Ed. note: From time to time, SomeDisagree’s authors come across commentary that we find to be fundamentally lacking. It’s not necessarily that we disagree with the conclusions that others make – although we often will. The bigger problem is the process by which the commentator arrived at their conclusion. Thus, SomeDisagree proudly presents our Better Analysis Bureau series, dedicated to stamping out poor reasoning and shallow analysis wherever we find it. This is the first entry in the series.
This is a topic that I tackled a bit in a post the day Rick Santorum finally dropped out of the Republican race, so my views should be known. However, I ran across a piece in WashingtonPost.com’s opinion section that came to the opposite conclusion that I arrived at. I feel the need to respond.
The piece in question, by Jennifer Rubin, is headlined “Romney’s bright electoral landscape,” and describes President Obama’s hold on the White House as “perilous.” I believe the following excerpt demonstrates the heart of its reasoning:
To get 100 more and seize the presidency, Romney only needs some states that routinely went Republican before the 2008 race (Nevada, Ohio, Florida, North Carolina, Virginia) and needs to hold on to a few that Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) managed to win (Arizona, Missouri). This gets Romney to 273.
If [Romney] runs better than McCain and worse than Bush, then he’s very likely to win.
My initial reaction to Ms. Rubin’s piece is to scoff at its lack of evidentiary support in the form of polling data, but that’s not a fair initial reaction. As Nate Silver pointed out yesterday, polls this early in the game probably do not have a whole lot of predictive value. And in any event, I don’t believe it was Ms. Rubin’s intent to declare that Romney will win those states, but rather to point out that he might and that those states represent the “easiest” path to victory for him.
A better reaction to this piece is to question Ms. Rubin’s characterizations of the states in question. Among states that “routinely went Republican before 2008,” Ms. Rubin lists Ohio and Florida. While it is true that both of these states went for President Bush in 2000 and 2004, it seems odd to lump those states in with North Carolina and Virginia. Ohio and Florida are historical swing states, switching between the parties freely and typically delivering slim margins of victory (as you may recall). By contrast, prior to 2008 neither North Carolina nor Virginia had gone for a Democrat since North Carolina voted for Jimmy Carter in 1976 - Virginia hadn’t been blue since 1964. These two sets of states do not seem to belong in the same category.
A second problem is the lack of any relative analysis in Ms. Rubin’s post. The relevant question is not “how difficult is Mitt Romney’s path to 270,” it is “whose path to 270 is more difficult, Barack Obama or Mitt Romney?” Ms. Rubin is correct in noting that Romney needs to acquire 100 additional electoral votes to reach 270, but she is very wrong to ignore the fact that President Obama needs to come up with only 43 electoral votes to get to the magic number. In a zero-sum game such as elections, this is an incredible omission.
Ms. Rubin’s primary hypothetical path to the White House for Mitt Romney requires that he capture a very specific 7 of the 11 toss-up states in play. That’s a big percentage to have to win, and there is absolutely no margin for error. For instance, should Romney lose Ohio and fail to flip Pennsylvania, he would have to win every single other toss-up state to capture the presidency. If instead he lost Virginia, Romney could only afford to also drop one of New Hampshire, Iowa, or Nevada. If Romney loses Florida, the game is over.
There are other problems present in Ms. Rubin’s piece, namely her lack of recognition of the demographic trends in Virginia, North Carolina, and elsewhere that will make it difficult for Republicans to take back those states, but whatever.
At the end of her piece, Ms. Rubin declares “Democrats’ confidence is unwarranted” and says “It is very easy to spot Romney’s path to 270 electoral votes.” Well, yes, it is very easy to name 7 high-population states and say “if Romney can win these, he’ll be President.” But such analysis is utterly beside the point. Democrats are not confident heading into this November because we’re incapable of realizing that if Romney can sweep Ohio, Florida, and Virginia, he’ll be in a very good spot. Democrats are confident because today, before the general election is even a week old, our guy has a 57 electoral vote lead in the bank. Democrats are confident because our guy’s chances of election do not hinge on winning any one swing state, the way Romney’s hinge on winning Florida. Democrats are confident because we have several legitimate paths to victory comprised entirely of true toss-up states. Democrats are confident because for our guy, the electoral landscape genuinely is bright, and we don’t have to perform any mental gymnastics or glaring errors of omission to reach that conclusion.