The Outline of Victory, or Defeat

If you look closely at the latest poll from The Wall Street Journal and NBC News, you can see the outlines of victory for either Obama or Romney. The top line result is where it’s been for the last two months—Obama leads Romney, 47 percent to 44 percent. He wins 92 percent of African Americans, 52 percent of women, 66 percent of Latinos, 52 percent of voters ages 18 to 29, and 40 percent of independents. By contrast, Romney is ahead among Tea Party supporters (94 percent to 1 percent), whites (53 percent to 38 percent), and men (48 percent to 43 percent).

Obama’s challenge is to boost his share of the nonwhite vote to 2008 levels, and retain a significant plurality of the white vote. As Nate Cohn points out at The New Republic, Obama’s magic number for white support is around 38 percent:

Obama would require 40 percent of the white vote if minority turnout falls to 25 percent of the electorate and only 77 percent of minority voters support Obama. Obama would only require 37 percent of the white vote if the minority share of the electorate increases to 28 percent of the electorate, as foretold by the Obama campaign earlier this week, and 80 percent of non-white voters support Obama, as they did in 2008. The targets allow Obama to exceed 49.24 percent of the popular vote, which represented 50 percent of the two party vote in 2008.

Around 38 percent is what you would get if the minority share of the vote grew to 27 percent, and Obama maintained his 2008 level of support. Judging from this poll, Obama is a stone's throw away from matching his 2008 performance among African Americans and Latinos.

Just as significant is Mitt Romney’s poor performance among the same groups. In 2008, John McCain won 31 percent of Latino voters and 4 percent of African Americans. It may seem hard to underperform those numbers, but Romney is well on his way to doing so; only 26 percent of Latinos and 1 percent of African Americans support the Republican nominee, according to NBC News and the Wall Street Journal. If this holds, then Romney will have to win a large majority of white voters–no fewer 59 percent. For a solid win, he’ll have to win 61 percent of white voters, which would give him a greater share of the white vote than any Republican since Ronald Reagan, who won 66 percent of whites in 1984.

When you compare the two, Obama has a somewhat easier path to victory than Romney. High minority support is a given, and high minority turnout is possible and still likely. What’s more, by defining Romney as an unfeeling plutocrat, Obama seems to be building an effective defense of his white support. By contrast, Romney will have to win a large majority of undecided whites to have a shot at winning the two-party vote. And absent a complete deterioration in economic conditions, that’s a sizable challenge.

All of this underscores the extent to which Romney is a weaker candidate than he looks. That isn’t to say that he’ll lose, but to say that with a stronger nominee, Republicans would likely have a solid lead over Obama.