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Daily Breakdown: State Polls Show Obama Ahead, National Polls Show A Tight Race

With six days to go, Obama maintains an edge in the battleground state of Ohio despite a tight race for the national popular vote.

With Obama maintaining a modest but clear lead in the key battleground states despite deadlocked national polls, pundits and analysts are understandably beginning to mull the possibility of a split between the national popular vote an the Electoral College. It’s certainly possible. Obama’s advantage in Wisconsin, Ohio, and Nevada remains quite clear, but the only thing clear about the national polls is that the race is tight. 

But polls over the last week give more credence to the argument that there isn’t a split between the popular vote and the Electoral College, but instead between the national polls and the state polls. Over the last week, we’ve learned more about the state of the race in several under-polled states, like California, Massachusetts, Tennessee, Texas, North Dakota, Arkansas, Oklahoma, Georgia, and New York. While Obama was performing worse than ’08 in most surveys, some showed him performing nearly as well while only a few showed Obama performing eight-plus points worse than he did four years ago--the magic number to give Romney a popular vote victory despite Obama's resilience in the battlegrounds. 

This was even true in Appalachia, where many have speculated that Obama might suffer catastrophic losses. Recent polls show a uniform swing in Tennessee, Arkansas, Louisiana, and one poll even shows Obama doing surprisingly well in Oklahoma. If one takes post-debate state polling averages and then categorizes states into demographically similar regions with a historic tendency to move together, one can calculate a national estimate by assuming that each region’s voting preference changes by an amount equal to the movement of the component states with post-debate state polls. This method shows Obama leading by 1.5 to 2 points in the national popular vote, depending on regional choices. 

Yesterday, Georgia, California, Massachusetts, North Dakota, and Montana polls were all consistent with a national popular vote victory for the president. In particular, the California poll is especially important. Perhaps surprisingly, California has been one of Obama's weaker states since the first presidential debate, with several polls showing Obama ahead by 12 to 15 points. In 2008, Obama won California by 24 points and 3 million votes--dropping off 9 to 12 points in California would cut his share of the popular vote by 2 percentage points. Given the diversity of the state, such a large drop-off would be very surprising, even if low Hispanic turnout could plausibly explain some of the decline.

For the most part, Obama's weakest region is the northwestern quadrant of the country--the predominantly white, moderate states where Obama made big gains over Kerry and soundly defeated Clinton in the primaries and caucuses. These declines aren't surprising given Obama's weakness among white voters nationally and the sheer number of Bush-Obama voters. But big Obama declines in states like Oregon, Montana, Wisconsin, Michigan, and Indiana (as well as Utah, Idaho, and Connecticut) aren't enough to outweigh Obama's relative resilience in most of the largest eastern states, like New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Ohio, North Carolina, Virginia, Georgia, and Florida.

Presuming that those state polls are accurate and Obama doesn't lose 7 or 8 points in his home state of Illinois, a Romney national popular vote win would require big 9 or 10 point improvements in California and Texas, where large gains are difficult to imagine without declines in Hispanic turnout or support for Obama, and large gains in the highland states of the inland south, where many suspect Obama's support could collapse to levels unseen since McGovern. The state polls don't yet support either half of this scenario. If it happens on Election Day, score a win for the national polls.