With Obama trailing in most national polls after the first presidential debate, Democratic hopes increasingly depend on a strong showing in the pivotal state of Ohio, where Obama maintains an edge. But it’s unclear whether Obama’s ahead a narrow or more meaningful margin.
Depending on your perspective, there’s a case that Obama leads by a modest margin or only a hair. The case for a slight Obama lead is straight forward: 6 of the 9 post-DNC polls show Obama leading by 1 point or less and a simple average of all 9 polls points toward only a slight Obama lead, with Obama ahead by just 1.7 points. Given the state's traditional Republican-lean and an impending surge in Romney ad spending, 1.7 points would hardly be insurmountable.
But there's also a case that Obama leads by a larger margin. None of the surveys show clear evidence of big movement in Romney's direction, and the tight race in post-debate polls might just be a product of the Republican-lean of many of the post-debate polls in Ohio. On average, Romney has gained just 1 point, which would suggest something like a 4 point Obama lead if the full suite of pre-debate pollsters weighed in on the Buckeye State and showed a uniform 1 point swing in Romney’s direction. As you can see, relatively few of Obama's best polls have surveyed the state since the debate.
Based on the data in Ohio alone, it's easy to see the case for Obama holding a 3 or 4 point lead in the state, rather than the 1 or 2 points suggested by a simple average of polls. The split between the polls also parallels methodological divisions, making it easier to argue that the other live interview pollsters will show Obama with a more comfortable edge. But it's harder to imagine Obama maintaining such a large lead in Ohio while methodologically similar surveys like Fox News, Pew, and Gallup show Romney ahead among likely voters nationally. And SurveyUSA found Obama leading by just 1 point despite calling cell phone voters. They didn't conduct a survey last month, but it seems hard to imagine that Obama wouldn't have led by a more substantial margin.
Of course, that's not grounds to completely ignore the data from NBC/WSJ/Marist, CNN, and PPP. There isn't another state with so many polls show Obama well positioned, so the possibility that Obama retains a more meaningful advantage in Ohio shouldn't be discounted. What could explain Obama's resilience in Ohio? NBC/WSJ/Marist and PPP suggest that it's not Obama's resilience as much as Romney's weakness. While many attribute Obama’s unexpected strength in Ohio to the strong local economy or the auto-bailout, Obama’s approval rating and favorability numbers aren’t much higher in Ohio than the other battleground states, if at all. Instead, Romney hasn’t improved his favorability ratings to the same extent that he has nationally or in Florida. PPP and NBC/WSJ/Marist continue to show half of Ohio voters holding an unfavorable impression of the Republican nominee. It will be hard to envision Romney winning the state if other pollsters confirm this finding. It’s one thing to sweep undecided voters against an incumbent with mediocre ratings, but it’s quite another to pull off the sweep when a majority of voters hold an unfavorable impression of the challenger.
But if the polls confirm that Obama only leads by 1 or 2 points in the Buckeye State, Obama fans shouldn't be overly confident. In recent years, state polling averages have occasionally differed from the results by modest margins. Following the first presidential debate four years ago, Kerry took a lead in the majority of polls in Ohio for two weeks. On Election Day 2004, Kerry trailed by only a fraction of a point in Florida but went onto lose by 5 points. Four years ago, the polls were off by a modest amount in states like Iowa, Colorado, and Nevada. And in 2010, Democratic Senate candidates outperformed the averages across the country. None of this is to say that Democrats shouldn't be pleased by a slight lead in Ohio, just that it's not wise to be too confident if your route to victory depends on a slight lead in one state.