Why State, not National, Polling is What Matters


If your only guidepost to the 2012 presidential election is the venerable Gallup Poll, you would think Mitt Romney, trailing President Obama by just two percentage points, still is within striking range of winning the election. But you – like the Republican spinners and some of the journalists you see on the shout and blather shows on TV – are forgetting U.S. Civics 101.

The president is not elected in a national plebiscite: the winner is the candidate who racks up 270 electoral votes in state-by-state elections. And while Romney has unbeatable leads, in whole bunches of states like Texas, where he’s ahead at least 55-40%, Obama has unbeatable leads in even more states, including California, where he’s ahead at least 56-36%.

When you tally all those solid states for each candidate – not counting so-called “battleground” states where the outcome might still be in doubt – Obama has something like 247 electoral votes in his pocket and Romney has about 191 (that’s according to Real Clear Politics; Pollster, Talking Points Memo, 538 and others show an even wider spread).

What’s worse for Romney is that in almost every one of the battleground states, Obama has – in most of the aggregated polls — persistent leads of anywhere from 1 to 8 points. That includes Ohio, Florida, North Carolina, Virginia, Iowa, Colorado, Nevada, Wisconsin and New Hampshire.

Obama does not need to advertise and campaign like the dickens in California; according to Nate Silver at 538, Obama has a 100% probability of winning California. Likewise, Romney doesn’t have to spend time and money on Texas; Nate gives him a 99.7% chance of winning Texas.

And for all practical purposes, the Obama campaign doesn’t care much what the national poll numbers show, except to the extent that they drive a media narrative about the race. Which is why the Romney campaign does care about the national poll numbers: they need to shift the narrative and convince voters that their guy is still viable.

Practically speaking – and a Washington Post study of advertising found – the candidates are concentrating campaign firepower on Ohio, Florida, North Carolina, Virginia, Iowa, Colorado, Nevada, Wisconsin and New Hampshire. (see the WaPo map)

Because of this unequal distribution of resources, the national poll numbers – even when they’re favorable to Obama – don’t mean much. Romney may well be close in the tally of votes nationwide if he has overwhelming leads in some states where Obama is not contesting the race. In the battle to win the White House, it doesn’t matter.

The Big O What matters is Ohio (the Calbuzz ancestral homeland), where Obama leads 48.8-44.7 (Real Clear Politics), or 48.4-44.8 (Talking Points Memo) or 49-43 (Pollster).  No Republican has ever won the White House without carrying Ohio. It’s the lynchpin of the election – part East, South and Midwest; lots of working-class, Catholic and black voters; secular Chardonnay sippers in some cities and born-again Bud Lite guzzlers in some rural areas. Bran-muffin Republicans and gun-rack Democrats. Ohio’s got ‘em all. Plus a heavy dose of voter suppression.

There are also a lot of auto and auto-related workers throughout Ohio who have been reminded that Romney advocated allowing GM to go bankrupt. But the killer for Romney in Ohio has been an ad aired by the pro-Obama Priorities USA Action political action committee featuring Mike Earnest, who worked at Ampad in Marion, Indiana, that was acquired by Bain and later closed.

Out of the blue one day, we were told to build a 30-foot stage. Gathered the guys, and we built that 30-foot stage, not knowing what it was for. Just days later, all three shifts were told to assemble in the warehouse.

A group of people walked out on that stage, and told us that the plant is now closed, and all of you are fired. I looked both ways, I looked at the crowd, and we all just lost our jobs. We don’t have an income.

Mitt Romney made over a hundred million dollars by shutting down our plant, and devastated our lives.

Turns out that when we built that stage, it was like building my own coffin. And it just made me sick.

If Obama wins Ohio, this ad – and the actual facts it represents – will be an essential component of that victory. And no matter what happens in national polling, if Obama wins Ohio, Romney is toast.

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  1. avatar chrisfinnie says:

    Ah, but what Republicans realized before the 2010 election is that, if they could control enough state governments, they got to gerrymander districts after the census. In many states, they did a fine job of doing exactly that.

    Being in control of state government gives them another advantage. They get to control who can register and vote. They also control how the votes get counted. Since these tactics were so successful in the 2000 and 2004 elections, they rolled out even more laws that would let them do it all again.

    So, no matter who people say they’d vote for, it doesn’t much matter if they can’t vote or if their vote isn’t counted. However, as Nancy Pelosi said last night on Rachel Maddow, “Don’t agonize, organize.” Good advice.

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