Michigan and surprise swing states

It won’t take as much as you think for the electoral map to look a lot different than it now does

Topics: Opening Shot,

It’s hard to say where, exactly, the presidential race stands in Michigan.

A poll from Mitchell Research, a Republican outfit, made some waves yesterday morning by showing Mitt Romney ahead of Barack Obama by a point in the state, 45 to 44 percent. Later in the day, Rasmussen put out numbers that gave Obama a six-point edge, while PPP pegged the president’s lead at 14, 53-39 percent. This all came a week after an EPIC-MRA poll put the GOP challenger up 46 to 45.

The lack of clarity is a result of a lack of quality polling. States that are universally regarded as prime general election battlegrounds, like Virginia and Ohio, are regularly surveyed by the most credible independent polling outlets. But Michigan, which has sided with the Democratic nominee in five straight presidential elections, is seen as a fringe target – at best – for the Romney campaign. So we have infrequent polling in the state, often from firms with limited track records.

The assumption that Michigan won’t really be in play unless Romney is comfortably ahead in the national race may prove accurate, but the current polling murkiness also points to another possibility – that Romney may have more paths to 270 than is commonly assumed.

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A strain of conventional wisdom has emerged this spring and summer that Obama enjoys some sort of Electoral College advantage, that he’s better positioned in swing states than his opponent and that the map contains more plausible winning combinations for him. The suggestion here is that Obama could still win reelection even if he doesn’t win the national popular vote.

Conceptually, though, this is a real stretch. It’s not impossible for the popular and electoral vote tallies to be at odds, but almost always they sync up. And when they don’t, it can happen in unpredictable ways. This was the case in 2000, when it was assumed during the campaign that George W. Bush was better positioned to win the popular vote while Al Gore had an Electoral College leg-up. But it ended up being Bush who won 271 electoral votes and Gore who enjoyed a narrow popular vote edge.

The point, as Pollster’s Mark Blumenthal explained a few months ago, is that the path to 270 flows from the national horserace. For months now, Romney has been trailing Obama by between one and three points in national polling averages. That’s not a huge amount, obviously, but it’s significant, and it helps explain why Obama seems to outperforming Romney in swing states. But if the national race were to shift a few point in Romney’s direction so that it’s dead even, new and potentially surprising Electoral College possibilities would present themselves.

This is where a state like Michigan could enter the battleground picture. The state went for Obama by 16 points in 2008. But it was much closer in 2004, when John Kerry’s margin was just 3 points and in 2000, when Gore took it by 5. So there’s reason to suspect there’s something to the polls showing a closer race in the state this time around. There’s also reason to suspect television ads are distorting things a bit; pro-Romney groups have been spending heavily in the state, while the Obama campaign hasn’t lifted a finger. It may be that Obama is ultimately forced to make an investment in Michigan he hadn’t been planning on, and that this will widen the gap.

But if we find ourselves with a dead even national horserace this fall (or a Romney lead in the horserace), it’s possible we’ll look up and see Romney in contention in Michigan. This could be true with other states too – Pennsylvania and Wisconsin come to mind. Nate Cohn makes a good case that Minnesota belongs in this category too

These are not states that Romney is positioned to carry right now, with Obama ahead by a small but real margin nationally. But Romney is really only a two- or three-point jump away from facing a much friendlier Electoral College map than the one he’s now looking at.

Steve Kornacki

Steve Kornacki writes about politics for Salon. Reach him by email at SKornacki@salon.com and follow him on Twitter @SteveKornacki

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