Over the past month or so, it has become hard to deny that while he is not yet the favorite in the presidential race, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney has gained some ground against President Barack Obama both in national and state polling.
Much of this is due to Romney’s consolidation of the Republican base, which was just months ago bitterly divided between the now-presumptive nominee and the likes of ex-Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, and Texas Rep. Ron Paul. Although Romney still trails Obama among independent voters in most states, and his efforts to scoop up disaffected Democrats have met with little success — with a notable exception, which I will discuss later — his strong showing among registered Republicans and the uncertainty of whether the November electorate will more closely resemble that of the Democratic banner year of 2008 or the Republican rout of 2010 means that the race looks a lot closer to a tossup nationally than it did just a month or two ago.
That being said, Romney is still the slight underdog in this race, and I would argue the election is less competitive than many media outlets and pundits predict. The reason for that still lies in the Electoral College, where Obama still appears poised to string together a winning coalition of states — despite the Romney campaign’s much-publicized strategy sessions gaming out scenarios that would get the ex-governor to the magic 270-vote mark or beyond.
Right up front, only two states moved in Obama’s direction between May and June, while several moved toward Romney. The magnitude of the shifts on the overall electoral map varies between them, but a few of the moves are potentially quite significant.
Florida remains a pure Tossup. Although some commentators declared Obama to have lost any hope at retaining Florida after a couple of polls gave Romney a slight edge there, other polls have shown a very tight race or given an edge to the president.
One wildcard here that I did not mention last time is Republican Gov. Rick Scott, whose administration is engaged in a holy war to make it harder to vote in the Sunshine State, ostensibly in the name of curbing voter fraud. Parts of Florida are covered by Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, which requires any change in election law to be approved by the United States Department of Justice before taking effect.
Obama’s Justice Department, responding to complaints from third-party voter registration groups like the League of Women Voters, leaders of Florida’s Latino and black communities, and Florida election officials unhappy with the new laws, has rejected Scott’s efforts — but the administration has vowed to continue purging voter rolls in accordance with the state’s new laws, setting up a legal showdown with the federal government. At this time, it is unclear whether Florida’s new restrictions will succeed in significantly altering the state’s electorate by November.
North Carolina previously tilted to Obama, but some big events have prompted me to move it to Tossup/Tilt R. The biggest of these events was the one-two of the state overwhelmingly approving a constitutional amendment banning legal recognition of same-sex couples, followed by Obama endorsing marriage rights for same-sex couples the next day.
Surrogates for Obama optimistically predicted that the president’s announcement would have no effect on North Carolina voters’ decision this fall, and they might be right — but even Public Policy Polling, which has produced poll after poll from their home state giving Obama a small advantage, had Romney up by low single digits in their most recent survey this week. Critically, the Republican candidate improved his standing with Democratic voters in the state, perhaps siphoning off conservative, culturally Southern Democrats turned off by Obama’s support for a legalized relationship the state so resoundingly rejected last month.
Whatever the reason, North Carolina seems to have moved in Romney’s direction, though the polls and the campaigns’ aggressiveness in contesting the state suggest it remains within Obama’s reach.
Nebraska’s 2nd congressional district continues to be Tossup/Tilt R. Democrats did nominate their more competitive option in the district’s potentially close House race, but it is unlikely that the Obama campaign will base its spending decisions on their potential for boosting Democrats down-ballot unless the state of the race swings significantly in the president’s favor.
In the Tossup/Tilt D column remains Ohio, where polls show a close race but the aggregate of polls still give Obama a slight edge. Romney has been going hard after the Buckeye State, which was the critical state for President George W. Bush in 2004 but went for then-Sen. Obama of nearby Illinois in the 2008 presidential election. But Obama, along with Vice President Joe Biden, has matched him blow for blow. This is one swing state where Romney’s momentum elsewhere does not seem to have registered yet.
Joining Ohio in the field of Tossup/Tilt D states, though, are Colorado and Iowa, which I previously rated Lean D. For two states frequently bandied about as potential bellwethers — especially Iowa — they have suffered from rather infrequent polling, perhaps because there are no particularly interesting statewide races down the ballot in either this cycle.
Colorado should still vote for Obama, but the polls have tightened somewhat. However, Romney has not engaged in the state to the extent he has in the likes of Ohio, North Carolina, and Virginia. I did see enough of a shift in the polls to warrant a Tossup/Tilt D rating for Colorado, but it remains a borderline case.
PPP’s poll from last month giving Obama a double-digit edge in Iowa now looks like something of an outlier. While most polls still show an Obama lead, no outfit has corroborated such a strong advantage for the president, and both campaigns seem to be treating Iowa as a potential “tipping point” state — one that could put either Obama or Romney over the top in the electoral vote count.
Maybe Iowa never was truly a Lean D state. I have it at Tossup/Tilt D now, with no compunctions about the rating.
Lean Republican states
The Lean R group of states has one addition, Arizona, and one departure, Georgia. Although the Obama campaign has not publicly declared defeat in Arizona, where it is embarking on a voter registration drive to boost state Democrats, a recent campaign video indicated campaign manager Jim Messina considers the state to be Lean R — for public consumption, at any rate, which may or may not truly reveal the campaign’s thinking. Coupled with polls, particularly from PPP, giving Romney an advantage in the high single digits over Obama in the state, I feel comfortable calling this one Lean R for now.
Missouri, Indiana, and Montana all remain Lean R. The former two were shaded Lean R on Messina’s map. The latter was not, but Obama made a late play there in 2008, and with competitive statewide House, Senate, and gubernatorial races, I have a hunch Montana could see some 2008-style drama in November.
Indiana continues to largely fly under the radar, but in what is perhaps a coincidence, an example from Indiana and an example from Missouri of Bain Capital’s gutting of local businesses while Romney served as a prominent executive at the venture capital firm formed the basis for a double-barreled attack the Obama campaign launched at the Republican last month.
While neither campaign has gone up with broadcast ads in either Indiana or Missouri, not even to highlight the Bain controversies indigenous to them, the Romney campaign displayed perhaps a bit of anxiety over the latter state by sending its candidate to campaign near St. Louis last week. Obama made a recent stop in Missouri as well, but it was on official presidential business: delivering the commencement address at the Joplin High School graduation, one year after a tornado virtually leveled the town.
The low level of campaign activity in the Show-Me State comes in spite of a PPP survey late last month giving Obama a one-point lead, well within the poll’s margin of error. While PPP is a consistently top-notch pollster, the campaigns’ Missouri internals are probably showing the state is advantage Romney, if not completely locked down. Obama, knowing Missouri will not be his “tipping point” state, may simply have bigger fish to fry, leaving the Romney campaign to fret quietly about locking down the state’s 10 electoral votes for good.
Lean Democratic states
On the other side of the electoral divide, there are four additions to the Lean D column since last month. Three were shifted from Likely D, while one was actually moved from Tossup/Tilt D.
The latter state, New Hampshire, is the only one where movement between May and June appeared to countervail the national movement. While Romney was once considered quite likely to really give Obama a stiff challenge in New Hampshire, where he practically lived from 2007 until the state’s primary early this year, polls now give Obama a consistent advantage there. While it is definitely a swing state and Romney certainly could win it, especially considering the elasticity of the state’s fickle electorate, New Hampshire is looking like a decent bet for Obama again this year.
The first of the former states is Nevada. Last month, I considered Nevada to be just across the line between Lean D and Likely D, but as polls continue to show a close race and the campaigns continue to focus much of their attention on the Silver State, I doubt my own instincts enough to move it to the other side of that line. I will reiterate, though, that public polling shows a strong and predictable predilection to underestimate the Democratic vote in Nevada — which is a big reason why I think Republicans’ optimism about the state is misplaced so long as polls are showing Obama up by at least a few points.
The second is Wisconsin, where Republican Gov. Scott Walker convincingly repulsed a recall effort last week. Messina’s map called the state a Tossup, but aside from a “poll” by Republican narrative-pushing firm Rasmussen Reports — ranked one of the least accurate pollsters in the country by The New York Times‘ Nate Silver, and infamous for consistently churning out polls far more favorable to conservative candidates than the polling consensus shows at any given time — Romney has never mustered a lead in the state. Even as Walker dispatched Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, his Democratic opponent, by a seven-point margin last Tuesday, exit polls gave Obama a modest lead over Romney among recall voters. I do think Walker’s victory has given Republicans the feeling they have a formula for winning Wisconsin, but I am not convinced it is any worse than Lean D — though no better.
The third state that changed to Lean D from Likely D this time is Michigan. Although I am reluctant to move the Wolverine State on the basis of an obvious outlier from EPIC-MRA, a local pollster prone to dramatic Republican house effects despite being a politically independent firm, putting Romney ahead there by a point, the notion of Michigan as potentially competitive seems to be reflected in innuendo beyond EPIC-MRA. Republican strategists both in the Romney campaign and outside it have publicly stated that they believe Michigan could be part of a winning coalition of states for Romney in November.
But the fact that, although it is one of Romney’s home states — his father, George Romney, was its Republican governor in the 1960s — Michigan continues to be counted by many as a probable Democratic hold suggests it is not at the forefront of either campaign’s efforts. Like Nevada, it is closer to Likely D than other states in this column, but Lean D is probably a good rating for now.
There has been some scuttlebutt about Romney effectively conceding Pennsylvania. While I doubt Romney will withdraw from Pennsylvania altogether, considering his upside in the Democratic-trending but still competitive Philadelphia suburbs, it does seem that the state is more firmly in the Lean D grouping than it was when I hesitantly classified it as just beyond Tossup/Tilt D range last month.
Virginia remains Lean D, even though Karl Rove has touted it as being among the top tier of potential pickup states for Romney. Republicans seem to really want to believe Virginia is still a red state, but all the evidence points to a state that is purple at best, and perhaps even light blue. Romney cannot seem to buy a lead in the Old Dominion, with all remotely credible polls showing Obama ahead by low to mid-single digits in the Commonwealth.
The stubbornness of Obama’s lead in Virginia is really the key here for the president. Virginia is Obama’s most important firewall. As Rove and others have acknowledged, implicitly or explicitly, it is very hard to see how Romney wins without Virginia. Without projecting Tossups, I have Obama perched right at the magic 270-vote threshold this month; even if Romney swept the Tossups, winning states like Colorado and Ohio where Obama has generally led, he would still lose the election without at least one of the Lean D states. And Virginia is probably, of the lot, the lowest-hanging fruit.
If Romney can really wrestle Virginia back from Obama’s column, the race gets interesting — but right now, I am just not seeing that.
Likely Republican states
Of the Likely R states, I have little to add. Georgia got some attention from Obama earlier this year, and there was idle talk of voter registration efforts making the state this year’s version of North Carolina, where Democratic groups in 2008 succeeded in registering enough new voters to defy conventional wisdom and help Obama to victory. But neither campaign has expressed much interest in Georgia, and I think the feeling is that if Obama’s hand were stronger this year, it would be a potential battleground — but the economy is still lousy, so Georgia is not in play. If the bottom falls out from the Romney campaign, maybe it could be somewhat competitive, but right now, I think Likely R is the best rating.
I was bullish on Obama’s chances in Kentucky because of some vague hints Obama and his campaign dropped about the Commonwealth over the past several months. But Obama’s embarrassing showing in the Democratic primary there, being held below 60 percent by and losing a majority of Kentucky’s counties to “uncommitted,” has decidedly disabused me of the notion. I have moved it from Likely R to Safe R.
The opposite is the case in Tennessee, which might be the least consequential change on the map. I am not sure how much I buy last month’s Vanderbilt University poll, which gave Romney only a seven-point lead over Obama among registered voters, and just a one-point edge among Tennesseans 18 years of age or older. But Tennessee — like Alaska, its companion in the Likely R column — is an example of a red state with a long tradition of moderate Republicanism, and it is remotely possible that if Republicans try to win in November with the “Tea Party” model of highlighting “severe conservatism” as a qualification, some voters could be driven toward Obama. I have Tennessee as Likely R now, but really, it probably doesn’t matter because I really do not think Obama will win the state unless there is a spectacular landslide.
Likely Democratic states
Joining New Mexico and New Jersey, as well as Maine’s 2nd congressional district, in the Likely D grouping this month are former Safe D states Oregon and Minnesota. Once upon a time, and actually not that long ago, Oregon and Minnesota were considered swing states. In both 2000 and 2004, the Democratic nominees had to fight to keep them blue. But in 2008, Obama walloped Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., the Democrat’s general election opponent, in both states.
Oregon was the victim of a truly awful drive-by poll from SurveyUSA. Although SUSA, as it is often known in the polling community, was one of 2010′s most accurate pollsters, its results in the mail-only voting states of Oregon and Washington are infamous for being wildly off base more often than not. It botched the nonpartisan Portland mayoral primary last month just days before Election Day, showing businesswoman Eileen Brady in the lead; Brady ultimately finished more than 10 points behind the second-place candidate, state Rep. Jefferson Smith, well out of runoff position.
Anyway, using a sample showing nearly equal numbers of Republicans and Democrats, SUSA wound up releasing a “shock poll” showing Obama up by only four points in Oregon, which he won by 16 points in 2008. The problem is that Democrats actually hold a typical turnout edge over Republicans of seven to 10 points in Oregon. Even still, adjusting the poll to reflect that, Obama’s position in Oregon has eroded from its 2008 zenith. Although the Beaver State is not likely to resume its swing state status this year, I think a Safe D rating is too extreme and a Likely D rating is warranted.
Minnesota also merits the change to Likely D. There has not been much polling of the state, but PPP tested the presidential matchup there last week and found Obama up by low double digits — seemingly contradicting Messina’s map showing it as Lean D. With the race heating up in neighboring Wisconsin, which has many voting patterns in common with Minnesota, I am inclined toward a view of the state as Likely D roughly on par with New Jersey. I think if Romney had more resources and was a stronger candidate, he could put enough into Minnesota — or New Jersey — to seriously contest the state. But as it is, barring an Obama meltdown, it is probably out of his reach.
The past few weeks have not been great for Obama. A slowdown in job creation, fallout from conservative victories in North Carolina and Wisconsin, and the coalescing of the Republican base around Romney have taken their toll on the president and his reelection chances. But his firewall in Virginia remains intact, and if he can force Romney to defend his gains in traditionally Republican states like North Carolina and Arizona while regaining ground in states like Colorado and Iowa, he can build up a respectable buffer like the one he was sporting last month.
If I force the Tossup/Tilt D states to Obama’s camp and the Tossup/Tilt R states to Romney’s camp, Obama looks quite a bit stronger.
The takeaway here, though, is that this election is going to be close. It may be the case that Romney just cannot make up the difference and catch Obama in the electoral vote count, but I see the odds of a blowout in either direction as quite remote, and I do see some warning signs for Obama. It is no easy task to run on the economic recovery if it appears that recovery is flagging — and Obama might want to have a Plan B in case the likes of the May jobs report become the monthly norm.
That puts Romney in the morbid scenario of having further economic pain or another sort of burgeoning national emergency appear his best chance at becoming the United States’ 45th president. But that has been apparent for a while now.