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Friday, October 12, 2012

Oh, OH...

If you haven't seen last night's debate between Vice President Biden and Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI), then, well, I don't really care. Frankly, if you're like me and already know who you're voting for but tuned in hoping to witness an epic clash between a skilled, experienced debater with a propensity toward making gaffes and a policy wonk engaging in his first one-on-one, nationally televised debate, then you probably were disappointed. I don't care to talk about it; instead, I want to focus on the presidential race in that most critical of battlegrounds: Ohio.

Back in June, I made a short video about the 2012 presidential campaign in Ohio and highlighted what I though were each candidates' strengths and weaknesses as they tried to sway voters in the state. Long story short: it was a toss-up then, and it's a toss-up now.

There was a time, though, when it looked like Obama might be running away with Ohio, leaving the Romney campaign trying to fathom a realistic path to victory without what has long been the sine quo non of a Republican electoral majority. From Labor Day through the first presidential debate last Wednesday, every public poll of the presidential race in the Buckeye State showed Obama leading. All the pollsters who had been regularly polling the state had Romney losing ground to the president, who had begun to crack 50% in some surveys.

According to polls released in the last week, however, the race in Ohio is back to a dead heat. Five different pollsters--WeAskAmerica, ARG, SurveyUSA, Gravis Marketing and Rasmussen Reports--published survey results showing the presidential candidates within a single point of each other in the state, a statistical dead heat. Given this consistency among reputable independent polling organizations, a Marist poll of Ohio voters conducted for NBC and the Wall Street Journal that has President Obama leading Governor Romney by six points, 51%-45%, deserves some skepticism. But this even without these five large grains of salt, the Marist poll should be difficult to digest. Look at the crosstabs, and you'll find that the sample of likely voters was 40% Democrats and only 29% Republicans. To put that in perspective, exit polls indicated that, in 2008 (the historical zenith of Democratic turnout in modern times), 39% of voters in Ohio identified as Democrats, 31% as Republicans, and the rest were independents. So the question this poll begs is: Do you really expect the Democrats' turnout edge over Republicans this year to be 22% greater in Ohio than it was in 2008, especially considering there are now 67,000 more registered Republicans than Democrats in the state?

Even with the Marist poll (and a CNN/Opinion Research poll showing Obama up four points in the state), the president's advantage in the RealClearPolitics average of the seven most recent Ohio polls is only 1.3 percentage points. That's down from 5.5 percentage points just eight days ago.

If accurate, then these numbers represent a statistical anamoly: Obama is running ahead of his national poll position in Ohio. As of today, the president trails Mitt Romney in the RCP average of national polls by one percentage point. Yet, in 2008, he won the Buckeye State by a 4.6-point margin, well less than his 7.3-point margin of victory over John McCain in the nationwide popular vote. In fact, in the past nine presidential elections, the Republican candidate has received a greater share of the vote in Ohio than he has nationally. Are we to expect that, with no advantage in party identification and no recent shift toward their side in statewide elections (Republicans pretty much ran the table in 2010.), the Democrats are poised to pull off what would be a historical aberration in Ohio? 

The troublesome sign for Romney is that he has yet to break 50% in the state. Obama may have a lower trough, but he also seems to have the higher ceiling.

Still, with the race this close, candidates doubt polls at their own peril, and that's probably why both candidates are treating Ohio like it's the key to victory. Romney and Ryan appeared together at a rally in Lancaster today; it was the second time in three days the former Massachusetts governor had campaigned in the state. Obama hasn't been in Ohio since Monday but has made more visits to the state this year than Romney has.

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