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Morning Jay: The Media Doesn’t Understand Races in the States

6:00 AM, Jun 8, 2012 • By JAY COST
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This write-up from the Hill on a recent Pennsylvania poll is pretty similar to many others these days:

President Obama is retaining his commanding lead over Mitt Romney in Pennsylvania, topping the Republican presidential nominee by 12 points in a poll released Wednesday by Franklin & Marshall College. Obama would win the favor of 48 percent of Keystone State voters, versus just 36 percent for Romney, according to the poll. 

And polls like these are producing frames like these, from Charles Babington of the AP:

…Republican presidential nominees have lost (Pennsylvania) five straight times despite substantial efforts. Some independent analysts say the same result is likely this year, even if few expect Obama to repeat his double-digit victory.

This is the wrong frame of reference to look at the 2012 election. Obama is not enjoying a “commanding lead” in Pennsylvania – not in any meaningful sense of the term. Nor is he necessarily favored to win it.

These articles illustrate how the media is making major mistakes in its analysis of the campaign in the 50 states. Here are four huge problems with its approach.

1. The president is under 50 percent in most swing state polling averages. It’s not an ironclad rule that Obama cannot rise in the polls, but common sense suggests that it will be tough. He’s been the president for three years – if you’re not inclined to vote for him now, what will five months of a campaign do?

It’s worth noting as well that most of these polls show the president getting roughly his job approval, which is all we should expect him to receive in the general election (maybe a little less). And his job approval rating has consistently been under 50 percent for two-and-a-half years.

2. Most polls are of registered voters. This matters because the actual electorate will only be a subset of registered voters, and will probably be more inclined to vote for the GOP. So, these polls probably overstate Obama's “lead,” such as it is.

The two major exceptions to this are Rasmussen, which is already using a likely voter screen, and PPP, which uses an idiosyncratic screen of “voters” (basically surveying people who voted in previous elections). Nobody else uses this screen; PPP switches to “likely voters” later in the cycle and until then its polls should be taken with a grain of salt.

To appreciate just how important the use of registered voters is, consider that the aforementioned Franklin & Marshall College poll in Pennsylvania found 50 percent of its sample identifying as Democratic. In 2008 – the best year for Democrats in over a decade – only 44 percent of the Pennsylvania electorate called itself Democratic.

And combine this point with the last point to consider that, in a poll that is 50 percent Democratic, Obama is only pulling in 48 percent! Is it really fair to say that he’s “leading” in the Keystone state?

3. There is no “blue wall.” This is a common point pundits will make – the list of states that have not voted Republican since 1988 amounts to a “blue wall” for the president. Nonsense. It’s better to say that these states have Democratic tilts, some of them pretty minimal.

Take Pennsylvania, for instance. The Keystone State usually votes about 3 points more Democratic than the rest of the country. So, if Romney wins the nationwide vote by 3 points, then he will stand a very good chance of winning Pennsylvania. This is why the frame from the Babington article is wrong. Yes, the GOP has lost Pennsylvania every time since 1988, but it has not won a national presidential election by 3 points since then. That is a distinct possibility this year, meaning that Pennsylvania is up for grabs.

In fact, when we look at the electoral map from the perspective of each state’s partisan tilt, we see that the “blue wall” is simply insufficient. The states with a Republican tilt of at least 1 point total up to 253 electoral votes, based on the 2008 results. The states with a Democratic tilt of at least 1 percent total up to 257 electoral votes.

In other words, it’s a wash.

4. The “horse race” metaphor has its limits. Take this from the guy who used to write the Horse Race Blog: The concept of a horse race does not capture the idea of voter psychology very well at this point. Roughly 85 percent or so of the electorate is locked in – though they may not be admitting it to pollsters – while the final 15 percent has barely started the decision-making process. So, the idea that Obama has a “lead” in the polls is really a non sequitur. The gettable voters are not yet engaged, so there really is no race going on at the moment.

With these four points in mind, here is the current map I have in mind. It’s based on my estimate that the range of outcomes for 2012 will go from a 53-47 for Obama, the 2008 result, to a 53-47 victory for Romney. That means that any state that Obama won in 2008 is in play (plus Missouri, which he nearly won), while pretty much any state that historically has had a Democratic tilt of D+3 or less is in play, too. That leaves the map looking like this (map from 270 To Win):

I think this is the most we can confidently say at the moment. The states in tan are genuinely uncertain, as to how they will unfold. It depends on how the national vote goes, and that is uncertain right now. Like I said, I see a reasonable range of anywhere between 46 percent and 53 percent for both candidates, which leaves a wide swath of electoral votes up for grabs.

Jay Cost is a staff writer for THE WEEKLY STANDARD and the author of Spoiled Rotten: How the Politics of Patronage Corrupted the Once Noble Democratic Party and Now Threatens the American Republic, available now wherever books are sold.

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