For sure, there may be no more persistent recurring theme in the presidential election of 2012 than the ceaseless (and often perplexing) divergence between national polls that have shown a genuine coin flip between the two presidential candidates, and state polls that have shown the president in a rather modest but consistent advantage, portending an electoral college majority than has almost always wavered between around 280-330 electoral votes.
This has led election observers and analysts to spend most of the latter half of October in endless speculation about the prospect of a virtual "split decision" next week. For the first time in a dozen years, the pundit class was forecasting a very real prospect of a Romney victory in the national popular vote, but an Obama win in the electoral college.
Is this even remotely possible? There is a mathematical chance of it, of course. But there is a more-than-respectable case to be made that, if the state polls are indeed correct, there is virtually no way that Mitt Romney can cobble together a plurality of the popular vote.
More on that after the jump. For now, though, on to the numbers:
NATIONAL (ABC/WaPo Tracking): Obama 49, Romney 48DOWNBALLOT POLLING:
NATIONAL (High Point University): Obama 46, Romney 43
NATIONAL (Ipsos/Reuters Tracking): Obama 47, Romney 46 (LV); Obama 47, Romney 43 (RV)
NATIONAL (Rasmussen Tracking): Romney 49, Obama 47
NATIONAL (UPI/CVoter): Obama 48, Romney 48
COLORADO (CallFire/Faith Horizon): Obama 49, Romney 48 (LV); Obama 49, Romney 48 (RV)
COLORADO (CNN/Opinion Research): Obama 50, Romney 48 (LV); Obama 52, Romney 44 (RV)
COLORADO (Rasmussen): Romney 50, Obama 47
IOWA (CallFire/Faith Horizon): Obama 50, Romney 47
IOWA (NBC News/Marist): Obama 50, Romney 44 (LV); Obama 49, Romney 43 (RV)
IOWA (Rasmussen): Romney 49, Obama 48
MICHIGAN (PPP for HCAN): Obama 53, Romney 45
MINNESOTA (SurveyUSA): Obama 50, Romney 43
NEVADA (SurveyUSA): Obama 50, Romney 46
NEW HAMPSHIRE (NBC News/Marist): Obama 49, Romney 47 (LV); Obama 49, Romney 46 (RV)
NORTH CAROLINA (High Point University): Romney 46, Obama 45
OHIO (Wenzel Strategies--R): Romney 49, Obama 46
RHODE ISLAND (Fleming and Associates): Obama 54, Romney 33
VIRGINIA (PPP for HCAN): Obama 49, Romney 46
WASHINGTON (SurveyUSA): Obama 54, Romney 40
WASHINGTON (Univ. of Washington): Obama 57, Romney 36
WISCONSIN (NBC News/Marist): Obama 49, Romney 46 (LV); Obama 49, Romney 45 (RV)
WISCONSIN (Rasmussen): Obama 49, Romney 49
WISCONSIN (St. Norbert College): Obama 51, Romney 42
WISCONSIN (Wenzel Strategies--R): Obama 49, Romney 47
HI-SEN (Merriman River Group): Mazie Hirono (D) 55, Linda Lingle (R) 40A few thoughts, as always, await you just past the jump ...
MN-SEN (SurveyUSA): Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D) 60, Kurt Bills (R) 29
OH-SEN (Wenzel Strategies--R): Josh Mandel (R) 50, Sen. Sherrod Brown (D) 45
WA-SEN (Univ. of Washington): Sen. Maria Cantwell (D) 61, Michael Baumgartner (R) 33
WI-SEN (NBC News/Marist): Tammy Baldwin (D) 48, Tommy Thompson (R) 47 (LV); Tammy Baldwin (D) 48, Tommy Thompson (R) 46
WI-SEN (St. Norbert College): Tommy Thompson (R) 46, Tammy Baldwin (D) 43
WI-SEN (Wenzel Strategies--R): Tommy Thompson (R) 47, Tammy Baldwin (D) 45
NH-GOV (NBC News/Marist): Maggie Hassan (D) 49, Ovide Lamontagne (R) 44 (LV); Maggie Hassan (D) 49, Ovide Lamontagne (R) 43 (RV)
WA-GOV (SurveyUSA): Jay Inslee (D) 47, Rob McKenna (R) 46
WA-GOV (Univ. of Washington): Jay Inslee (D) 49, Rob McKenna (R) 46
CA-52 (SurveyUSA): Scott Peters (D) 46, Rep. Brian Bilbray (R) 46
NY-11 (Siena): Rep. Michael Grimm (R) 52, Mark Murphy (D) 34
NY-21 (Global Strategy Group for the Owens campaign): Rep. Bill Owens (D) 47, Matt Doheny (R) 40
NY-21 (Public Opinion Strategies for the Doheny campaign): Rep. Bill Owens (D) 42, Matt Doheny (R) 40
NY-21 (Siena): Rep. Bill Owens (D) 44, Matt Doheny (R) 43
NY-25 (Siena): Rep. Louise Slaughter (D) 52, Maggie Brooks (R) 42
The reason for all the breathless speculation about an EV/PV split in the Obama/Romney showdown is based on that polling dichotomy that we have often discussed here in the Wrap. For all but two days in the last three weeks, the daily averages in the national polls (both tracking polls and standalones) has given Mitt Romney a very narrow advantage. It has never been huge (it maxed out after the 1st presidential debate at around 1.7 percent), but it had been consistent until this week, when it began to dissipate.
Meanwhile, the polling averages of the myriad of state polls have never given Mitt Romney an edge in enough states to cobble together an electoral college majority. Indeed, Obama has led consistently in state polling averages in states that total 271 electoral votes, and has led from time-to-time in another handful of states worth an additional 61 electoral votes (Florida, New Hampshire, Iowa, Colorado, and Virginia).
So, let's start the discussion with a very simple question: is it even possible for both sets of polls to be right? And the simple answer to that question is: yes, it absolutely is possible.
Here's why: the numbers nationally could be driven by two separate trends, both of which have (ahem) skewed the national landscape from 2008, when Obama won the national popular vote by 7.3 percentage points.
Trend #1: Many red states are far more red than they were in 2008. This is not easy to prove conclusively, of course, because so many of those deep red states have gone unpolled. But we do know that the largest of the red states (Texas) looks to be a few points more Republican in polling this cycle than it had been in 2008 (when Obama trailed by 12). It also goes without saying that the western states with high LDS populations (think Utah and Idaho) will be more lopsided than ever.
Trend #2: Some of the key blue states aren't as blue as they were in 2008, and that will drag Obama's national numbers down. Here, we see a lot more polling evidence. In the largest blue state (California), the last ten polls there have given the president an average lead of about 17 points. While decisive, it is far less than the 25 point edge Obama enjoyed in 2008. And what does 8 percent mean in the state of California? Over a million votes. Or about a full percentage point of the national total. Add similar downward trends in states that still favor the president (think: Connecticut, Oregon, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Minnesota), and you can see where the national advantage might erode.
Does that mean that a split is imminent? Well, the short answer to that question is: not likely.
For one thing, the swing states have scarcely moved. If you buy the national polls, Obama has lost somewhere between six-to-eight percentage points off of his 2008 margins. And yet there are a number of critical states in the election that (if state polls are to be believed) haven't come close to moving that far. Three of the larger swing states (Florida, Ohio, and North Carolina) are roughly where they were four years ago, give or take a couple of percentage points. Given that fact, and the fact that three of the four larger blue states are still going to go easily for Obama (California, Illinois, and New York), it seems hard to believe that Romney can offset that.
The latter stat, especially, does not speak well to a Republican lead in the popular vote. Even if the margins are not as outsized as they were in 2008, Democrats are always going to run up a pretty good popular vote cushion, predicated on the simple arithmetic that most of the largest states in the union are Democratic states. It is that fact, of course, that allowed Al Gore to forge a 550,000 vote lead in the popular vote in 2000, even as the electoral college was down to the wire.
Of course, the polls could still wind up converging in the next few days, as well. Obama's relative standing in the national polls this week have improved a bit, as today (for the first time since the weekend after the first debate), he actually holds a narrow "lead" in the national polling average. However, not to be a buzzkill, but the simple fact is that Obama's slightest of edges in the national average the past few days is owed almost entirely to the absence of what had been the most Mitt-tastic poll of them all: the Gallup daily tracking poll. Plug that back into the equation, and the national average would be right at or around a pure tie on each of the last three days.
When all is said and done, though, the odds are greatest that one of the two sets of polls are off, however incrementally. Right now, the divergence between the two sets of polls is only about two percentage points, with Romney benefitting in the national polls. The national polling average has consistently been about deadlocked for the past week or so, with Romney doing no better than a nominal lead of about 1.2 points.
Meanwhile, a national total based on calculating the state-by-state leads for each candidate (Sean Trende of RCP did the same thing, and our numbers are close enough) has, by my calculations, ranged roughly from 1.5-2.5 points for the last week in President Obama's favor.
So, with that in mind, it would not take much movement to bring these in line with one another. Obviously, forecasting a winner is going to depend a great deal on which set of data drifts towards the other.