May 05 2012

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Don’t Despair, Romney Can Win

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The Math That Matters in November

Recent polling, showing President Obama ahead in most of the swing states for 2012, despite the closeness of the race nationally, has been the cause for GOP hand- wringing and a certain guarded triumphalism among Obama-supporting media.

Don’t believe it.

Two insights – one historical and the other analytical – point to much different fundamentals as we head toward November.

First, even in the era of the 24 hour news cycle, it is early in the process. Romney is running against an incumbent, who is better known and recognized, and who has the tools and power of the presidency at his disposal. It is not unusual for the President to be leading.

The most compelling historical example to illustrate this point in the election of 1980.

As Republicans were assembling to run in 1979, a hypothetical head to head match up between President Carter and Ronald Reagan had Carter ahead by a jaw dropping 25 percent.

In April 1980, as the Republican primaries were coming to a close,  Carter continued to lead Reagan by 6 points. The race remained close through the rest of the year, with Reagan enjoying a quickly-vanishing 16 point lead after the GOP convention, and Carter running up an eight point lead as late as October.

But on November 4th, Reagan beat Carter by nearly 10 points in the popular vote, and won the Electoral College by an eye-popping 489-49 margin.

It was a referendum on Jimmy Carter, and the results were decisive. But for most of 1979-80, it was anything but obvious that Reagan was headed toward a landslide of historical proportions.

Of course, Romney is not guaranteed a landslide simply based on a historical precedent, though the similarities between Obama and Carter policies, rhetoric and results are compelling.  But at the same time, the hubris of Democratic strategists and pundits at the President’s core political strength – based on his 2008 victory – is also somewhat misplaced.

A historical look at voting patterns in the swing states explains why.

According to Real Clear Politics.com, there are ten “swing” states in 2012: New Hampshire, Virginia, North Carolina, Florida, Ohio, Missouri, Iowa, Colorado, Arizona, Nevada. Except for Missouri and Arizona, President Obama carried all these states in 2008. There is a general presumption among pundits – rooted in recent polls – that the President starts out in a superior position in these states because of those victories.

But history does not bear that out.

If you look at the Democratic share of the vote in each of the swing state in the three election cycles previous to 2008, you see why.

State Dem Av ‘96-‘04 Dem Spread ’96-’04 (High/Low) Obama Percentage Obama  Performance v. ’96-’04 Average
New Hampshire 49% 3.4% 54% +5%
Virginia 45%   .6% 53% +8%
North Carolina 44%   .8% 50% +6%
Florida 48% 1.8% 51% +3%
Ohio 47% 2.3% 51% +4%
Missouri 47% 1.4% 49% +2%
Iowa 49% 1.7% 54% +5%
Colorado 45% 4.6% 54% +9%
Arizona 45% 2.5% 45% -.1%
Nevada 46% 3.9% 55% +9%

 In no case do the Democrats get a majority in these swing states in the ’96-’04 period, though they are competitive in New Hampshire, Florida and Iowa. 

Moreover, over the 12-year period, the Democratic share of the vote in these states remained relatively stable. The biggest single move was between 2000 and 2004 in Colorado, where John Kerry gained 4.6 points. The rest are generally between 1-3%

In 2008, however, Barack Obama blew out the doors on previous Democratic margins, gaining nine points in Colorado over the Democrats three-election average between ’96-04.  He gained eight points in Virignia, six points in North Carolina and five points in Iowa.

The reasons for Obama’s dramatic gains can be attributed to the ground-breaking nature of his candidacy as the first African American presidential nominee and the 2008 financial crisis. Indeed, state voting patterns reverted to form in many instances in 2009-10 , as when now Governor Bob McDonnell won by a landslide 18 points in Virginia, and Republicans took control of the House of Representatives, while also picking up six Senate seats.

So looking at the President’s victory margins in ’08 as a ceiling rather than a floor, and testing that strength against historical Democratic performance, how does the outcome look?

State Dem Av ‘96-‘08
New Hampshire 50%
Virginia 47%
North Carolina 45%
Florida 49%
Ohio 48%
Missouri 47%
Iowa 50%
Colorado 47%
Arizona -R- (McCain home state in ’08)
Nevada 48%

In the Electoral College, all other states being equal, this provides Romney with a 270-268 win.

But this does not take into account other states won by President Obama that were part of the traditional Democratic base that might be ripe to flip in 2012.

Consider the chart below:

State Dem Av ‘96-‘04 Dem Spread ’96-’04 (High/Low) Obama Percentage Obama  Performance v. ’96-’04 Average Obama Integrated into   Historical
Pennsylvania 49% 1.8% 55% + 6% 51%
Michigan 52% .5% 57% + 5% 53%
Wisconsin 49% 1.9% 56% + 7% 51%
New Mexico 49% 1.3% 57% + 6% 51%

This indicates that there are potential opportunities for Romney in Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and New Mexico. Alternately, no matter what familial strings Romney has to Michigan, it may be too much of a lift to win there this time around.

Still adding any of these states provides cushion to a Romney victory.

Hopelessly simplistic statistics?

Perhaps.  But consider this. In the 10 swing states originally listed, President Obama leads within the margin of error in all but Nevada, where he leads outside the margin, and Missouri and Arizona, where Romney currently leads.  For an incumbent president who had impressive margins in 2008, this is hardly a pole position today. And it gives pause that perhaps a historical pattern is, in fact, at work.

Still, the election is a long way off, and statistics are not destiny.   But the analysis provided here does give a unique view into how the Electoral College may shape up in the coming months. It strongly indicates that as the campaign moves forward, keep a close eye on New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, Florida Iowa, Wisconsin and New Mexico. 

These might be the ultimate swing states in November – the states that decide victory.








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