The odds appear to be stacking up against Mitt Romney winning the 2012 presidential election on Tuesday.
Among political journalists, campaign reporters and most pollsters, there’s a congealing conventional wisdom that President Barack Obama is about to be re-elected.
On Sunday, new national polls from Pew put Barack Obama up three, and NBC/Wall Street Journal, which gave him a one-point advantage. Fox, Rasmussen, GWU/Politico and ABC/Washington Post finds a tie nationally.
More worrying for Mitt Romney is the state polls, particularly in Ohio, where the RealClearPolitics average has Barack Obama with a lead of 2.8%.
If everything goes Mitt Romney’s way on election day it is possible he could achieve out a victory that would stun Democrats and turn the polling world upside down.
Based on conversations with the Romney campaign, including a frank discussion with a senior Mitt Romney adviser, here’s how they see the Republican nominee winning.
Of course, campaign aides spin reporters because they want their optimistic scenarios to become part of a media narrative that helps drive voters. They are also part of a self-reinforcing campaign bubble in which belief in eventual victory is a prerequisite of getting through grueling days.
But the adviser quoted here, for what it is worth, correctly identified to me weeks beforehand that the first debate would be a game-changing moment for Mitt Romney, has always predicted a very close race and is honest enough to identify states such as Nevada which Romney probably won’t win.
If we look at the 2008 electoral college map, when Barack Obama beat Senator John McCain by an electoral college landslide of 365 to 173 (and seven percentage points in the popular vote), we can view the terrain on which the 2012 contest is being fought.
The distribution of electoral college votes (which are based on congressional districts and U.S. Senate seats) has changed slightly in 2012 to produce this map. Because of the changes, Barack Obama’s advantage has shrunk to 359 to 179 in the electoral college. The winner needs 270 votes. So for Mitt Romney to win, he needs to take 91 electoral college votes from the states that Barack Obama won in 2008.
We can immediately give one vote in Nebraska (based on winning a congressional district) and 11 in Indiana to Mitt Romney. Barack Obama is not campaigning for those. Next up is 15 in North Carolina. Barack Obama won it by just 14,000 votes in 2008 and early voting patterns indicate he’s probably going to lose there.
Then we have Florida – its 29 votes are a huge prize. The latest Miami Herald/El Nuevo Herald poll has Barack Obama being crushed by six points there. That’s the next state Mitt Romney needs. The Romney adviser was very confident, saying: “North Carolina’s baked. Florida’s baked.”
From there, it gets more difficult. Virginia, with 13 votes, is tighter than Florida but, again, early voting patterns suggest Mitt Romney will win it, though not by much. The Romney adviser said that “Virginia’s baked” though he added that it was “much closer than Florida”.
At this point, the Obama campaign would be really sweating. But so too would Mitt Romney’s team. We’d be down to Ohio, just as President George W. Bush was in 2004. This year, it has 18 electoral college votes.
If Mitt Romney bags Ohio, he’s on 266 electoral college votes and has multiple opportunities to get the four more he needs. Colorado’s nine, New Hampshire’s four, Iowa’s six and Wisconsin’s 10 look most likely. It’s very hard to see Mitt Romney winning Florida, Virginia and Ohio and Barack Obama keeping the White House.
Mitt Romney’s aides seem very bullish about Iowa – more so, even, than Colorado, where they say he took a hit in their internal polling with women independents after Barack Obama’s handling of Hurricane Sandy. The latest Des Moines Register poll gives Barack Obama a five-point advantage. But the Romney campaigns that the same poll put Barack Obama up 17 in 2008 and he won the state by 10 points.
Privately, the Romney campaign has effectively conceded Nevada, which has six votes.
“Nevada, we’ll probably fall short,” said the Romney adviser.
“That’s just tough.”
Mitt Romney hasn’t travelled there since October 24th, just as Barack Obama has stayed away from North Carolina.
More remarkably, the adviser said that Minnesota, 10 votes, and Pennsylvania, 20 votes, were distinct possibilities. He even predicted a possible win in Minnesota.
Pennsylvania is intriguing. There’s a Susquehanna poll that puts the two candidates dead level. Barack Obama has to be a heavy favorite – no Republican presidential candidate has won there since George H.W. Bush in 1988
But the Obama campaign has sent Bill Clinton to do four events in Pennsylvania on the eve of Election Day. After Barack Obama himself – and perhaps even ahead of Obama – Clinton is their most valuable campaign resource. There is clearly some worry there.
So that’s the electoral college arithmetic. There is not too much difference between the way the two campaigns view it.
The more difficult case to make is how Mitt Romney’s vote is lifted so that on the spectrum of Barack Obama states to capture (the order in terms of confidence seems to be Indiana, North Carolina, Florida, Virginia, Iowa, Ohio, Colorado, Wisconsin, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, Minnesota, Nevada and Michigan) it is a tide that rises above the Ohio threshold.
For that, several things have to happen: the battleground polls have to be wrong; undecideds have to vote for Mitt Romney; Romney’s turnout has to be very high; Barack Obama’s vote has to be depressed.
Can so many polls be wrong? The short answer is yes. It is worth remembering that in January 2008 virtually no one in the political world believed that Hillary Clinton could win the New Hampshire primary over Barack Obama, fresh off his Iowa victory. But win it she did.
This year, apart from Gallup and Rasmussen, pollsters have consistently over-sampled Democrats compared to Republicans.
The Romney adviser said: “The samples that they’re using are geared towards 2008 results. So you get Democrats plus four on Pew, you’ve got Democrats plus eight on PPP.
“It’s going to be a Republican plus one or Republicans plus two election. It’s not 2008, it’s not 2004, it’s not 2000. It’s a new election. It’s 2012 and a completely different dynamic. Every election we re-write history on turnout.
“Gallup looked at it a week ago and decided it was going to be a more Republican electorate and they had it right.”
The closer you get to an election, the more likely undecideds are to break against the incumbent. Mitt Romney will also have voter enthusiasm on his side. Whether that’s enough, remains an open question but the Romney campaign thinks so.
“What’s going on here is when you have intensity and momentum,” said the Romney adviser.
“You ask voters who they’re voting for and they say 48, 47 points Obama. And then you look at the people who are eight, nine,10 on the intensity scale, Republicans have a high single digits to low double digits advantage.
“That’s what you see in the early voting. We keep narrowing the gap of the early vote advantage in some of these states. That trend line goes right into election day when you just don’t want to get in the way of a Republican heading into the polls.”
Certainly, in Florida, North Carolina and Colorado, the early voting evidence is encouraging for Mitt Romney supporters. In Ohio, the picture is more mixed. The Romney adviser predicted a win in Ohio by as little at 20,000 votes. In 2004, George W. Bush won it by 119,00 votes and in 2008 Barack Obama won it by 262,000.
It appears that Mitt Romney was damaged by Hurricane Sandy – he was virtually absent from the television screens for four days, the discussion turned away from jobs and the economy and Barack Obama’s double act with Governor Chris Christie of New Jersey burnished his bipartisan credentials.
But the Romney adviser said that this has been turned around.
“Sandy didn’t flip us with independents but it narrowed. Then on Friday we got back in business with the <<revenge>> ad. Finally, we got back into business.
“Then Mitt just hit it in speech after speech and it got people back, particularly independents. Again saw Obama as divisive, petty, the negative partisan guy that they’d been seeing since the November 2nd debate.”
Can the Romney campaign envisage Barack Obama winning? The adviser responded: “I don’t see it. But his easiest path to that would be Ohio.
“He takes Ohio because Democratic men, hardworking lower middle class men, we don’t get the margin we think we’re getting. He somehow ekes it out. He gets Nevada, he gets Colorado, he gets New Hampshire. That’s probably the scenario.”
The Obama campaign believes that is indeed the scenario that will deliver them the White House. On Tuesday, we will know which of the two very different versions – almost parallel universes – of this race presented by the two campaign worlds will be the one that represents reality.