Romney's Path Is Not Necessarily Narrow

By Sean Trende - May 8, 2012

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Chris Cillizza of the Washington Post wrote last week that Mitt Romney's path to the presidency is awfully narrow, and that he has a ceiling of around 290 electoral votes. Thus, “[w]hile Romney's team would absolutely take a 290-electoral-vote victory, that means he has only 20 electoral votes to play with -- a paper-thin margin for error." Dan Balz followed up with a similar piece in the same publication.

Cillizza and Balz echo Ron Brownstein, who has referred to a “blue wall” -- those states that have voted for Democrats in five straight elections. Taken together, they add up to 242 electoral votes, which would suggest a ceiling for Mitt Romney of 296 electoral votes.

While the facts recited here are correct, the conclusions are questionable. As Harry Enten demonstrated a few weeks ago, it is dangerous to rely on “rules” from previous elections, especially when there are so few observations; the conclusions being drawn are based upon five elections.

There are multiple problems here. We might start by asking: Why limit ourselves to the past five elections? It’s true that Republicans haven’t won, say, Pennsylvania since 1988, but I don’t think it’s any more salient than the fact that Republicans have won Pennsylvania in one of the six previous elections, or that Obama managed to eke out a win in Indiana during the Democrats’ perfect storm of 2008.

Recall that political scientists published peer-reviewed articles in the late ‘80s and early 90s regarding the Republicans’ “lock” on the Electoral College based upon the Republicans’ electoral dominance in nine of ten elections from 1952 through 1988. Of course, they saw the pattern broken in the following election. Awarding the Democrats a “near-lock” on the Electoral College today based upon half as many observations is an even riskier venture. 

What we’ve seen over the past five elections is merely a side effect of the fact that Republicans haven’t had a particularly good presidential playing field since 1988. In 1992, they were the incumbent party running amid a slow recovery in an electorate weary of 12 years of Republican rule. In 1996 they were running against a president enjoying a solid economy recovery, amid the spectacular self-immolation of the 104th Congress.

Four years later the economy was the strongest it had been in years; the Republicans were able to manage a narrow victory only because of the weakness of the Democratic nominee and the scandals plaguing the Democratic incumbent.

In 2004, the election occurred at a unique confluence where the economic recovery had been strong enough to buoy the president, but the Iraq War hadn’t yet become unpopular enough to bring him down. So another narrow victory was possible; had the election been six months earlier or six months later, George W. Bush would probably have lost.

And, of course, in 2008 John McCain sought the presidency amid a massive economic collapse, two unpopular wars, and against a popular Democratic nominee.

In which of these years would we expect the Republicans to win states that leaned Democrat by more than a point or two? The answer is almost certainly “none.” In other words, the “big blue wall” is merely a construct of how the coin flips have landed the past five cycles, not an intrinsic feature of our politics.

So what about this year? It really remains to be seen. The signs so far are that this year won’t be like 1996 or 2008. It also doesn’t seem likely to be 1980, absent a spectacular collapse in Europe.

The most likely scenario is somewhere between 2004 and 1992 -- but in reverse, with a three-to-four point Democratic win and a similarly sized Republican win representing the poles (again, under roughly current conditions). But this is an important distinction.

To analyze the dearth of Republican-leaning swing states we can use Neil Stevens’ helpful “Swingometer.” This tool allows you to plug in a possible swing in the popular vote outcome from the 2008 election to the 2012 election. The program then tells you what the Electoral College result would be if all states move by a similar amount.

In other words, Obama won by 7.2 points nationally in 2008. Let’s say you think that he’ll win by five points in 2012. That’s a swing of 2.2 points toward Republicans. If that swing is uniform -- i.e., if every state moved by that much (which isn’t a horrible assumption; the PVIs of the vast majority of the states usually don’t move much from cycle-to-cycle) -- then Obama would win by a 332-206 electoral vote margin. Indiana, North Carolina and Nebraska’s 1st District would flip to the Republicans.

But let’s also assume that states where a candidate is less than five points down can still be considered part of a viable path to victory, regardless of what our “uniform swing” baseline suggests. If a race in a state is less than five points, then presumably the candidate’s campaign can invest resources wisely there, or can come up with a unique appeal to win it over. John Kerry almost pulled this type of strategy off with Ohio in 2004, for example; this is how Obama brought Indiana in the the Democratic fold in 2008.

So under our above scenario, the close states would be Montana, Missouri, North Carolina, Indiana, Florida, Ohio, and Virginia. The big blue wall would look pretty solid, and even running the table in the close states would only get Romney to 266 electoral votes. Under this scenario, his path to victory is basically nonexistant.

Now, at the time the aforementioned articles were written, Obama was ahead by a little more than three points nationally. This would represent a 4-point swing toward Republicans, and our baseline would give the president a 303-235 win. Florida would flip into the GOP column. Montana would move out of the “close” category, and Colorado would move in. Romney would still have to thread an extremely narrow needle to get to 269 electoral votes under this scenario, but it would be possible. He would have to win all of the “close” states – a tremendous task.

But what about today? Recent polls have shown the race closing to a one-point Obama lead. Now Ohio joins the Republican coalition, and Romney is up to 253 electoral votes. North Carolina and Indiana are no longer close. And, critically, a number of states in the “big blue wall” are placed on the playing field as the margins in Pennsylvania and Minnesota, along with New Hampshire and Iowa, join the “less than five points” category. In other words, Romney now has multiple paths to victory (as does Obama). 

I suspect this is what we’ll see reflected in the state RCP Averages as more state polls begin to come in (assuming the national polls remain close). And remember, most state polls are presently sampling registered voters, not likely voters. Last cycle, moving from a registered-voters screen to a likely-voters screen resulted in a six-point differencein the Republicans’ favor. While the difference will probably be more in the three-to-four-point territory this time, that is nevertheless enough to move a number of the current “lean Democrat” states into the “tossup” category.

What about if things break for Romney, and he is winning by four points as we approach Election Day? In that event, states like Pennsylvania and New Hampshire would fall into the GOP column, while Nevada, Wisconsin, New Mexico, and New Jersey are on his campaign’s radar screen. Colorado and Virginia are only on the outskirts of competitiveness for Team Obama. Under this scenario, it is Obama who has only one or two paths to victory, while Romney enjoys an embarrassment of riches.

In short, if this is a year like 2000 or 2004 -- a mediocre playing field for Republicans -- then yes, Romney has few paths to victory (although Obama’s own paths to victory will be narrowed from 2008). If, however, this turns out to be a good year for Republicans, the paths will multiply. It will be a long time before we can more or less rule out anything between a good (but not great) year for Republicans or a good (but not great) year for Democrats.


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Sean Trende is senior elections analyst for RealClearPolitics. He is a co-author of the 2014 Almanac of American Politics and author of The Lost Majority. He can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @SeanTrende.

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