A tale of two election nights

Brandon J. Gaylord Editor-in-Chief, HorseRacePolitics.com
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Conventional wisdom says this will be a close presidential election. Conventional wisdom is probably right. Nate Silver does a great job of explaining his model, which indeed sees the election as being very close.

Despite the likelihood of going to bed on Election Night not knowing who won (if you live on the East Coast at least), two trends are emerging from the early polling that predict a comfortable margin of victory — for both candidates.

Evidence of an Obama electoral-vote landslide

The current Real Clear Politics projection has President Obama at 221 electoral votes, well short of the 270 electoral votes he needs to win. But that’s only counting the states where the president is clearly ahead. If you factor in “toss-up” states where the president leads by an average of more than five points (Michigan, Nevada, New Hampshire), Obama’s tally jumps to 247. And if you include the states where the president leads in the RCP poll average (Colorado, Iowa, Ohio, Virginia, Wisconsin), his tally reaches 305, easily clearing the 270-vote threshold.

Another way of evaluating Obama’s chances is to look at states where he is leading in at least one poll. When you factor in these states (Florida, North Carolina, Missouri), his total reaches 357. While this may seem a bit tenuous for a state like Missouri, where only one poll shows Obama leading — and only by a single point — keep in mind that Obama has four-point leads in two recent Florida polls.

Evidence of a Romney electoral-vote landslide

Mitt Romney begins his move to 270 behind Barack Obama. While the RCP projection only gives him 170 electoral votes in the bank, Arizona (+6.0 lead) should be placed in Romney’s column, moving him to 181. Romney currently leads in the polls in Florida, Missouri and North Carolina, bringing him to a total of 233 electoral votes. When he is given the same benefit as Obama and also credited with states where he is leading in at least one poll (Michigan, Iowa and Wisconsin), his total comes to 265. This in itself is bad news for Romney: Even if he won every state where at least one poll shows him leading, he would still come up five electoral votes short of victory.

But if you credit the states where Obama falls under 50% of the vote to Romney, the former Massachusetts governor garners more than 300 electoral votes. Dick Morris has been predicting a Republican landslide due to the president’s inability to poll above 50%. Morris’ theory, which actually has a fairly firm foundation in electoral history, is that an incumbent president will not receive a higher percentage of the vote than the percentage at which he is currently being polled. According to this theory, even if Obama leads Romney 49.5-41 in Pennsylvania, Romney will still win the Keystone State because Obama will only receive a maximum of 49.5% of the two-party vote. Morris does not give the challenger a generous 2-1 split of undecided voters. He cedes the challenger 100% of undecideds.

Although Morris’ position is a bit extreme, it is worth looking at states where the president is failing to hit 50%. It is likely that some undecideds will break Obama’s way, so I’ll put the cut-off mark at 48%. If states where President Obama is polling at 48% or less are placed in Romney’s column, he gains Colorado, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Oregon and Virginia, for a robust total of 324 electoral votes. Skeptics of this method should keep in mind that Republican candidates usually pick up a point or two in polling averages when the pollsters switch from registered-voter models to likely-voter models. The extra point or two can serve as a cushion should a few more undecided voters go the president’s way.

The close election projections are primarily a combination of the above theories. The run-of-the-mill pundit can say something like, “Obama has a slight edge in the polls, but voters are still not sold on him after nearly four years.” Though generic, statements like that sum up the state of the race quite accurately.

Brandon J. Gaylord, the editor-in-chief of HorseRacePolitics.com, is a graduate of George Washington University’s Graduate School of Political Management. Brandon got his start in politics as an intern in Vice President Richard Cheney’s Office of Political Affairs.