Why The Presidential Election May Not Be As Close As You Think

Relying heavily on Nate Silver’s indispensable blog at the New York Times, Michael Tomasky sticks his neck out just a bit to argue this year’s election may not turn out as close as most expect:

There’s a secret lurking behind everything you’re reading about the upcoming election, a secret that all political insiders know—or should—but few are talking about, most likely because it takes the drama out of the whole business. The secret is the electoral college, and the fact is that the more you look at it, the more you come to conclude that Mitt Romney has to draw an inside straight like you’ve never ever seen in a movie to win this thing. This is especially true now that it seems as if Pennsylvania isn’t really up for grabs. Romney’s paths to 270 are few.

It’s that last number, 270, that’s key to Tomasky’s argument. Because from today’s vantage, no one can reasonably argue this year’s presidential election won’t feature a popular vote much closer than was the case last time, when Obama won by about seven percent. There have been some outlier polls here and there showing the President with a double-digit lead, but for months now the clear majority of national polling has shown a race of inches.

The aggregate poll shown above helps illustrate how competitive the race has been, at least since June of last year. What it doesn’t quite show, however, is the consistency that’s defined the polling thus far. Jigger with the outlay a little bit, and the Obama-Romney contest begins looking a bit more predictable. Below, I’ve changed the vote range (Y axis) from the above’s 35-55 to a simpler 0-100. The already minimal variation seen in the poll above becomes even further reduced.

We’re talking horserace right now, so forgive me the sports metaphor; but what the above reminds me most of is a basketball game that looks a little closer on the scoreboard than it does on the court. Let’s say it’s the Celtics and the Heat playing each other — but while the Celtics never trail the Heat by more than five points, they never grab the lead for themselves either. At a certain point, they’re running themselves ragged just to lose by a little.

But that’s just the popular vote; and any Democratic voter can tell you that it’s the Electoral College that counts. Yet even by that once cruelly discordant metric, things are looking rosy for the President. Relying on Silver’s model again, the chance of Obama’s winning the 270 Electoral College votes necessary for reelection is an arresting 71 percent. And that’s nearly four points better than was the case a week ago. Looking at the trend lines, you see a slight but discernible tendency: The more voters see of Romney, the less likely becomes his winning the Presidency.

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I’d be remiss if I didn’t sprinkle in the necessary caveats right now: Two months is a long time in politics; something could happen that, like the financial crash of late-2008, is unforeseen and dynamic-shifting. (There’s always the Whitey Tape!) November 6 is hardly a fait accompli. But the less-than-ideal scenarios under which Obama still wins the White House are multiple. Noted by Tomasky, but little remarked upon elsewhere thus far, the President could prevail despite losing nearly all of the high-profile swing-states:

[S]omething to keep in mind for election night: Whatever Obama’s number is at 10 pm Eastern, add [California, Oregon, Washington, and Hawaii’s] 78 EV’s—they’re a mortal lock, and a hefty insurance policy. If he wins Nevada (6) and Colorado (9), it’s over.

In other words, Obama can lose the big Eastern four—Ohio, Virginia, North Carolina, and Florida: all of ’em!—and still be reelected.

There are no guarantees, and if American politics went according to plan, we wouldn’t be talking about Barack Hussein Obama II being on the cusp of securing a second full term as the President. But next time media coverage of the election has you lock-jawed and white-knuckled, keep this in mind: Coming out of what should’ve been the easiest months for Romney-as-challenger, when Republicans coalesced around his candidacy and voters gave the (relative) new guy the benefit of the doubt, the GOP’s presumptive nominee still has a less than four-in-10 chance of ending the Obama era.