carolina, and Virginia are going to go for Romney?” asked host Bill O’Reilly, in a tone of disbelief.

“That’s right, and here’s why,” Paleologos said, laying out that Obama was under 47 percent before the debate in those three states, “and it’s very, very difficult when you have the known quantity, the incumbent, to claw your way up to 50 — a very poor place for him to be.”

North Carolina seemed the most plausible of the trio, as Romney had enjoyed a small but persistent lead in that state for much of the year. But subsequent polls made Suffolk’s conclusion seem more reasonable.

Florida had teetered back and forth for much of the year, and Obama seemed to have solidified his lead in the Sunshine State after his convention, leading every poll released from September 20 to October 1. But Romney has held the lead in five of the past seven, and Thursday night’s release of the Tampa Bay Times/Mason-Dixon poll hit the race like an earthquake: Romney led by 7 percentage points in that survey and the numbers showed a dramatic momentum: “This latest poll showed that 5 percent of those who said they were undecided before the debate say they’ll vote for Romney. And 4 percent of those who said they favored Obama pre-debate moved away from the president — 2 percent toward Romney and 2 percent undecided.”

Virginia initially seemed the least likely of the three states to be considered safe for Romney, as Obama had enjoyed a small but stable lead for much of the year. But now Romney has led four of the most recent six polls in the commonwealth, including a McLaughlin & Associates poll that put him ahead, 51 percent to 44 percent. (John McLaughlin is a Republican pollster.)

So three of the Romney must-have states are now looking significantly better, if not yet “in the bag.”

The next states that appear to be drifting red are Colorado and New Hampshire. In Colorado, Obama enjoyed a lead for much of the year, but Romney appears to be surging of late, leading in four of the last six polls. If the Suffolk threshold of 47 percent for an incumbent president is indeed the best measuring stick, it is worth noting that Obama has been at or below 47 percent in five of those six polls in Colorado. Perhaps that high mountain altitude really is a problem for Obama.

New Hampshire seemed like a prime state for a Republican win this year, with a dramatic swing in favor of the GOP in the 2010 midterms and the sense that Obama’s 2008 victory was driven heavily by Bush fatigue, not any particular affection for Obama. (Recall Obama’s surprise defeat in the Democratic primary there in 2008.) In fact, Romney led almost all of the head-to-head polls against Obama . . . in 2011. But once the race began in earnest this year and Romney found himself under attack, first from primary rivals and then from the Obama campaign, his numbers slid to the mid to low 40s, and Obama enjoyed a steady lead. However, in the most recent surveys, Romney was tied in Rasmussen and ahead by four in American Research Group. While it would be nice to see more polls conducted up there, Romney probably enjoys a small lead in the Granite State at the moment.

Add all of the above to the McCain states, along with Indiana (Obama’s razor-thin victory among Hoosiers last cycle is now dismissed as a fluke) and the one electoral vote in Nebraska that Obama won in 2008, and Romney is at 261 electoral votes, just nine short of what he needs to win the presidency.

But the path to those final nine electoral votes could be tough without Ohio.

Undoubtedly, the addition of Paul Ryan to the ticket has helped Romney’s prospects in Wisconsin. But Romney has led only two of the 21 polls conducted in this state since the end of June. The good news for Romney and Ryan is that Obama’s lead has shrunk, to only two or three percentage points in the three most recent polls, and the Obama campaign clearly feels the need to defend this state, which is why Obama did a rally here immediately after the first presidential debate. Unfortunately for Romney, a razor-thin defeat in a state the opposition usually wins handily gets you the same number of electoral votes as a blowout loss: zero.

Without Ohio or Wisconsin, Romney would need to win both Nevada and Iowa, a task that appears difficult, at least at this moment.

Taking the lead in Nevada has proven surprisingly difficult for the Romney campaign, considering the state’s obliterated housing market and high unemployment; Romney has led only one poll in Nevada the entire year. But the tightening seen in nationwide polls has occurred in this state as well, as only one of the past five polls has shown an Obama lead greater than 2 percentage points. Jon Ralston, Nevada’s most sharp-eyed political correspondent, notes that Democrats have a registered-voter advantage of 85,000 — down from the 100,000-voter advantage they enjoyed in 2008, but still considerable. While Romney is likely to enjoy a high Mormon turnout and possibly an advantage among independents, he still has an uphill climb in this state.

In Iowa, Obama’s lead seems small but steady — two percentage points in Rasmussen, four points in the Des Moines Register, four points in WeAskAmerica. Democrats are touting an advantage in early voting; according to the Iowa secretary of state’s office, 376,200 ballots — including 111,877 from Republicans and 181,026 from Democrats — had been requested as of October 10. Republicans have returned 50,032 ballots, while Democrats have turned in 101,613. But clearly the Obama campaign doesn’t consider this state safe; Obama is expected to campaign in Iowa Wednesday.

With Romney’s current surge in the polls, he’s very close to the threshold of 270 electoral votes, and a pair of populous states usually considered safely Democratic — Michigan and Pennsylvania — have been surprisingly close for the last week, close enough for Real Clear Politics to move both to “toss up” status. But if Romney cannot win Ohio, it’s difficult to imagine him winning either of those two neighboring states, which are traditionally more Democratic than the Buckeye State.

The conventional wisdom on the race has changed dramatically in the past ten days, but a consistent lead for Romney in Ohio would make him a genuine favorite to win on Election Day.

— Jim Geraghty writes the Campaign Spot on NRO.


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