History and the numbers say Barack Obama will be re-elected tomorrow. History and the intangibles suggest Mitt Romney will unseat him. Which will prevail?
Let’s look at each.
The numbers have moved solidly in Obama’s favor. He caught Romney in the Real Clear Politics average of national opinion polls on Halloween after trailing for the better part of the previous three weeks. More importantly, he holds leads — usually narrow leads, but leads nonetheless — in enough swing states to push him past the threshold of 270 electoral votes (EVs).
There’s been much parsing of the polls this year, much of it focused on the partisan-ID breakdowns that various pollsters were using. A poll of “likely voters” inherently tells us something about who the pollster believes will actually bother to vote, and that’s as much art as it is science. Many pollsters have been forecasting an electorate similar to that of 2008, a wave election that saw Obama rack up 365 EVs and the Democrats claim a huge majority in the House and, eventually if briefly, a filibuster-proof margin in the Senate.
It strikes me as very unlikely that the electorate will tip so heavily in favor of self-identifying Democrats again. That said, the pollsters would have to be very wrong for Romney to win enough states to capture the presidency. If you look at the RCP average for the swing states, he has a lead in states with a total of 235 EVs. For him to surpass 270, the polls would have to have been wrong by more than 2.8 percentage points on average — bumping his total to 285 EVs.
One of the last states that would flip to him in that scenario would be Ohio. That’s ominous because no Republican has ever won the presidency without winning Ohio.
On the other hand, Obama arguably has an even tougher historical precedent to overcome. Only two presidents have won re-election with a smaller number of EVs. The first was Woodrow Wilson in 1916, who had captured an excessive number of states in 1912 because William Howard Taft and Teddy Roosevelt split so many votes on the right. That won’t be the case in this year’s election. In the event, Wilson did increase his share of the popular vote, from 41.8 percent in 1912 to 49.2 percent in 1916.
The second was Franklin D. Roosevelt, who won a larger margin in both the popular vote and the Electoral College in his first re-election (1936) but tapered off in his third and fourth presidential victories (1940 and 1944) — situations that aren’t really analogous to Obama’s seeking a second term.
Barring a huge turn of events, Obama is not going to repeat his 2008 performance in terms of EVs or the popular vote (he won 52.7 percent of the latter four years ago). So his re-election would be fairly historic.
Why do presidents almost never win re-election with smaller majorities? Maybe it’s a matter of a small sample size; only 15 men have ever been elected to two or more consecutive terms as president. Or maybe voters tend to decide the incumbent either deserves re-election or doesn’t, and move either decisively in his direction or away from it.
If it’s the latter, almost every other measure of this contest favors Romney. Enthusiasm has been higher among Republicans almost uniformly. Obama breaks even in approval ratings — at best — and has lost his edge in favorability. Self-described independent voters have favored Romney — often by double-digit margins — in most polls, regardless of the top-line leader.
The states that moved into the “tossup” category during the past month are states the Democrats once considered comfortably in Obama’s column: The action toward the end of the campaign, in terms of spending and appearances by the candidates and their surrogates, has been in traditionally blue states such as Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Michigan. Early and absentee voting totals in most swing states, particularly in the specific areas of those swing states he’s counting on the most, point to a shift away from Obama compared to his totals in 2008. Seven of the 10 swing states according to RCP have elected GOP governors since 2008, and an eighth (North Carolina) is expected to do so Tuesday.
In short, the numbers are what they are — but anyone looking for reasons not to believe the poll numbers can find plenty of them.
My head tells me Obama will be re-elected. My gut tells me this hasn’t looked like the kind of campaign an incumbent wins.
My gut tells me the surge Obama has seen in national polls during the past week comes from voters he wasn’t going to lose to Romney, but could have lost to apathy, who will show up and cast ballots for him — but mostly in states he was going to win anyway. My gut tells me we might be seeing a repeat of 2000, when it looked like the Democrat would win the Electoral College but lose the popular vote, only for the scenario to flip in the final days.
My gut tells me Romney picks up North Carolina, Florida, Virginia, Colorado and at least one of Michigan/Ohio/Pennsylvania — and will become the 45th president of the United States.
– By Kyle Wingfield