With both party conventions over and the candidates' bounces having largely subsided, the latest national polls utilizing live callers put President Obama ahead of Mitt Romney by somewhere between 1 percentage point (ABC News/Washington Post) and 6 percentage points (CNN). The Gallup and CBS/New York Times polls have Obama's advantage at 3 points, while Democracy Corps and Fox News put it at 5 points. Private polling on both sides pegs the Obama lead at perhaps 4 or 5 points. The live-caller differential is important because interactive voice-response, or IVR, surveys (so-called “robo polls”) are legally prohibited from calling cell phones; between 30 and 40 percent of voters are now exclusively or primarily served by cell phones. Those polls utilizing cell-phone-only voters reach a constituency disproportionately younger and more likely to be minorities, thus the distinction between IVR and polls by live callers is very important.
Interestingly, among these six polls, the narrowest (ABC/Washington Post) and the widest Obama margins were the two that were conducted soonest after the Democratic convention. Gallup at one point soon after Democrats left Charlotte had Obama up by 7 points, but that lead gradually narrowed and seems to have stabilized at 3 points, 48 to 45 percent for Oct. 10-16. It is the one remaining poll of the group still looking at registered voters; the rest have begun focusing on likely voters. At some point in the next few weeks Gallup is expected to begin reporting trial heats both for all voters and from among the likely-voter subgroup. Some on the GOP side say Romney's choice of Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., as his running mate gained the ticket about 2 points, but the combined effect of the conventions negated the gain, putting the Romney campaign back in the position of being down by 4 or 5 points.
Contrary to what you might read might on the blogosphere, there is very little disagreement between top Democratic and Republican pollsters on where this race is right now, either on the national level or, more importantly, in the swing states. Keep in mind that there are multiple pollsters involved in each of the swing states: a presidential campaign on each side, one or more super PACs with their own pollsters, plus others done for senatorial and gubernatorial races (and their national party campaign committees) or for ballot initiatives. So there is a whole layer of very expensive, high-quality polling in this race, most of which never sees the light of day. But some pollsters or the strategists who commission such polls will agree to characterize the polling in a race on an off-the-record basis, giving, say, a 2- or 3-point range of what their data shows. Among the broadly defined 11 battleground states, Romney is best situated in North Carolina, where the Elon University poll put him ahead by 4 points at the tail end of the Republican convention. More recent private polling is said to be very close, but insiders on both sides expect it will ultimately end up in the Romney column. New Hampshire seems to be about even, give or take a percentage point. Virginia and Wisconsin are the states with the narrowest Obama leads (he is ahead by between 2 and 4 points), while Obama is thought to be up by between 2 and 5 points in Florida and Nevada. Next comes Iowa and Colorado; the Hawkeye State apparently has Obama ahead by between 3 and 6 points, Colorado between 4 and 6 points. Then come the big-ticket items: Obama ahead by between 5 and 8 points in Ohio, by 6 or more in Michigan, and the high single digits in Pennsylvania.
Obviously there are dozens of permutations in the calculus for a Romney path to victory, but as long as Michigan and Pennsylvania are noncompetitive and Ohio continues to look tough for Romney, he would have to come pretty close to running the table to get the 270 electoral votes needed to win. Obama winning Colorado, Iowa, and Nevada would put 276 electoral votes in the Democratic column—six more than necessary for a win—even if Romney carried North Carolina, New Hampshire, Virginia, Wisconsin, and Florida. At this point Romney is only ahead in one, tied in another, and trailing in the other three.
This election is still quite close and could go either way, but Romney badly needs something to happen to change the trajectory of this race. If things remain as they are today, he loses. Presidential debates are scheduled for Oct. 3, 16, and 22. A vice presidential debate is scheduled for Oct. 11, and unemployment numbers are released on Oct. 5 and Nov. 2. These are six events that could prove consequential. Though debates arguably have changed campaign trajectories in 1976 and 1980, in the last seven presidential elections they didn’t materially affect the outcome of the races. Obviously, candidate gaffes or campaign miscues outside the debates can matter as well as external events, domestic or foreign. Anything involving an attack by Israel and/or the United States against Iranian nuclear facilities would certainly create an “all bets are off” situation. Major incidents elsewhere in the Middle East or around the globe—for example, North Korea—could be consequential as well.
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