Better Analysis Bureau: Does the electoral map favor Romney?

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’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.

Previewing the General Election

Now that Rick Santorum has finally dropped out of the GOP race, it’s time to focus all our attention on the general election.  Here’s how the battle stands, as of today.

National Polling

Currently, RealClearPolitics has President Obama holding a 5.3% advantage using its poll of polls.  However, it should be noted that that poll of polls includes the latest from Rasmussen Reports, which is a notoriously GOP-leaning polling service.  If you exclude the Rasmussen result (which has Obama and Romney tied at 45), Obama’s lead swells to 6.4% on average.

Electoral Math

I’m from what you might call the Bruno Gianelli school of political campaigning, in that I prefer electoral strategies that are as sweeping and 50-state oriented as possible.  To that end, I’m going to envision a broader starting electoral map than most.  Check it out here at  As you can see, this starting point gives Obama only a modest 26 electoral vote lead on Mitt Romney.  However, watch what happens as we start narrowing the map:

-I think we can be relatively safe in assigning Michigan and Wisconsin to President Obama.  Both of those states have been reliably blue in Presidential contests since 1992, and Wisconsin even went for Dukakis in 1988.  Romney wants to put these states in play but chalk them up as blue.

News came out today that President Obama has opened up at 13-point lead on Romney in Colorado.  Granted, this is from Public Policy Polling, which some have accused of having a liberal slant, but given the result in 2008 and the demographic trends in that state (it’s becoming younger and more urban), I’m going to chalk them up blue until I see strong evidence to the contrary.

-I have had a sneaking suspicion for a while now that 2012 might finally be the year that Arizona turns blue.  Obama did surprisingly well there in 2008 particularly given that, you know, John McCain is from Arizona.  Given that illegal immigration is one of the few issues Romney has really been comfortable letting the conservative flag fly on, I think the increasing Latino population in that state might be motivated to turn out for Obama.  That said, it would be imprudent to turn them blue before polling really shows what I think might be going on.  Put them in red for now.

-It has been argued to me by knowledgeable people whom I respect that Missouri should be given solid “red” status – that the only way Obama can win Missouri is if its part of a landslide election.  With all due respect to those people, I disagree.  Missouri is an historic bellwether state that Obama lost by only 4,000 votes last go-round.  It has a large population, two significant urban areas, and a national-average African-American population.  I think it’s in play.  Leave it beige.

After these adjustments, Obama’s initial lead has swelled to 50 electoral votes.  More significantly, this map (see it in picture form here) gives Obama 231 electoral votes, just 39 shy of what he needs to get a second term.  Meanwhile, Romney needs to pick up 89 electoral votes to get to the White House.

So, let’s game out the electoral scenarios revolving around the key swing states: Florida, Pennsylvania, and Ohio.

If Obama wins Florida, the race is all but over.  Romney would have zero margin for error; he would have to capture every swing state remaining except one of Nevada, New Mexico, and New Hampshire in order to become President.

If Obama wins Pennsylvania, this is also bad news for Romney.  Obama could then secure re-election simply by picking up North Carolina plus any other state, or Virginia plus either Iowa or Nevada.

If Obama wins Ohio, the situation is pretty much the same as in Pennsylvania; Obama needs just Virginia or North Carolina and one or two other states.

So, what this boils down to is Romney must sweep all three of those big states to put Obama in a really bad spot.  If Romney can do that, Obama would be forced to win two of North Carolina, Virginia, and Missouri, along with nearly all of the remaining small states – a scenario that seems highly unlikely if Obama has lost the big states.

So, all that said, what does the state-by-state polling look like?  Numbers below are averages of March polls found on RealClearPolitics.

Florida: Obama +5

Pennsylvania: Obama +5

Ohio: Obama +7

North Carolina: Obama +3

Virginia: Obama +4

Missouri: Romney +9

Nevada: Obama  +7

Iowa: No recent polling

New Hampshire: No recent polling.

So, the good news in these numbers for President Obama is that it seems that if the election were held today, Obama would have an electoral college landslide, winning as many as 347 electoral votes, depending on how New Hampshire and Iowa turned out.  For reference, Obama won 365 electoral votes in his 2008 trouncing of John McCain.  On the other hand, in all but one of these states, Obama is polling below his nationwide lead.  That’s to be expected, of course, but it demonstrates that Obama is not invincible.

No matter what though, it’s clear that if Mitt Romney wants to take the White House back for the Republicans, there’s a long, long way to go.