Mitt Romney’s campaign has begun making a bold claim: they’re winning. Okay, maybe they aren’t winning, exactly, but they’ve got momentum, and that momentum will carry them inexorably to victory in November.
Claiming momentum is nothing new. Back in 1980, George H.W. Bush claimed to have “The Big Mo” after winning the Iowa caucuses. In 2000, Bush’s son claimed to be outperforming the polls, and actually took a campaign swing into reliably-blue California. In 2004, Kerry supporters claimed late-race momentum favored their candidate, and that undecideds would put him over the top in Ohio or Florida or possibly both.
So is momentum carrying Romney to victory? Well, a quick look at the other candidates who’ve claimed momentum is instructive. The elder Bush lost New Hampshire, the younger one ended up in a flat-footed tie, and Kerry did not, in fact, win either Ohio or Florida.
Maybe this time’s different, though. Is Romney ahead? Is it time for Obama supporters to panic? The answer, flatly, is no.
National Polls Basically Tied
The national polling shows an extremely tight race for the presidency. Pick your polling aggregator — RealClearPolitics, Talking Points Memo, Huffington Post — all show a race with a very narrow spread. Romney may be up a point, Obama may be up two, or the race may be basically tied — you can either panic or breathe easier based on which one you look at, but all the aggregators agree that the race is too close to call at this point.
The Romney campaign has made a great deal of hay by pointing to the Gallup Poll, which has shown him with as much as a 5-point lead. The Gallup Poll has a long and venerable history, and it’s got the best brand recognition in the business. That doesn’t mean it’s right, however, and indeed, in recent years, the Gallup Poll has a spotty record. In recent days, the poll has actually tightened to 3 points, with Obama leading among registered voters — and reaching 53 percent approval, which seems counter-intuitive, to say the least.
Romney also holds a 4-point lead in the conservative-leaning Rassmussen tracking poll, but those polls are the outliers. All the other polls show a close race, with Romney leading by 3 or less in Politico and SurveyUSA polls, Obama leading by 3 or less in Washington Times, CBS News and IBD/TIPP polls, and the candidates tied in polls from ABC and CBS.
Sure, the Romney supporters say, but we all know that undecideds tend to break against the incumbent. Clearly, a tied race means a Romney victory, right?
That was the argument from Kerry supporters in 2004. It wasn’t true then, and it isn’t true now. Undecideds can break unevenly, but they don’t necessarily, and in presidential elections, they’re less likely to break unevenly than in less-covered races.
That doesn’t mean Romney can’t win — or even that he’s unlikely to win — the popular vote. As noted, the polls show a very close race for the national popular vote, and either candidate could win it by a point or two.
As we saw in 2000, though, that doesn’t matter.
Obama Leads in the Electoral College
The presidency is not decided by the national popular vote. It’s decided state-by-state, through electoral votes. In 2000, George W. Bush lost the national popular vote to Al Gore, but still became president, thanks to a Supreme Court ruling giving Bush the electoral votes of Florida. Bush’s narrow, technical win in the Sunshine State was enough to give him a 271-267 victory in the Electoral College, as well as the presidency.
In a race where one candidate or another opens up a significant lead in the national polls, the electoral college generally won’t come into play. If either Romney or Obama wins on election day by 4 points, they will almost certainly do so by winning some of the key toss-up states.
In a race as close as this one, however, electoral votes matter, because the national popular vote is not necessarily distributed equally. And in this race, at this point there’s little question that Barack Obama holds a narrow but stable lead.
Barack Obama holds solid leads in states with 237 electoral votes, and Mitt Romney holds solid leads in states with 206 electoral votes. The race will hinge on the results of states with a total of 95 electoral votes: Colorado (9 electoral votes), Florida (29), Iowa (6), Ohio (18), Nevada (6), New Hampshire (4), Virginia (13) and Wisconsin (10). (Some will throw Michigan or Pennsylvania into this list, but both states have polled solidly for Obama and are unlikely to decide the election.)
It’s not as easy as saying that because Obama needs fewer electoral votes, he’s in the driver’s seat. If the toss-up states all leaned toward Romney, it would still be an uphill battle for the President. Fortunately for Obama, he holds leads in Ohio, Nevada, New Hampshire and Wisconsin. Iowa and Colorado look like ties right now. Romney has the advantage in Florida and Virginia, but even if Romney wins those two plus Iowa and Colorado, Romney is stuck at 263 electoral votes. Indeed, Obama can lose New Hampshire and still win 271-267.
And that assumes that the toss-up states break toward Romney. If Romney can’t win in Iowa and Colorado, even a win in Ohio wouldn’t give him the presidency. He’d have to win New Hampshire — which is doable, but an uphill battle.
Now, with two weeks to go until election day, and the race close, it’s certainly possible that Romney could win. If he overtakes Obama in Ohio, the race suddenly becomes very difficult for the president. But it’s as possible that Barack Obama will win more than 300 electoral votes as that Romney will win outright.
Nate Silver of the New York Times currently gives Obama about a 2-in-3 chance of winning in November; based on where the polling stands, that’s probably right. The race isn’t over, and Obama supporters will have to work hard to ensure his victory — but Obama, not Romney, has the edge at the start of the final fortnight of the campaign. Like others before him, Romney is trying to use the myth of momentum to build support and positive press and, hopefully, to earn enough votes for a clear victory. It didn’t work before; it would be surprising if it worked this time.
Image Credit: Donkey Hotey