A strange thing is happening as Election Day draws near. In normal times, we struggle to stay afloat in the sea of political opinions. Now the punditry has been afflicted with an epidemic of agnosticism. After living and breathing this race for 18 months, they say they have no idea who will win.
Politico’s Dylan Byers and MacKenzie Weinger note that the media are “stumped” by the 2012 race. “Gov. Mitt Romney’s campaign says it still has momentum. President Barack Obama’s campaign says that’s all spin. Meanwhile, there isn’t a single well-informed pundit between them who can tell you who’s right,” they write, enlisting venerable pundits from all points of the ideological spectrum, including my TIME colleague Joe Klein, to buttress the claim. “Anyone who claims to know who is going to win is blowing smoke,” Joe wrote on this blog earlier in the week.
Discretion may be the better part of valor. But battleground polls paint a clear picture of a race in which Barack Obama has consistently held a narrow but stubborn lead.
The polls are not “hilariously inconclusive,” as Joe writes. They’re fairly static. If anything, battleground surveys over the past two or three days have shown signs that Obama’s slim edge is slightly widening as we approach the finish line.
Take, for example, this recent batch of 11 swing-state polls, collated by Political Wire and covering nine battleground states. Romney is ahead in two: one in Colorado and one in Virginia, both conducted by right-leaning outlets (Rasmussen and Newsmax/Zogby, respectively). He’s also tied in two (from the same two pollsters). Obama leads in seven. Yesterday Romney’s political director, Rich Beeson, said Obama’s Midwestern firewall — Iowa, Ohio and Wisconsin — was “burning.” In this daily sample, the incumbent is up by six in Iowa, by six in Ohio and by three in Wisconsin, with an additional Newsmax survey from Wisconsin showing the race knotted. Another Badger State poll, released yesterday by Marquette Law School, which was both the most bullish on Scott Walker’s chances of surviving his June recall election and, ultimately, the most accurate, had Obama ahead by eight.
Individual polls are wrong much of the time, but they are rarely wrong in aggregate. The likelihood that Obama’s apparent advantage comes through flawed or systematically biased polling decreases as the sample size grows. So let’s look at the polling averages compiled by RealClearPolitics of the 12 states purportedly in play. (I am including Michigan, Minnesota and Pennsylvania because of the Romney camp’s expressions of confidence, though as I wrote yesterday, it smacks of spin.) According to polling averages from those dozen battlegrounds, Romney leads in three: North Carolina (by 3.8 points), Florida (by 1.2 points) and Virginia (by 0.5 points). Obama leads in nine. In only one of those — Colorado, where the President leads on average by 0.6 points — is his average margin as small as Romney’s edges in Florida and Virginia, two states the GOP nominee badly needs to win.
Now zoom in on Ohio, the state both sides must have. (Nate Silver estimates it’s roughly as likely to be the decisive battleground as the other 49 states put together.) RealClear’s list of Ohio polls isn’t completely comprehensive — it’s missing, perhaps among others, a poll released yesterday from the Democratic firm Public Policy Polling that showed Obama up five — but it is certainly an indicator of the trend. In the 11 Buckeye State surveys recorded since the third debate, Romney leads in one, from right-leaning Rasmussen. Obama has the edge in nine, with one tie (also from Rasmussen). On average, the President leads by 2.3 points.
Could Romney win Ohio? Of course. Could he win the election? Absolutely. I am not suggesting that Obama be crowned. Smart Republicans, including those affiliated with the Romney campaign, have consistently argued that the polling averages are wrong because the turnout models have been flawed. The national polls do show a toss-up race, which casts some doubt on the integrity of state polling. Pollster Mark Blumenthal estimates that “the potential for a rare ‘black swan‘ polling failure as big as the national polls of 1980 or 1992 is still real, given past experience — amounting to a roughly 1-in-3 chance that such an error would affect the outcome of states like Ohio and Iowa.” The race is tight, and Romney has a real and significant shot at winning. Perhaps reporters and pundits are better off withholding predictions on who will win. After all, the media’s track record on that score is lousy.
But according to the most reliable set of metrics we have, the race is not neck and neck. At least not in the battlegrounds that matter. Obama is the favorite.