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State of the Race: Obama Has a Narrow But Clear Lead

As Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan prepare for their national debut, polls show Obama maintaining a slight but clear lead in national and state polls. Although Obama’s advantage is often narrow, it is durable and consistent—enough to make him the favorite. But fortunately for Romney, the conventions are a real opportunity to undo damage done by months of attacks and capitalize on disappointment with Obama's performance.

Heading into the conventions, Obama leads by an average of 1.3 percent among likely voters and a larger 3.3 percent advantage among registered voters. In the latter category, Romney may have gained a point or two since the Ryan pick, when Obama would have led by 5 points among registered voters using a similar monthly average, or 4.5 points if one excludes the Obama-friendly Pew Research survey, which didn't published a poll this month and probably would have assisted Obama in August if it had.

Obama’s advantage in the battleground states is a mirror image of his lead nationally. Although many states remain extremely tight, Obama is slightly ahead in nearly every battleground state in polls conducted since mid-June.* If Romney is well positioned anywhere, it’s the traditionally competitive and Democratic-leaning states along the Mississippi River, where Romney appears to have converted Obama’s weakness among white working class voters into meaningful advances in Wisconsin and Iowa. In contrast, months of uncontested advertisements by GOP-aligned super PACs haven’t moved the needle in Michigan or Pennsylvania.


But while Obama has more paths to 270 electoral votes, remember that the vaunted gap between the state and national polls is largely non-existent. Obama leads by 1 or 2 points among likely voters in the states he needs to reach 270 electoral votes, much as he does nationally. Put differently: although Obama could win a larger number of electoral votes in a modest popular vote victory, he does not appear to have a structural advantage in the electoral college that would allow him to prevail while losing the national popular vote by any meaningful amount.  

However, there are advantages to more paths to 270 electoral votes. As a matter of probability, it gives Obama a better shot in the event of a truly close election. But perhaps more importantly, Obama's not far away from a more meaningful edge in the electoral college. Currently, Obama leads by more than 2.5 points (compared to 1.3 nationally) in states worth 265 electoral votes. That's mainly due to Ohio, where Obama has consistently held a lead among likely voters larger than his advantage nationally. If Obama gained an additional point or two in any additional battleground state, like Virginia, Colorado, or Wisconsin, Obama would then actually hold a stronger position in the electoral college than he does in the national polls. And while Obama's hardly assured of gains in any of those states, it remains to be seen whether Romney's post-Ryan position in Wisconsin is sustainable and Colorado is the only state where a single outlying poll (Romney+5 in Quinnipiac/NYT/CBS) influences the average by more than one half of a percentage point. Conversely, if Romney were to gain a point in a state other than Ohio, it wouldn't necessarily make Obama's path to 270 more difficult, just narrower. 

Romney's problem in Ohio captures his problem nationally. Given Obama’s national weakness among white working class voters, the state’s traditional Republican bent, and an electorate dissatisfied with the president's performance, Romney ought to have an advantage. But Obama has spent more on advertisements in Ohio than any other state, and it’s the best evidence that Obama’s attacks on Bain, outsourcing, and tax returns are at least partially succeeding. The industrial battleground has suffered deeply as a result of globalization, and it would be difficult to craft a more receptive state for the Obama campaign's caricature of Romney as an out-of-touch plutocrat bent on annihilating the middle class for personal gain. 

To overcome his deficit nationally and in the battlegrounds, Romney’s chances depend on the persistence of the meaningful gap between registered and likely voters, as well as a strong showing among the few remaining undecided voters. The heart of Romney's challenge is that he must accomplish both, but he's vulnerable on both fronts. Many voters don’t tune in until after the conventions or even later, so Obama could benefit if the conventions, debates, and Obama’s expensive ground operation combine to increase the projected non-white share of the electorate. Obama could need as few as 38 percent of white voters if minorities again represent 26 percent of the electorate, let alone the 28 percent forecasted by the Obama campaign, and most polls show that Obama retains enough white voters to win under such a scenario.


Even if Obama can't shift the electorate in a more favorable direction over the final two months, Obama would prevail if he could deny Romney a clear majority of undecided voters. While the conventional wisdom holds that undecided voters break toward the challenger, reality is somewhat more complicated and attempts to handicap their behavior in this particular election point toward opportunities for both sides. On the one hand, undecided voters have clear reservations about Obama’s performance: Most don’t approve of his job and many outright disapprove. But Romney’s historically low favorability ratings impair his ability to exploit dissatisfaction. Polls suggest that undecided voters have a decidedly unfavorable impression of Romney, while many undecided voters doggedly remain sympathetic toward the president, even if they're disappointed with his performance.


The convention provides Romney with an opportunity to undo some of the damage wrought by months of negative advertisements. Reports indicate that the convention is designed to improve Romney's image, which suggests that Boston recognizes the necessity of rebuilding perceptions of their candidate. Prior conventions have done exactly what Romney needs, including Clinton's 1992 convention. If he can improve his favorability numbers as Clinton did, Romney will hold a credible path to the presidency heading into the debates.  But if he can’t turn around negative views or if the Obama campaign even manages to reinforce Romney's negatives at the DNC, Romney will remain tantalizingly close, but clearly behind.


*A longer time period was selected for the state, demographic, and favorability averages to ensure a larger set of polls, with the exception of Wisconsin, which only included polls after Ryan was selected as Romney's running-mate. Averages were calculated by selecting the most recent poll from each pollster over the specified time period. Despite the additional work, this method yielded similar results to the most recent RCP averages. The largest differences were in Ohio and Virginia, where the most recent RCP averages exclude some Obama-friendly results from late July.