Michael Tomasky wrote a provocative online piece yesterday in the Daily Beast in which he speculated that Obama may, in fact, be on the verge of winning an electoral landslide. Tomasky wrote, “The secret is the electoral college, and the fact is that the more you look at it, the more you come to conclude that Mitt Romney has to draw an inside straight like you’ve never ever seen in a movie to win this thing…. the paths to 270 are few.” In looking at the key battleground states, Tomasky concludes that, given current polling, it is very unlikely that Romney will win enough of them to secure an Electoral College majority. “In other words, Obama can lose the big Eastern four—Ohio, Virginia, North Carolina, and Florida: all of ’em!—and still be reelected. And barring some huge cataclysm, he’s not losing all four of those states. If he wins even one—say Virginia, the smallest of the four—then Romney has to win Colorado, Iowa, and New Hampshire; all possible, certainly, but all states where he has been behind, narrowly but consistently, for weeks or months.”
At first read, Tomasky’s logic seems persuasive. After all, Romney might squeak out a victory in one or two of the battleground states. But is it realistic to expect him to win the “big four” – “all of ‘em!” – and the additional battleground states he needs to claim victory? Consider the state of the Electoral College map right now. Obama is likely starting from a baseline of some 179 electoral votes, compared to 131 for Romney. If we add the “leaning” states to each candidates’ column, Obama moves to 247, while Romney is only at 191. That leaves 100 electoral votes across eight states still in play. Let’s say that Tomasky is right and that Obama is not going to lose all of the eastern “Big Four”. Since Obama is up almost 5 points in state polling in Ohio, let’s assume Obama will win that, putting him at 265 electoral votes, only five short of the majority he needs to win. That would mean that of the remaining seven battleground states, Romney would need to win six: a seemingly daunting task.
The problem with this type of analysis is that it implicitly treats the outcome in each state as an independent event. But they are not independent; the factors that influence how well Romney does in Florida – say, voters’ perception of the national economy – will also affect his performance in the other battleground states. So if in the last weeks the undecideds break his way in one battleground state, they are likely to do so in all of them. And it won’t take a “cataclysm” to push Romney over the top – he’s within 3% in six of the eight battleground states based on the RealClearPolitics aggregate polling right now. This is not to say that local factors don’t matter at all – they do. And in a close election, they could be decisive. But national factors also come into play here, and that means it is not as improbable as you might think from reading Tomasky’s analysis that one candidate might end up sweeping almost all the closely contested races. Put another way, if Romney wins the national popular vote, it is likely he’s going to win enough of the battleground states to claim victory in the Electoral College as well. The same holds, however, for Obama: if most of the remaining undecideds decide he deserves more time to right the economy, he might very well coast to an Electoral College victory. But he will likely do so primarily on the basis of a national tide – not local currents.