In the weeks leading up to Wednesday’s U.S. President Debate, a narrative began to take hold among pundits that President Obama was gradually pulling away with the election. But with Romney’s impressive debate performance on Wednesday everything has changed—indeed, one columnist who had written a September 18th piece laying out five reasons why it was too early to write off Romney’s chances in the election, by Thursday felt compelled to list five reasons why it was still too early to write off Obama completely. Even so, Romney’s got all the momentum, Obama’s campaign is on the defensive and switching strategies, and, at the very least, the media is telling us that we once again have an election on our hands—and all the drama that this entails.
Don’t believe the hype. It’s simple arithmetic: the election is over, Obama won.
The main reason for the confusion is that people are often presented with figures from national polls by a media that wants to maintain the illusion of a close election in order to retain viewers. In polls measuring the popular vote on a national basis, the election does appear to be anybody’s ballgame. Indeed, according to Real Clear Politics (RCP), which averages together all the major polls, Obama only has a 3.1% lead over Romney (49.1% compared with 46%). With a month to go before Election Day this hardly seems like an insurmountable gap for Romney to overcome, especially when one considers that: polls have margins of error, many independent voters don’t choose a candidate until the final weeks of an election, and, if nothing else, simply because the candidates were dead even less than a month ago– on September 6.
The problem with this view, as many Americans were shocked to learn (and quickly forget) in 2000, is that the national popular vote no more determines U.S. Presidential Elections than time of possession decides Football games (whether of the American or non-American variant). To be sure, the popular vote can be a good indicator of which candidate will win the election, particularly if one candidate enjoys a huge lead. But just as one Football (American soccer) team can conceivably control the ball by its own goal for 99% of the game, with the other side periodically kicking it in the net and thereby winning, a presidential candidate could win by huge margins in a couple of large states while barely losing every other one and thereby get pulverized in the election. While unlikely, the key point is that at the end of the day all that matters is which candidate takes home the 270 electoral college votes that are necessary to win the election.
And by that measurement the election isn’t even close. Going by RCP’s average of the major polls in each state, if the election were held today Obama would win 332 electoral votes; 62 more than he needs and 126 more than the 206 electoral votes Romney would come away with. In other words, Obama’s margin of victory would be well over half Romney’s entire vote count. Even if we eliminate the toss-up states, defined as those where the spread is less 5.5%, Obama has 269 electoral votes; one less than he needs to win the election.
Indeed, Obama seems on pace to outperform his 2008 victory, which no one, including his own campaign, saw John McCain winning going into Election Day. For instance, consider some of the larger states that merely “Lean Obama.” In Wisconsin (10 electoral college votes), Obama’s leads Romney today (as of 1 a.m., Eastern United States Time) by a 7.6% spread; exactly four years ago, on October 4, 2008, Obama only lead McCain by 5% but ultimately won Wisconsin by a 13 point spread. Similarly, Obama currently has a 10% lead in Michigan (16 electoral votes); on this date in 2008 he had only a 7% lead and went on to win the state by a 16.4% spread. And while Obama’s lead in Ohio is only 5.5% (largely due to one poll which has consistently differed significantly from all the others), his lead exactly four years ago was only 2.0% and Obama was still polling merely 2.5% ahead of McCain in Ohio going into Election Day, while ultimately winning the state by a 4.6% margin.
What about the toss up states? After all, couldn’t Romney, with momentum in his favor, take all of these and thus tie Obama?
Don’t bet on it. RCP ranks 7 states as toss ups; Obama leads in 5 of them. In Colorado, the President leads by 3.1% and took the state in 2008 by a 9.0% spread. He leads by 2.0% in Florida which he also took in 2008. Obama also leads by 3.5% in Iowa, a state he took by 9.5% on Election Day in 2008. Similarly, Obama leads Romney by over five points in Nevada, and won there by nearly 13 points in 2008. Obama is also polling 3.5% better than Romney in Virginia, and won by a 6.3% margin last time around.
For Obama to lose one or two of these states despite taking them in 2008 and leading in them now might be plausible, just as its quite plausible that Obama will once again take North Carolina, another toss-up state that Romney currently enjoys a less than one point margin over Obama (and actually trails the President in according to some of the polls.) For Obama to lose ALL five of these states despite leading in them now and winning them in the election cycle, as well as lose North Carolina and Missouri (the final toss-up state that Romney leads in by over 5%), will require much, much more than an impressive debate performance from Romney (or two or three of them.)
Sorry Romney, but it’s simple arithmetic; this one’s over.
Zachary Keck is Assistant Editor of The Diplomat. You can follow him on Twitter: @ZacharyKeck.