Last week, Gallup released a demographic breakdown of its likely voter survey, which at that time found Romney leading by 4 points, 50-46. But it found that Romney’s biggest gains were in just one region: the South, where Romney held a massive 22-point lead. Perhaps predictably, this aroused latent liberal suspicions that Obama’s deep weakness in the South was responsible for Romney’s strength in the national polls. But a closer look suggests that the gap between the national and state polls probably isn’t the result of deep weakness in the South.
While Gallup shows Romney leading by 22 points in the south, the other national polls don’t show anything similar. The other six national surveys with regional breakdowns show Obama trailing by just 7.5 points—that’s better than his 9 point defeat against McCain four years ago.
State polls partially confirm Obama’s resilience in Dixie. Although the inland South is under-polled, the Atlantic coastal states of Florida, Virginia, Georgia, and North Carolina represent nearly half of the South’s population, and post-debate polls show Obama losing by between 0 and 8 points in all four states, with smaller drop-offs from '08 than his national decline of around 7 points.
For Romney to lead by 22 points in the South, he would need to make staggering gains over McCain’s performance in the Deep South, the Appalachian states, and Texas. Given the large minority populations of Alabama, Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, and South Carolina, it’s extremely unlikely that McCain could make huge gains in any of these states absent a catastrophic collapse in black turnout.
For illustrative purposes, consider the most extreme example: Alabama. Obama won 10 percent of the white vote in 2008. That’s right. Ten percent. So if Obama lost every white person in Alabama and black turnout stayed at ’04 levels, Obama would only lose a net-15 points (since whites only represented 65 percent of Alabama voters in ‘08). And it’s an open question whether there’s room for Obama’s support to decline by double digits in the upland South, where Obama’s performance was the worst since Mondale.
So if the South isn't Obama's problem, what is? If any one region is driving Obama’s popular vote problem, it’s the liberal Northeast, where many of Obama’s ’08 supporters appear undecided.
The state polls don’t show evidence of a 10-point decline in Obama’s support, mainly because Obama appears to be holding up relatively well in the mid-Atlantic states of New Jersey, New York, and Maryland, although the latter two are under-polled. But the polls show Obama struggling in Connecticut, New Hampshire, and Massachusetts, perhaps because Romney holds a pseudo-home region advantage.
But it's not just New England driving Obama's weakness in the national polls. In states where Obama made big gains by persuading white Bush voters, Obama's support has fallen precipitously to levels near Kerry's support in 2004. Consider the well-polled state of Wisconsin, where Kerry won by less than one percent, Obama won by 14 in 2008, and Obama now leads by just three. And it's not just Wisconsin: Montana, Indiana, and North Dakota should all return to a double-digit Republican win after flirting with Obama four years ago.
Conversely, Obama is doing much better than Kerry in the states where his gains were driven by changes in the composition of the electorate or strength in well-educated suburbs, like Colorado, Pennsylvania, New Mexico, Nevada, Virginia, and North Carolina. In each state, the race is about one grade more favorable for Obama (for instance, "lean Bush" versus "toss-up") than it was for Kerry. Just one battleground state deviates from this model: Ohio. More on that in a forthcoming post.