Why Obama/Romney will win/lose

Mitt has it in the bag! No, Obama! Depending on whom you're listening to, both candidates are winning -- and losing

By Thomas F. Schaller
November 2, 2012 8:54PM (UTC)
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With five days to go, don’t believe anything you read about who is going to win the 2012 presidential election. Or believe everything you read. Either way, there are so many theories — some overlapping, many conflicting — about why Mitt Romney or Barack Obama will emerge victorious on Tuesday, it’s almost impossible to list them all, no less disentangle and adjudge their respective merits.

We do know the race will be close. Or do we? Some are suggesting the contest is not as close as polls indicate because the numbers are skewed toward Obama. Or Romney. Take your pick. The bottom line is that there are multiple theories floating around for why Obama will win and Romney lose; and vice versa.


So what will, in fact, determine whether the country moves “forward” with a second Obama administration or “restores the American dream” by electing President Romney? Hell if I know. At this point, some or at least part of every one of the speculative theories below has merit.

Let’s get to the top dozen theories, six for each side, starting with the incumbent.

OBAMA will win because:


1. He’s got a huge field advantage in the swing states.

Of the 10 incumbents who ran for president since World War II, the only three who lost faced serious intraparty primary challenges. Among other problems, intramural party challenges prevent incumbents from building their reelection ground game. Obama had no such burden, and so his “secret weapon” is that he has a superior ground game in the eight-to-12 states known well in advance to be the pivotal for 2012; and sure enough, Team Obama in many of those states has twice as many field offices and staffers deployed as does the Romney camp. Specifically, as Ari Melber argues, the Obama camp’s field superiority is evidenced by the "banked-vote" advantage they enjoy thanks to their exploitation of early voting laws. (Obama made history last week and sent a powerful signal to his supporters by being the first president to vote early.)

2. No matter what Romney does, it all comes down to one state, Ohio — and Obama has it locked.


Republican Mark McKinnon says Ohio is a must-win for Romney. Although it’s technically possible the former Massachusetts governor could be elected without Ohio, he would need to pull something of an inside straight to do so, explains the New Yorker’s John Cassidy. Indeed: Even if Romney flips the three Southern states Obama won in 2008, plus Colorado and Nevada, Obama needs only to hold the 19 states John Kerry won in 2004 plus New Mexico and that lone Nebraska elector; and with Ohio, that’s enough for 270 exactly. Such a combination of states literally yields the smallest possible win, but by now almost everyone who has tuned in to the election for even 10 minutes knows no Republican has ever won the White House without carrying the Buckeye State. And thanks to the president’s support for the auto industry bailout (goes the logic), nothing Romney does at this point can help him turn Ohio red. Hence: Game, set, and match Obama.

3. The Latino vote is being undercounted.


Two years ago, the Republicans had their foot on Harry Reid’s neck. Second only to Obama, the Senate majority leader was the biggest target on their list. And yet, Reid survived. Tea Party Republican Sharron Angle took much of the blame, but pollsters like Matt Barreto and Gary Segura of Latino Decisions say the real reason Harry played Houdini is that pollsters underestimated Reid’s Latino support — and they’re doing it again with Obama in swings states like Nevada, Colorado and Florida. Barreto points to a Monmouth national poll showing Romney up by 3 points, thanks in part to the "fact" that he's trailing Obama among Latinos by only 6 points. (Obama won Latinos by 33 points four years ago.) “These numbers are such extreme outliers that even Romney campaign surrogates would have a hard time believing them,” scoffs Barreto. “While Monmouth is the most recent, there have been many national polls with equally faulty numbers among Latinos.”

4. Cellphone users are being undercounted.

Famed Clinton pollster Stan Greenberg and his colleagues warn against paying too much attention to almost any of the poll numbers we see on television because, they argue, the phone universe is changing too rapidly for pollsters to keep up. And, more specifically, those polls are missing Democratic-leaning cellphone-only users. “I’ve seen tracking polls saying that Mitt Romney is either tied or leading in the presidential race, but we think that they are simply wrong,” writes Greenberg. “It’s not a conspiracy theory; those other polls are just simply missing a critical segment of President Obama’s coalition: cell phone users.” Greenberg’s analysis lists those Democratic-leaning groups and the percentage of cell-only users among them: Hispanics, 43 percent; African-Americans, 37 percent; those between the ages of 18 and 24, 49 percent; ages 25 to 29, 60 percent; and ages 30 to 34, 51 percent. Their results show Obama and Romney basically splitting dual-use (land plus cell) voters, but Obama winning cell-only voters by 11 points.


5. The 2012 electorate will look similar to 2008.

The so-called Obama surge election in 2008 was tilted toward the young, the less affluent and non-white voters (which in many cases, of course, is a redundancy); the Tea Party-inspired midterm of 2010 was more affluent, older and less white. If there is a central defining question for 2012, it is this: Will the composite electorate look more like 2008 or 2010? Well, according to none other than Gallup — the same outfit showing Obama trailing (if narrowly) in both likely and registered voters — the electorate is expected to look the same this year as four years ago. Granted, some of those similar-looking voters may simply have defected from Obama to Romney. But in general, if the composite portrait of the 2012 voter looks like that of the 2008 voter — and given that Obama has up to 7 points to squander relative to his 2008 victory margin and still win — Obama is going to win purely as a matter of electoral demography.

6. Nate Silver is a genius, and he pegs Obama as a 4-to-1 favorite. For those who worship at the temple of America’s most notable psephologist, that’s all they need to know right there. (Full disclosure: I used to blog for Nate’s pre-New York Times site.)


ROMNEY will win because:

1. He’s locked down the independents.

Red State’s Dan McLaughlin offers a compelling, data-rich case that Obama’s strong support among Democrats is moot because, after winning independents four years ago, the president is now losing them by margins too wide to survive. “Mitt Romney has a consistent, significant lead among independent voters, which increasingly looks like a double-digit lead,” writes McLaughlin. “This is especially clear in national polls, but can also be seen in the key swing state polls.” And lest his analysis be dismissed as conservative blather, the Washington Post’s Chris Cilizza also recently noted Obama’s perilous levels of support among indies.

2. Actually he, not Obama, has the turnout advantage.


To paraphrase Robert De Niro in the unforgettable scene as a bat-wielding Al Capone in "The Untouchables," a presidential candidate must have his “enthusiasms.” And the new Pew survey report titled “Presidential Race Dead Even; Romney Maintains Turnout Edge,” confirms that heightened enthusiasm toward Romney’s candidacy now translates into a larger share of the likely-to-turn-out electorate that identifies itself as Republican or Republican-leaning. “In fact, surveys over the past month have found Republicans becoming much more upbeat about the race and about Mitt Romney himself. More Republicans now see the campaign as interesting and informative. And compared with September, a greater proportion of Romney voters now say they are voting for him rather than against Obama,” Pew’s poll summary explains. The poll also shows that Romney’s long-suffering favorability rating has reached 50 percent, basically the same as Obama’s 52, and that the share of supporters who back Romney “strongly” (67 percent) is also essentially identical to the president’s (68).

3. And that’s because Obama's ground game “edge” is mythical — and besides, a secret Mormon army is quietly mobilizing out West.

Forget all these stories you are reading about Obama’s massive ground game edge, says Commentary’s Jon Tobin. Citing none other than venerable liberal blogger Kevin Drum — take that, Democratic field operatives! — Tobin argues that a) Republicans historically rely more on equally effective volunteer operations, rather than paid offices and staffers; and b) the “other reason why Republicans are not as obsessed with turnout is that their base tends to be more highly motivated and, as a rule, are already registered rather than having to be schlepped out to the polls with great difficulty.” Meanwhile, the Romney camp has quietly deployed battalions of messianic Mormon warriors from Utah into Nevada and Colorado to wrest the Southwest from Obama.

4. The youth vote won’t be there for Obama this time.


The Los Angeles Times’ Mark Barabak addresses the question of whether the share of the youth vote will shrink compared to 2008, and/or disaffected younger voters will simply not break at the 2-to-1 rate they did for Obama four years ago. If either happens — and certainly if both do — Obama will not be able to count the head start he got four years ago by receiving 66 percent of votes from the 18 percent of voters who in 2008 were under 30. “There is little doubt Obama will again win a majority of the youth vote against Republican Mitt Romney, as Democrats have in all but three presidential elections since 18-year-olds started voting in 1972,” writes Barabak. The more important question is whether the turnout matches that of 2008, a factor that could decide the outcome in several battleground states — North Carolina, Virginia and Colorado among them — and ultimately determine who wins the White House.”

5. The liberally biased polls are skewed.

This has been an odd debate this year, but if it’s true, as some believe, that the pollsters have all along been either skewing or weighting their samples in a way that favors Obama, then Romney is getting ready for a major romp.

6. Nate Silver’s all wrong.


Politico’s Dylan Byers considers the possibility that the election-stats guru may turn out to be a “one-term celebrity” whose brilliance will come under heavy scrutiny after Romney wins.

So there you have it. Obama’s gonna squeak out a win. Or Romney is. Or one of them is going to cruise. Well, at least we can say one of those four things definitely will happen.

Thomas F. Schaller

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2012 Elections Barack Obama Election Forecasts Mitt Romney Nate Silver Swing States Voting