A Close Election That’s Not Close

It's Obama's race to lose, not a coin toss.

On the surface, Obama has a tiny lead over Romney that could flip any instant. Upon closer examination, though, it’s Obama’s race to lose, not a coin toss.

RealClearPolitics shows Obama with 221 Electoral votes to Romney’s 191, with an additional 10 states and 126 Electors as toss-ups. But look closer:

Obama leading in 9 of 10 tossup states and his convention isn’t even factored into the results yet.

He’s leading in more of these states than George Bush did in 2000 or 2004. The only silver lining for Romney here is that Obama’s lead in all of these states is much smaller than it was in his landslide four years ago.

Could Romney reverse the situation? Sure. He doesn’t need a whole lot at all to pick off Ohio, Florida, and Virginia. Indeed, by definition, he’s within striking distance in all ten states.

Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that Obama gets essentially no bounce from the convention. Given that Bill Clinton’s speech will be subsumed by the kickoff to the NFL season (I know which one I’m watching and it ain’t Clinton) and that the expectations for Obama’s oratorial skills are sky high, that’s certainly possible.  Romney is still going to have to do something to turn the tide and he’s running out of chances.

Obama would seem to have a natural advantage in the debates; it seems highly unlikely that Romney’s going to mop the floor with him.

Romney does have a pretty strong advantage in terms of fundraising, especially if we factor in SuperPAC money. But it’s not as if Obama and the Democrats don’t have a boatload of money. Is the marginal utility of the billionth dollar in TV advertising above zero?

Otherwise, we’re down to voter enthusiasm, turnout, and the like. Obama won’t have the same degree of excitement in his favor as last time. But it’s not obvious that Romney will have it, either.


FILED UNDER: 2012 Election, Public Opinion Polls, US Politics, , , , , , , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Vast Variety says:

    Man there are far more important things to watch than football…

    Like watching Asylum of the Daleks again.

  2. Moderate Mom says:

    James, what sort of effect do you think the release of the August jobs report on Friday morning might have on a potential Obama convention bounce?

  3. al-Ameda says:

    @Moderate Mom:

    James, what sort of effect do you think the release of the August jobs report on Friday morning might have on a potential Obama convention bounce?

    Unless the jobs report is a great departure from current trending, I don’t see how it will change anything. If UE spikes up to, say 8.8% – then Romney will definitely benefit. If on the other hand the UE rate drops below 8% – then Obama benefits. Right now the UE rate is 8.2% something like that – if the August report is more of the same I see no effect.

  4. JKB says:

    See the title of your earlier post, We’re Screwed.

    On the upside, as that earlier post revealed, no one is ready to face the hard choices coming. With Obama, we’ve seen we will rush headlong into the breach. So the pain and suffering will come sooner rather than later.

  5. Me Me Me says:

    @Moderate Mom: MM, I’m sure James will answer for himself, but in the meantime, here is my take: It will have no effect at all. The UE situation is already baked in, and the UE isn’t going to change radically between now and November and so not UE report is going to have any impact between now and November.

    That is why the Republicans are talking today about how outraged they are that the Democratic Platform mentions God as many times as the Constitution does, and why the National Review Online is having some kind of internal contest among the posters to see who can use the word “abortion” the most times. That is also why one of the top stories on Fox News right now is that Obama has not yet visited the Billy Graham library.

  6. michael reynolds says:

    I think that’s right. At the extreme ends it could be killer. If it spikes to 9% then Jesus descending in a pillar of flame won’t be able to save Obama. If it drops to even 7.8 or so Romney’s done.

  7. Me Me Me says:

    No, it is not close. The outcome ceased to be in doubt the day Rush Limbaugh called Sandra Fluke a slut.

  8. michael reynolds says:

    It’s still too close to call, but I’ve said from the start that Mr. Romney has a tough road simply because people do not like him. It is very hard to get people to listen to you when they don’t like you. People do like Mr. Obama, so people will at least listen. There’s an invisible pull in Obama’s favor — people still like the narrative. They still by and large want Obama to succeed. They are open to being wooed.

    On the other side there are very few people actively look forward to four years of Mitt Romney looking out at them from their TV. What about 45% of the population is looking forward to is a lack of Obama looking at them out of their TV, but that doesn’t mean they like Romney.

    Nate Silver has it 75/25 for an Obama win. Intrade has it 58/42 Obama. And somehow Romney just never, ever, ever seems to lead this race.

  9. James Joyner says:

    @Me Me Me: While, in a close contest, everything matters, I’m rather confident that Rush Limbaugh won’t decide this election. Indeed, my strong guess is that Obama’s advantage with female voters will decline from 2008. I just think he’s a likable incumbent with strong political skills up against an uninspiring opponent; that’s generally a recipe for success.

  10. michael reynolds says:


    Sorry, no. Actually it’s Mr. Romney offering the more limp and feckless approach to the deficit. His mathematically impossible pseudoplan would actually worsen the deficit.

  11. Fiona says:

    Romney blew whatever chance he might have had at the convention. He had, as Chris Christie pointed out, an opportunity to level with the public and tell them some hard truths. Instead, he resorted to the same old bromides that have kept the Republicans going since Reagan. We can cut taxes! We can inflate the defense budget and rule the world! We can save Medicare! And we can balance the budget by kicking all those frauds off welfare! Oh yeah, and I’m just like you but with more money and offshore accounts. Blah, blah, blah. Heck, half the attendees at the RNC could barely keep from yawning, their animus toward Obama being the primary motivator this election cycle.

    So yeah, absent some major calamity, the race remains Obama’s to lose.

  12. J-Dub says:

    Hopefully President Obama will continue the positive theme of the Democratic convention to this point. The Republican convention appears horribly negative in contrast and I don’t think Americans respond well to all the negativity. Not to mention all the lies they Republicans were spewing from the podium. Have the Democrats been called out on any falsehoods after the first day?

    I think the contrast will only be starker in the debates where President Obama can confront Romney on his lies face to face. President Obama will lay out a vision for America while Romney will stand there and oil his joints.

  13. Me Me Me says:

    @James Joyner: What is the basis for your “strong guess”, other than your desire to see Romney pull off the impossible?

    In 2008 women voted for Obama over McCain 56-43%. The most recent poll shows women preferring Obama to Romney 54% to 42%. And that is including Romney’s convention “bounce”.

    What is going to happen between now and November to make women think that they, in fact, would be happy to accept permanent second class status, lower payer for the same work, and mandatory trans-vaginal ultrasounds?

    Have you ever though about what makes Mitt Romney “uninspiring”? How about his response to Limbaugh’s vicious unwarranted attack on Sandra Fluke? I guess you’ve already forgotten it, so I’ll take the time to quote it to you in its entirety:

    “I’ll just say this, which is, it’s not the language I would have used.”

    That is the day he destroyed whatever slim chance he had.

  14. @Moderate Mom: My opinion only — those jobs reports are not game changers in public opinion polling as those results are already baked into the “feel” of the economy that people are responding to. The August data was collected with a mid-month reference week. People can look around their office and see if their is a new intern (yes), a new employee in a new position (3 cube rows over) or if there is a cube row empty because that department just got slashed in half…

    The data is useful for modeling purposes but it is not an endogenous variable. It is already mostly baked into the polling.

  15. anjin-san says:

    I just think he’s a likable incumbent with strong political skills up against an uninspiring opponent; that’s generally a recipe for success.

    Well, that and a lot of people think he has done a pretty good job.

  16. MBunge says:

    As always, the elephant in the room is that if the GOP as currently constructed can’t win the White House in these circumstances…when can they?

    There seems to be a general consensus amongst our political crowd that the U.S. economy is basically on sound footing and, as along as there’s not big global shock, it’s going to slowly return to something like the growth seen in the last 20 years. I’m not sure that’s going to happen and, even if it did, economic growth over the last 20 years has been fairly “eh” and wildly tilted toward the benefit of a tiny minority at the top.

    But…assume all that does happen. How much of a chance to win in 2016 will any Republican have going up against Biden, Hillary or whoever it is with 4 years of prosperity eliminating a big chunk of the conservative argument against the Democrats?


  17. mattb says:

    Couple other points that further support @James’ premise:

    1. As someone pointed out on another thread, while one can argue that Obama and Romney remain within the “margin of error,” the relative stability of these polls suggest there is very little error in that margin of error. So chances are that these polls in aggregate reflect the reality on the ground for each state (and note that even the polls most weighted towards Repiblicans still show Obama and Romney neck and neck).

    2. Ground game. Right now the Obama campaign has a far more robust network of local offices in battleground states. That’s not to say that the Republicans can’t stand up their own networks, but to the degree that the election will depend on individual people working to GOTV versus mass media buys, the Romney camp is trailing in the extreme:

  18. Tsar Nicholas says:

    It’s a good thing Team Romney controls the voting machines and can suppress the votes of racial minorities and college students, merely with their minds.

    In any case, the chances that Obama wouldn’t be leading the pre-election media polls are about the same as the chances that Chicago won’t be a corrupt cesspool, which is to say nada. Hell, not only will Obama lead the pre-election polls all the way through the first Monday in November he’ll without doubt have a big lead on Election Day itself in the exit polls, especially the “early” exit polling data that of course will be published as fact by the national media. Ask President Kerry.

    That all said, of course it’s Obama’s race to lose, in the sense that it’s always the incumbent’s race to lose. And of course Obama is a pretty good bet to prevail, given that he’ll be receiving at least 95% of the black vote on heavy turnout along with overwhelming majorities from the various Democrat victims’ and identity groups. Romney also will spot him a couple of million votes from the get-go, in the persons of evangelical Protestants who’ll sit out the election.

    But things sometimes have a way of not going exactly how the chattering classes wish for them to go. Otherwise no Republican ever would have been elected in any of our lifetimes. So we’ll have to just wait and see what happens. It could prove to be quite entertaining, in the same ways in which train wrecks are entertaining.

  19. Ed in NJ says:

    The same people (read Republicans) who discount Romney’s failed convention because of the rise of social networking and the internet are the same ones who feel that SuperPAC money is going to make a difference in the election.

    Had all the Romney money gone into canvassing, field offices and GOTV efforts, I’d be worried. No one is going to be watching those commercials, let alone deciding as a result of them. Obama is a known quantity. For gosh sakes, the last wave of ads blanketing the air- the welfare lie, wound up being a net negative for Romney. I can’t wait for the next blanket of lies.

  20. Rick Almeida says:

    @Moderate Mom:

    For what it’s worth, the best-performing election forecasting model (Alan Abramowitz’s “Time for Change” model) uses just one economic predictor, GDP growth rate in the 2nd quarter of the election year.

    Most of the contemporary political science research on individuals’ vote choice seems to demonstrate that June-August of the election year is the time that feeds directly into one’s perception of the state of the economy. A September jobs report is likely to be much too late to have an impact.

  21. The Q says:

    Tsar, you are so right, those wacky lib polls are obviously so biased and inaccurate.

    Why, just look at 2008 when they erroneously pointed out the huge Obama groundswell of approval only to be embarrassed on election night when McCain won the……er….what? Obama won with a huge groundswell of approval in a landslide?….who could have predicted that based on the polling….

    Just like all the utter flatulence frothing from your wingnut pen, … we will just ignore the stupidity……

  22. MBunge says:

    @Tsar Nicholas: “But things sometimes have a way of not going exactly how the chattering classes wish for them to go. Otherwise no Republican ever would have been elected in any of our lifetimes.”

    Those chattering classes in 2000 were practically fellating George W. Bush 24/7 and you’d have to have spent the 2004 campaign in a sensory deprivation chamber to think the chatterers were gaga for John Kerry.

    It’s hard to take anyone seriously when they just flush everything down the memory hole when it doesn’t fit their prejudices.


  23. The Q says:

    Tsar, you are so right, those wacky lib polls are obviously so biased and inaccurate.

    Why, just look at 2008 when they erroneously pointed out the huge Obama groundswell of approval only to be embarrassed on election night when McCain won the……er….what? Obama won with a huge groundswell of approval in a landslide?….who could have predicted that based on the polling….


  24. C. Clavin says:

    I’m a huge football fan…I actually worked for an NFL team for one season.
    But after Mrs. Obama’s speech I am interested in seeing if Mr. Clinton can come close to her effort.
    If I believed in God, I would thank her for my DVR.

  25. @MBunge: They have their asses kicked for a couple of electoral cycles and then get their acts together so they can compete in a neutral economic environment by not being captured by a base that is actively repulsive to general election voters.

    Assuming an Obama 2012 win, the 2016 GOP Primary season will make the 2012 primary contenders look like elder statesmans who know enough to not eat their crayons while drinking hot chocolate.

    And then in 2018, a few renegade Republicans, probably people who hold office in the Northeast or Northwest begin to caucus on the idea that maybe admitting that math is not a liberal conspiracy and acknowledging that the proportion of angry white men in the general electorate is far smaller than the same demographic in the primary electorate indicates a general election problem…. and voila, you get the RLC or some fascimille.

  26. Neil Hudelson says:

    @Tsar Nicholas:

    That’s amazing. You wrote 3 full paragraphs and managed to say nothing.

  27. LC says:

    I suspect it will come down to turnout, and that Republicans may have the edge there.

    1. Voter registration restrictions which favor Republicans.

    2. Many, if not most, Republican voters hate Obama with a passion even greater than that of liberals for Bush 43.

    3. Evangelicals, who might under normal circumstances, be hostile to Romney will vote for him with a passion. See #2.

    4. Democratic voters are, I think, less enthusiastic as a group. Obama has deeply disappointed many liberals (his “compromise above all” attitude, Guantanamo, torture – nobody, not a single person will be prosecuted, marijuana enforcement, expansion of the security state). They won’t vote for Romney, but the disappointment may keep just enough home (the equivalent of Doug’s throwing his vote away) to make a difference.

    I am hoping that the DNC for the first time in its history will pour on TV ads directed toward women in the battleground states. (Yes, I know there are Republican women who support almost all the drastic anti-female legislation but even most of them use birth control.) There is a Republican War Against Women, a deeply misogynistic agenda that Democrats need to hammer home.

  28. Ernieyeball says:

    @C. Clavin: If the Democrats have any Politico/Football savvy they will run a crawler at the bottom of the screen during Wild Bill’s speech informing viewers of the progress of the game.
    And in other news…
All Politics is Local (The Great Fastener Fiasco).

    Dateline…Jackson County, Illinois

    Four would be Republican candidates for County Office are waiting for a Circuit Judge to decide if they will be on the ballot this November.

    The County Electoral Board, three Democrats, ruled that since the Republican Candidates nominating papers were held together with paper clips instead of staples said documents were “not securely fastened”.

    Predictably the disqualified candidates took this to court.
A ruling is expected soon.

    The citizens are waiting for the Court to speak…



  29. grumpy realist says:

    @Ernieyeball: This isn’t as crazy as it sounds. It depends on common law (unless there’s a statute defining it.) There’s a very good reason why you want to have “securely fastened” as meaning staples or a rivet and not accepting anything less. Otherwise, it would be too damn easy to clip extra pages into contracts, especially if you’ve been careful with the page layout. Please think about it for two minutes…..

    Unless there’s a case on point or a statute, I expect a lot of wrangling over whether the “securely fastened” definition used in contract/real estate/whatever law should be carried over to the submission of documents in an election.

  30. grumpy realist says:

    @Ernieyeball: P.S. and, of course, I’m assuming that there’s a requirement that the documents be “securely fastened.”

    If there’s a requirement, and everyone knows about it, then more fool the Republicans are for not making certain their submissions were within spec.

    I hope this doesn’t end up like the Gingrich campaign submissions in Virginia, or whatever state it was, where they waited until the last minute, didn’t submit sufficient eligible signatures to get on the docket, and then whined about it by trying to get an injunction to get themselves on the ballot. I remember the judge was pretty pissed off about that….

  31. An Interested Party says:

    It’s a good thing Team Romney Republican politicians on the state level controls the voting machines are passing laws that will and can suppress the votes of racial minorities and college students, merely with their minds.

    As always, happy to be of help…

    the various Democrat victims’ and identity groups.

    Funny you should type that, as conservatives like you constantly play the victim…once again, your projection problem is showing…

  32. Ernieyeball says:

    Eye on the Ball News Service CORRECTION ALERT!
    There are three, not four, Republican Candidates involved in this circus.
    Apparently Illinois law does not stipulate what a “secure fastener” is.
    One of the links notes two conflicting Apellate District rulings on the matter.
    Who said this sounds crazy?
    Crazy is business as usual in these parts.
    Not so long ago the County built a new jail on land that everyone knew was the old city dump.
    County Board members were shocked when one corner of the structure sank. After countless $$$$$$$ were spent to salvage the mess a good part of the new hoosegow had to be torn down!

    More recently a vacant furniture store across from the courthouse was purchased/leased(?) by the County from some Citizen despite warnings the building was not structurally sound.
    Sure enough the south wall collapsed after a while.

    Local Government at its best!

  33. Ernieyeball says:

    Blind in One Eye, Can’t See Out of the Other Sez:
    Back to four Republicans in this saga.

    I’m going to go watch the NFL. Maybe I can be a substitute Ref.

  34. cas says:

    It’s a good thing Team Romney Republican politicians on the state level controls the voting machines are passing laws that will and can suppress the votes of racial minorities and college students, merely with their minds.

    How interesting, that laws requiring voters to produce a picture ID (or even ANY ID) are somehow labeled as an effort to “supress the votes of racial minorities and college students.”

    Is there ANY other transaction that occurs in the public sphere in the US today, in which you DO NOT need to produce ID (usually gov’t-provided ID, with a photo) and prove who you are?

  35. wisco says:

    You do realize that many of tossup states in the RCP average have aged polls as the most recent poll. New Hampshire’s most recent poll was concluded on 8/12, Wisconsin’s was on 8/21 and Virginia’s 8/23. Be careful prognosticating with such dated information.

    Really, I’m surprised you aren’t a bit more concerned considering the Obama team can’t cogently answer the “are you better off now” question.

  36. Eric Florack says:

    No sale, James. Sorry.
    The moving of tonight’s acceptance spec in Charlotte proves it. Consider, please:

    The excuse given is the weather… possible lightning. The local forecasters in the Charlotte area have been saying all along that the weather Thursday night will be the best of the whole week. They’re mystified, they say. So, the weather, as an excuse is bogus.

    The excuses I’ve been hearing from the usual suspects are that the Charlotte area isn’t all that large and cannot support the kind of crowd to fill the place. Well, consider that the stadium in question is where the Carolina Panthers play football. They sell the place out 10 times a year. They hold concerts there several times a year, drawing well over 60,000.

    Obama’s people, as demonstrated by the first election, understand the need for spectacle. And they know empty seats in this situation is a killer of image. It’ll kill the bandwagon argument before it gets started. And after all, what was Obama’s first election but a bandwagon argument for the weak-minded, writ large? They know the illusion that Obama and his policies are popular is a stone cold requirement. So… Does anyone think the Obama people won’t have researched the matter of how many people get drawn to the place? That’s why the place got chosen in the first place, one would assume. So, this is the best the Obama folks could manage.

    Add to that, those folks getting bussed in… or more correctly NOT getting bussed in. Word from several sources…. and I happen to know a bus driver in the area… is that they’re trying to arrange to fill buses from several states away… and can’t do it. They can’t fill the busses…. nobody wants to go. So, the market size excuse is bogus, too.

    Something additional to consider; the people they tried to bus in to fill the place? These are *Democrats* we’re talking about. He can’t even get 60,000 people… members of his own party…. across several southern states… to help him in a re-election effort.


    * Not only does Obama not have bipartisan support, he doesn’t have the support from his own rank and file.

    * Obama and his people are scrambling to find a plausible lie to bury the reality of it, and failing miserably.

    The numbers you’re seeing are as bogus as the excuses about why they can’t fill the stadium.

  37. wisco says:

    @Eric Florack:
    Eric, I believe you are spot on. I’m seeing the lack of Obama enthusiasm in Wisconsin. It’s hard to spin his failure into something positive. The false narratives of the War on Women ring hollow, the attempts at any distraction to keep voters from focusing on his failed presidency are wearing thin.

    The empty chair is an image that has resonated with voters. Listen to the Democrat convention speeches. It’s as if Obama hasn’t been President the last four years. He has nothing to run on and no vision for the next four years.

  38. Eric Florack says:

    @wisco: War on women, indeed. anyone trying to push the ‘war on women’ meme offering up Bubba Clinton as a keynote speaker had better have ice handy

  39. larry says:

    @LC: The so-called “War on Women” is a Democrat fabrication intended to distract Obama’s base from his dismal record, particularly on economic issues.