Early in the week, NBC News (and the Wall Street Journal) released their first national poll in a month. The topline numbers moved very little—whereas Barack Obama's lead over Mitt Romney was four points in May, it was three points in June.
NBC's Mark Murray, however, noted some movement in the nearly dozen states identified by the media outlet as "swing states":
Another place where Obama is running ahead: the swing states.As a matter of statistical relevance, in all candor, this poll did not tell us a whole hell of a lot. The margin of error on a subsample of 12 states is pretty stout, so saying that this eight-point edge for Obama is a BFD (so to speak) would lead the math types in the political pundit class to rise in vociferous protest. And, ultimately, they are right about that.
Among swing-state respondents in the poll – those living in Colorado, Florida, Iowa, Michigan, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Mexico, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and Wisconsin – Obama leads Romney, 50 to 42 percent.
Also in these swing states, Romney’s favorability numbers have dropped, possibly reflecting the toll the negative Obama TV advertisements are having on the former Massachusetts governor in these battlegrounds.
A month ago, Romney’s favorable/unfavorable score stood at 34-38 percent nationally and 36-36 percent in the 12 swing states.
But in this latest survey, his national fav/unfav score is 33-39 percent and 30-41 percent in the swing states.
But the poll does underscore a long-held theory about this election, which I have written on in the past as well as others (I have seen PPP's Tom Jensen note it, as well). The theory is that the national polling numbers, which have been in tossup territory for much of the Spring, actually are overstating the case for Mitt Romney's electability.
This theory is based on a few assumptions:
- Because of minimal campaigning by either candidate, and the general voter malaise apparent in much of the polling to date, the president will still easily carry the blue states he won in 2008, but perhaps by slightly depressed margins.
- Because of minimal campaigning by either candidate, general voter malaise, and terrain that was already hostile to begin with, the president is going to lose the red states that weren't particularly competitive in 2008, and quite possibly by more substantial margins.
- The swing states, meanwhile, and notably, will behave much as they did in 2008. There may be some slight depression in the numbers (again, that voter malaise thing), but because the president and his campaign will put maximum effort into these states, both in defending his record and assaulting Mitt Romney's record, the needle will not move as dramatically here.
If these three premises come to pass, then the net result would be a potentially notable reduction in the performance for the president in the national popular vote, but a considerably smaller impact in his performance in the electoral college. Therefore, while the race appears to be a tossup in the national polling, when the votes are actually tallied, the electoral college will still go decidedly in favor of Barack Obama.
That's the theory. How legitimate is it? Go past the jump in order to find out.
To test the theory, I culled all of the national polls and state polling since April 1 that I have logged in our nightly polling wraps. To get the proper impact of the Gallup and Rasmussen tracking polls, I only counted every third day of Rasmussen's poll (since it is a three-day tracking poll), and every seventh day of Gallup's poll (since it is a seven-day tracking poll).
In that time, there have been 106 polls total on the presidential trial heat between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney. In those polls, averaged together, the lead for Barack Obama has been just a shade under two percentage points (1.87 percent) over Mitt Romney.
For those scoring at home, that is an improvement for the GOP of precisely 5.4 percent over the final 2008 results, which gave Barack Obama a final margin of victory of 7.27 percent over John McCain.
Now, there is a pretty important caveat there. Anybody who doubts that the daily tracking polls of Gallup and Rasmussen are skewed a tad need only see this stat. There have been 42 unique (as in, no common samples) editions of those two tracking polls since April 1. In those polls, Mitt Romney has an average lead of just under one percent. In the 64 unique non-tracking polls in the study, the leader was Barack Obama, and not by a hair—the average margin was 3.69 percent.
Taken as a whole, however, let's keep that overall figure (5.4 percent) in mind, while bearing in mind that the House of Ras and Gallup definitely have a thumb on the scale.
How did the states perform, in a comparable time period? Well, there was at least one poll conducted in 35 different states during the period between April 1 and June 29.
And, as one might expect, indeed the Republican performance vis-a-vis 2008 has improved in most of them. In only six states is Barack Obama in a comparably stronger position than he was in 2008. Mitt Romney is outpacing John McCain in the other 29 states that offered up data in the past three months.
So, to quote the inimitable Jamie Hyneman and Adam Savage, is the myth busted? The answer is: no. Not really.
You see, those states that have moved in the GOP direction have moved pretty incrementally in that direction. Twenty-nine have moved toward the Republicans in 2012, but more than half of them moved by less than the 5.4 percent that the national numbers have shifted.
Indeed, the state that moved the most in the GOP's favor should come as an absolute shock to no one—Utah, where Barack Obama lost by 28 points in 2008 but should absolutely expect a 40-plus point shellacking this time around.
Having looked at the field at large, let's narrow the field a bit. Let's look at the "swing states" as identified by NBC, and see how they've shifted since 2008. I have added a lucky 13th (Arizona), because, quite frankly, I'll bet anyone over at NBC News that Arizona will be closer in November than New Mexico will.
Partisan shift—2012 polling data (since 4/1) versus 2008 vote totalsSo, to recap, nine of the thirteen swing states have moved by less than the amount that the national tracking polls have moved.
MICHIGAN: GOP +12.9
WISCONSIN: GOP +9.2
IOWA: GOP +7.0
NEVADA: GOP +6.5
COLORADO: GOP +5.1
NEW HAMPSHIRE: GOP +4.3
VIRGINIA: GOP +4.0
PENNSYLVANIA: GOP +3.0
FLORIDA: GOP +2.0
NORTH CAROLINA: GOP +1.1
OHIO: GOP +1.1
NEW MEXICO: GOP +0.8
ARIZONA: DEMOCRAT +3.1
Even more importantly, for the sake of getting elected to the presidency, only one of the thirteen has shifted by more than Barack Obama's 2008 margin of victory in that state. In other words, if these poll numbers were to somehow hold till November, Barack Obama would lose just two of these states: Arizona (which he lost anyway in 2008) and North Carolina. If you factor in Indiana (where he would also lose, in all probability, according to polls) and Nebraska's 2nd district (where, actually, he still has a fighting shot at that lone electoral vote), Obama would win with an electoral college majority of 332-206.
And, indeed, that is the dichotomy that the current forecast by Nate Silver over at 538 shows: a popular vote margin of between 2-3 percent, but the most likely single electoral vote outcome being an Obama majority in the 330-340 range (though his overall assessment is still in the high 290s for Obama).
So, it seems, that the swing states are behaving a bit differently than the nation at-large. Certainly not the five point swing that the NBC poll claimed, but enough to mean that a relatively close outcome in the national popular vote may not consign Barack Obama to a one-term presidency. It is still obviously close, and no president likes being in a situation where a seismic shift in the numbers of only 2-3 percent could be the difference between victory and defeat.
However, with his poll numbers looking a bit better over the past several days, perhaps the outcome will look even a bit more optimistic for him still as the summer goes along.