As Swing State Races Narrow, Debate Looms Large

By Erin McPike

The election cycle has reached the stage where there is such a torrent of polls released each day that the flipping leads could give many poll watchers whiplash. And Tuesday night’s presidential debate at Hofstra University could make the race even more volatile.

On Monday morning, the RealClearPolitics Average of national polls found President Obama and Mitt Romney tied at 47.3 percent apiece; by the afternoon, Romney had ticked up a tenth of a point. And that’s after Romney had wrested the lead from Obama last Tuesday for the first time in more than a year.

But the real movement has been in the battleground states. RCP currently counts 11 such battlegrounds (amounting to 146 electoral votes) as true tossups; Obama leads the electoral vote count in the other states, 201-191.

Those numbers are significant because at this point in the 2008 election, candidate Barack Obama was leading John McCain in every single one of those battlegrounds, including conservative-leaning North Carolina. In many of them, he was ahead by double digits, whereas his biggest battleground-state lead now is just 4.8 percentage points, according to the RCP Average — and that is in the usually reliable Democratic state of Pennsylvania.

Until the first debate in Denver nearly two weeks ago, the president enjoyed modest leads in the RCP Averages of every swing state with the exception of North Carolina. (Obama was ahead there for a short time in September — around his nominating convention in Charlotte — but Romney surpassed him soon after.) The trend lines show that polls in the Tar Heel State are increasingly moving in the Republican nominee’s direction, with Romney now holding an RCP Average lead of 4.7 percentage points.

Post-debate, it’s clear that the tectonic plates of the electoral terrain have shifted, including in Florida and Colorado, which now also favor Romney.

The Sunshine State is giving the challenger his next-biggest battleground lead after North Carolina at 2.5 percentage points. Obama went ahead in the Florida average on the first day of summer, but Romney took it back six days after the first debate and has led every public poll in the state since. Republicans have been confident about this state throughout the year, and some Democrats have warned that the Obama campaign should scale back its spending there to channel resources elsewhere.

The former Massachusetts governor has a razor-thin lead of 0.6 points in Colorado. Four years ago at this point, Obama was leading McCain by nine points there. And this cycle, the president had been enjoying a solid lead in the Centennial State since the beginning of the general election. But on the same day he lost the lead in Florida — last Tuesday — he relinquished it in Colorado too. The polls have been close there in the past 10 days, with Romney leading in a few and the president leading in others.

Adding those states’ 29 and nine respective electoral votes, as well as North Carolina’s 15, to Romney’s base line of 191 moves him up to 244.

Where tonight’s debate could also matter is in Virginia and New Hampshire. Surveys in these states still show the president with a slim lead, but a shrinking one.

Obama had been holding a solid lead in the Granite State, despite Romney’s residence there and his courtship of the electorate in the primary. But the president’s support started to dip last Monday. On the morning of the first presidential debate, Oct. 3, Obama was ahead by six points, at 50 percent in the RCP Average to 44 percent for Romney. Now it’s 47.8 percent for the president to 47.3 percent for his challenger.

For seven solid months, the president led Romney in the RCP Average for the Old Dominion. Romney took the lead for two days in early September (just after the GOP convention), but the president regained his edge and has led ever since. Today, it’s just 48.4 percent to 47.6 percent in favor of Obama.

If Romney turns in another solid debate performance and chips away further at the president’s support in those two states, he could add Virginia’s 13 electoral votes and New Hampshire’s four to the 244, bringing him to 261.

That’s where the president’s firewall supposedly comes in, though it’s been showing cracks lately.

Obama has also enjoyed a year-long lead in the RCP Average for Nevada. That advantage was down to just 1.6 points as of Monday, 48.2 percentage points for the president to 46.6 percent for Romney. Sources say that Republicans trail the Democrats in turnout and party operations there, which could help blunt a Romney surge. But if the GOP pulls an upset there, the Silver State’s six electoral votes could get Romney to the cusp of the 270 votes he needs.

Ohio has been a stubborn state for the challenger. While it has trended conservative over the years, polls show that much of the electorate credits the Obama administration for the auto bailout — which the president trumpets loudly during his frequent visits. Romney and running mate Paul Ryan have invested considerable time there in the past few weeks, which has helped cut into the president’s lead. But they haven’t been able to overtake him yet.

The president has not given up the Buckeye State lead all year. He’s also never been tied with his opponent. But the polls show the race tightening. As of this past weekend, Obama was ahead in the RCP Average by just 2.2 points, 48.3 percent to 46.1 percent, making it the state to watch after the debate.

However, if Romney is able to flip Virginia, New Hampshire and Nevada to his side, he would need just one more state to cross the 270 threshold, and could skip Ohio in exchange for Wisconsin or Iowa. In those two, Obama leads Romney by 2.3 and 2.7 percentage points, respectively, in the state averages.

Ann Romney campaigned in Pennsylvania this week, but the Keystone State and Michigan appear to be heavy lifts for the GOP nominee unless he repeats his Oct. 3 shellacking of Obama. The president is ahead by 4.4 percentage points in Michigan and 4.8 percentage points in Pennsylvania in RCP’s Averages.

But at the heart of the race right now is this: Romney is surging, presenting his opponent with a challenge ahead of tonight’s debate. This about-face is telling in more ways than one. Whereas Republicans were complaining about poll methodology before the first debate, when Romney was trailing, now it’s the Obama campaign’s turn: In a memo Monday, it took issue with a Gallup/USA Today survey.

Obama pollster Joel Benenson wrote, “The latest Gallup USA Today Battleground survey showing President Obama and Governor Romney tied with women in battleground states (48-48) is an extreme outlier, defying the trends seen in every other battleground and national poll. This result underscores deep flaws in Gallup’s likely voter screen.”

Erin McPike is a national political reporter for RealClearPolitics. this artilces was originally published on RCP.com

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