With post-debate polls showing Romney making gains nationally, the race appears tight enough to again merit consideration of the Electoral College. So what states are most important to watch after the debates? While Florida, Virginia, and Colorado could all prove decisive, the pre-debate polls suggested that Romney's biggest problems were Iowa, Nevada, and Ohio.
Consider an average of post-DNC polls in the battleground states:
If Romney gains 4 points following the DNC, that would be enough to produce a tied race nationally. But Romney trailed by more than 4.6 points in states worth 281 electoral votes, suggesting that a four point gain wouldn't be enough to overturn Obama's edge in the Electoral College. If Romney can't make gains in Virginia, Colorado, and Florida following the first debate, that would be a telling sign for his chances. But assuming that Romney can make gains in those three states that tended to tilt-Republican, the key question is whether Romney can level the electoral map with outsized gains in Iowa, Nevada, or Ohio.
Obama starts with 237 electoral votes and post-DNC polls have shown the president with a clear advantage in Wisconsin and New Hampshire, two states that get Obama to 251 electoral votes. At that point, Ohio's 18 electoral votes stand out as a huge problem for the Romney campaign. On paper, Ohio should be a strong state for Romney: it's a white working class state full of the voters who have abandoned the president elsewhere and Ohio traditionally tilts toward Republicans in presidential elections.
But nearly every element of the campaign has broken Obama's way in Ohio. The state unemployment rate is lower in Ohio than the nation as a whole, the auto-bailout is a tangible accomplishment of the Obama administration, and attacks depicting Romney as an out-of-touch plutocrat appear to have resonated in a state hit hard by globalization and outsourcing. If Romney can't reclaim Ohio, the president would hold 269 electoral votes, one shy of his magic number with the GOP holding a majority of House delegations. At that point, Romney could technically still run the table, but it would be an uphill battle.
Although the post-debate polls show Romney making nationally, they hint at lingering problems in Ohio. On average, the polls shifted about 3 or 4 points in Romney's direction, which wouldn't be enough to overcome Obama's 5-plus point lead in Ohio. And while We Ask America and Rasmussen showed a tied race, both pollsters tend to produce Republican-leaning results. If Romney could only fight to a tie in Republican-leaning, automated polls the day after the debate, the broader universe of pollsters might show Obama with an enduring advantage.
Any additional state would be sufficient to reelect the president if Obama wins Ohio, and Nevada and Iowa stand out as two leading candidates to provide the decisive electoral vote. Consider Nevada: a state where Obama leads by 5.2 points in post-DNC polls—the exact same margin as Obama’s 5.2 point lead in Ohio. If Romney is endangered in Ohio, Nevada becomes a must win state, even though Romney has never led a poll in the Silver State. And while I’m generally inclined to trust the polling averages, it’s worth noting that Democrats have tended to out-perform their final polling numbers in Nevada, including Harry Reid’s stunning come from behind victory in 2010.
Democratic voter registration efforts also give the Obama campaign cause for confidence in Nevada. Just about every day for the last two months, Nevada's best known political reporter, Jon Ralston, has tweeted the newest registration numbers showing Democrats building a larger and larger edge over Republicans. Today, Democrats have opened an 80,000 vote edge statewide, including 120,000 votes in Las Vegas' Clark County. Despite Nevada's economic hardship, these numbers resemble the Democratic edge in 2008.
The Romney campaign is fighting hard to reclaim the state. According to the Wesleyan Media Project, Las Vegas is the largest media market where Team Romney is airing more advertisements than Team Obama. This is a sound choice on its part: the Las Vegas media market is not as expensive as many of the larger or less efficient East Coast markets and an Obama win in Nevada could potentially cost Romney the presidency if Romney loses Ohio. But Obama has the resources to outspend the Romney campaign in Nevada, so the ad imbalance in favor of Romney, as well as in Wisconsin, might just suggest that the Obama campaign believed it was comfortably ahead in September.
But there’s another state where Romney might face a similar challenge: Iowa. At first glance, the polls in the Hawkeye State are somewhat more favorable to Romney than Ohio or Nevada, but a closer look indicates that Romney’s challenge might be comparable. Unlike the other states discussed here, Romney actually leads in two polls, but both are automated surveys weighted by party-ID, while more traditional surveys show Obama leading by between 4 and 8 points after the DNC.
The point is not so much that the automated, party-ID weighted surveys are wrong, just that perceptions of Ohio, Nevada, and Iowa need to be adjusted for the different pollsters who have weighed in on the states. Consider, for instance, that ARG, NBC/WSJ/Marist, PPP, YouGov/Economist, and Rasmussen have polled all three states, but that Rasmussen is the only survey showing Romney discernibly better positioned in Iowa than the other two states. Once again, Iowa’s 6 electoral votes would be sufficient for Obama to win reelection if Romney lost Wisconsin and Iowa.
And unlike most states, the president is already beginning to bank a lead in the Hawkeye State. Early voting is already underway and more than 100,000 voters (or about 7 percent of the electorate) have already cast ballots. These voters appear quite friendly to the president, since 62 percent are registered Democrats compared to 20 percent registered Republicans. It is worth flagging, however, that Democrats usually fare quite well in Iowa early voting.
Over the next few days, post-debate polls could show Romney taking a narrow lead in states like Virginia, Colorado, or Florida. But to know whether Romney has upset the president's Electoral College advantage, follow the polls in Ohio, Wisconsin, Nevada, and Iowa. If Obama retains his lead in Wisconsin and Ohio, then Romney needs to win both Nevada and Iowa to win the presidency. If Romney can fight back in Ohio, then Obama leads in Nevada and Iowa would allow him to prevail with any additional state, like Ohio, Colorado, or Virginia, where the polls will probably still show an extremely tight race. But if Obama retains a clear edge in Ohio, Nevada, and Iowa, then the Romney campaign still has much more work to do.